Who Teaches and Who Learns? Must We ‘Teach a Man to Fish?’

In an effort to feed the hungry, we in the international development world should focus on creating opportunities for people rather than reducing them to accepting handouts and ‘know how’.

A popular old adage has become a ubiquitous cliché that too many people swallow whole without a second thought. We are told: ‘Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.’

Let’s slow down and analyze what is really being said. We can begin by putting to rest the male-centered nature of this advice. After all, do women not fish? Do they and their children not eat? What is possibly a semantic faux pas is the least of this saying’s problems. The real flaw in this formula is less obvious, so deeply engrained as to be almost invisible. Despite the catchy formulation, there is scant basis for the idea that we, the advice givers, know how to fish, but they, the hungry masses, do not.

Often, it is the other way around. Those who have lived their entire lives on the edge of survival have amassed a broad range of know-how – regarding such themes as community, health maintenance, the ways of the Earth, and especially about feeding themselves and their families. What the poor most lack is not knowledge of ‘how to fish,’ but factors such as equal justice, human rights, safe living spaces, control over their land and water, gender equality, cultural autonomy, basic schooling, the right to vote in clean elections and participate in civic life, socio-economic empowerment, minimal financing for projects, and access to fair trade. And above all, respect from the rest of us.

In contrast, most experts (and the privileged in general) benefit from all of the above, at least to varying degrees. But if the roles were reversed and these folks had to fish or farm to feed themselves, they (we) would likely perish in a short period of time. In a nutshell, what feeds people is not fishing lessons or their equivalent, but broadly distributed access to what is listed in the paragraph above.

Of course, the well-known adage at the beginning of this article is n0t strictly about fishing. It is a metaphor, meant to focus on creating opportunities rather than reducing people to accepting handouts. So, let’s widen the circle by turning to farming. To paraphrase: ‘Give a woman a potato and her family will eat for a day. Teach a woman to grow potatoes and that family will eat forever.’

That doesn’t sound any better, does it? Every Andean Indian who lives above 3,000 meters (and has reached eight years of age) knows how to grow potatoes. North American potato farmers have access to a mere handful of potato varieties, which they cultivate with highly mechanized equipment and a plethora of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers.

On the other hand, Andean farmers grow as many as 30 varieties of potatoes in a single village, frequently employing green fertilizers and often exceeding the yields of US farmers with all their technological prowess. The total number of potato varieties in the Andes exceeds 4,000 – nearly all of them developed by indigenous peoples. The potato is the third most important human food crop in the world after rice and wheat, feeding a billion people worldwide. Many who produce this crop are dirt poor and marginalized. Is this due to their lack of knowledge? Would their life chances improve dramatically if experts from the wealthy, industrialized nations merely shared their know-how with these small farmers? Hasn’t the paradigm of industrialized agriculture only magnified the real problems of access to land and fair marketing mechanisms, and hasn’t it impeded local political power from protecting that land and its yields from environmental degradation, speculators, and exploitative middlemen?

Reframing the Debate

Lest I appear to still be hung up on a metaphor, let’s turn to another kind of technology necessary for increased food security: irrigation. In the Chimborazo Province of highland Ecuador, rather than wait for the government to act, villages have long been carrying out their own planning and construction of irrigation systems. In one case – the community of Gatazo Hospital – villagers used picks and shovels to tunnel through a massive ridge from opposite sides, finally meeting in the middle after two years. The impetus was the local hacienda owner’s practice of blocking the shared irrigation canal that circled the ridge; thus, the villagers decided to build their own canal. Government engineers who came to inspect the final product were incredulous that the job was accomplished without modern machinery and high-tech surveying and mapping.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not opposed to modern technology or to education and training. And I do not idealize the ‘noble poor.’ Disadvantaged people are as hungry for self-improvement, broad change, and learning as they are for rice and beans. I object to the deeply entrenched attitude that we know – and they don’t. It is the attitude that we from ‘developed’ societies have already learned our lessons, in graduate school and elaborate institutions, and it’s the lack of awareness that the poor have also learned their lessons – from deprivation, oppression, community, and struggle. It is also the paucity of functionaries, in international development organizations and government entities, who realize that they themselves have much to learn – about respecting ‘target populations’ and their socio-cultural techniques for survival, about partnering in horizontal relationships with the disadvantaged, about humility and the rewards to be found in failed efforts, about how to be useful allies rather than degrading benefactors, and in general, about how to solve complex and ever–changing socio-economic dilemmas.

A popular old adage has become a ubiquitous cliché that too many people swallow whole without a second thought. We are told: ‘Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.’ Let’s slow down and analyze what is really being said. We can begin by putting to rest the male-centered nature of this advice. What is possibly a semantic faux pas is the least of this saying’s problems. The real flaw in this formula is less obvious. Despite the catchy formulation, there is scant basis for the idea that the advice givers know how to fish, but they, the hungry masses, do not

The crux of the matter is that we need to reframe the debate about why people are poor and hungry. The need is not to ‘go down there and teach them how to do better,’ a phrase that I have heard hundreds of times from well-meaning North Americans during my five decades of involvement in grassroots development worldwide.

In addition, we in the international development world need to cure ourselves of looking down on those who find themselves ‘at the bottom of the ladder.’ What if we were to step onto that ladder with them and then climb it together, learning the lessons of oppression and misery, of broad-based empowerment at the grassroots, and of lasting solutions to poverty and inequality alongside the folks whom we wish to assist?

Those of us who don’t already do so could learn to value these women, men, and children, and to become allies in their efforts to empower themselves and to find seats at the table of governance and human progress. We could ourselves learn better ways to fish for answers, and to nurture the seeds of new approaches to justice and well-being.

There is no point in teaching people skills that they already have, or that they could teach one another, or that we ourselves lack. We in the world of development still have much to learn. We have many reasons to journey out into the field and learn it, perhaps from the very people who are ensconced in struggles for survival and for better lives. Some are doing just that. More must join in.

The truth is that the best teacher is also a learner, and the best learning happens in partnership. Knowledge is a fish that can be consumed, but learning is a process that must be discovered. It cannot be transferred like a coin from one pocket to another; it must be rooted in a life if it is to be claimed.

Charles David Kleymeyer, PhD, is culture and development sociologist. He is Senior Fellow at the Center for the Support of Native Lands, and he manages the international program at Food for All/Making Change. Kleymeyer has worked in grassroots development since 1966, in organizations that include the United States Peace Corps, Harvard Medical School, the Inter-American Foundation, and the Development Gateway. He is the author of Cultural Expression and Grassroots Development.

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