They already know how to fish

Part 2 of ‘Delegate’

There’s an oft-quoted proverb that goes, “Give a man a fish and feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime.” The meaning here is it’s better to teach than to give. For example, if you teach a student how to open an e-mail account rather than sending an e-mail for him, he can use this skill when you’re not around.

But the proverb goes deeper than that. The mentality behind it is so veiled that it has slipped undetected into the subconscious parts of our American brains. What this really means is that we, the fishing instructors of America, think we have all the answers and that we are saving the world, one new fisherman at a time.

And just look at the numbers—we’re more efficient, get better results, are backed by the latest research. You can’t argue with science—our life expectancy, GDP per capita, university rankings, GIQ—we’re winning at everything so everyone should follow our lead.

But maybe we’re winning because we made the scales. Rather, we should be asking ourselves, is the value of life found within these numbers? Does a higher GDP mean more joy? Does a diploma from an ivy league school create self-worth? Does living a longer life really mean living a better life?

Even if these are true indicators of peace, love and happiness, those goals are going to have to be arrived at using different methods because countries that are developing have vastly different variables to work with than the U.S. has had over the past three-hundred years.

imageNot only can they catch fish, they can cook ‘em too

The U.S. is here doing development work because we can afford to be. We have the capital. But that doesn’t mean we have all the answers.

We spend billions of dollars trying to implement policies created in a different culture and different context, and the world is littered with the skeletons of failed projects ranging from the benignly obscure to the disastrously infamous. I won’t deny some of the incredible advances in quality of care for people living with HIV or inroads into better crop irrigation, as examples. But we need to be spending a lot more time and money supporting the solutions that are being created “by the people for the people” within the cultures and nations we try to serve.

We say, “Let me teach you how to fish,” but really we’re saying, “Let me teach you how I would fish.” We still miss the mark in this well-intentioned proverb.

So what are we doing here? If people are meant to simply use their own methods and do their own work, can’t they do that without us?

In a large part, yes. Peoples around the world should be free to choose how they live, work, and solve their own problems. Therefore we should go abroad not to implement our methods but to make human connections and come along side people to support and encourage—more like a fishing buddy than a fishing instructor. Yet this is not well received by the people who control the dollars because it cannot be tallied or counted like the number of fish distributed or fishing lessons taught. “Sure the stories are great,” they say, “but show us the results.” But how do you clearly measure the effect of believing in someone? What’s the quotient for consistently showing up in a child’s life? How do you put numbers on relationships? These are the things that won’t make it to a spreadsheet or statistical report, yet they are the things that are making a difference.

So don’t give a man a fish. Don’t even teach him how because he probably already knows. Instead, strive to make a lot of fishing buddies and see if that doesn’t just change the world.

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