Let’s cut to the chase. The phrase “Give a man a fish he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish he eats for a lifetime” is simple and seems like a revelation but is incredibly problematic. First off, it assumes the poor don’t know how to fish. In other words, the poor have no skills. Nothing to offer and need our “help”. This logic is implicit but plays well with the Messianic complex most Westerners have when they engage with the poor. We in the West always have the answers.
The poor have plenty to offer. The evidence is that the vast majority of the poor have no interaction with the West and are able to survive. It isn’t a good living but they can provide for themselves and their families so this in itself shows that they have productive capacity and don’t need out “help” to survive. But do they need our help to thrive? That is the more important question.
Maybe the poor have skills but not the right ones. Maybe we haven’t been teaching them the right skills. Maybe the poor have trouble matching their skills to the right situation. These are all interesting thoughts but there is something far more fundamental.
Teaching the poor a skill does nothing to take the risk off of that individual. Yes they have a skill now but the ability to use that skill to generate income is wholly on that individual. Imagine yourself in that situation. You graduate college and have all these “skills” and it is on you to create your own income. Very few people leave college and set out to create their own job. Almost everyone applies to get a job. Why?
Because it is hard to create a job and very risky. Starting your own business is a leap of faith and rife with uncertainty. Very few in the West take this on even though we have our families and friends to lean on if we fail or other social safety nets. In Uganda, you fail and you can’t feed your family. You fail and you have to pull your kids from school. You fail and you can’t afford vital medications. You fail and you have to take on massive debt to survive.
Assuming that the poor want to be entrepreneurs and start their own businesses assumes that the poor are different than ourselves. The mantra has always been “go to college, get a good job”. Not “go to college and create your own job”. Why do we think the poor are different? Do you really think that the poor would rather start their own business than be an employee with a stable income? Kudos to those who start their own businesses but you are the exception. If we believe we are all created equal then why do we think the poor would choose to add more risk to their lives and start their own business if they didn’t have too?
A paper came out of MIT in 2011 trying to explain when children of mothers working in maquiladoras in Mexico were much taller than other children. Income wasn’t too much higher in the factories and couldn’t explain the difference so the result initially seemed puzzling. The conclusion of the author, one that seems very plausible, is that the stability of the job allowed for the family to think of the future since they know how much income will be coming in each week. They can budget to afford education and food each week. In retrospect those who have to create their own income may suddenly go out of business and though they usually have enough income will have nothing for a period of time that stunts the growth and overall well-being on their children even though overall income isn’t that different between the two.
The title of the paper is in fact “Working for the Future” which alludes to the reduction of risk that the poor face and therefore can think of the future instead of only being able to think of today. Microfinance, education, health interventions, and nearly every other intervention still forces the poor to create their own wealth.
Creating a fishing company isn’t as sexy as teaching individuals to fish as we want to see impact on the individual level to make the connection with each person and see in their eyes the difference we have made. I once told my boss that we should be confident in the long term effects that a job makes rather than devoting so many resources to individuals so we see short term impact. This went nowhere as people in development need to see that impact themselves as they are emotionally tied to it. It makes sense and I understand it. It is a hard mentality to break but if we really care about the poor we need to look at all possibilities even if that means being less emotionally connected to the differences we are making in the lives of the poor.