Teaching More Than How to Fish

1978612_698751150170806_1237135395_nGive a man a fish and you feed him for a day.

Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

– Chinese Proverb

For most of us, this is not a new saying. In fact, some might consider it borderline cliché, given the number of times that we have heard our parents, teachers, friends, and even ourselves recite it. But as with any old adage, there’s really no denying the message’s underlying truth. In this case, that truth is that there is great value in equipping ourselves and others with the practical skills that will enable us to create solutions for any number of challenges that we encounter throughout our lives.

Unsurprisingly, this proverb has been adopted as a kind of mantra among the international development community. As people who push back against traditional charity models that provide short-term relief in the form of a donation or service of some kind, and look instead to create long-term responses that will enable a community to meet their own needs for generations to come, this proverb seems to encapsulate what we want to do in the developing world. We build schools, create savings groups, fund small businesses, and do any number of other activities to invest in the lives of individuals and teach them to fish, as the saying goes.

On the surface, there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with this picture of development. And yet, across the world communities that receive these long-term investments remain stagnant, unable to to truly break free of the cycle of poverty. So what’s the problem?


You see, while it’s great– critical, even– to equip individuals with the tools that they need to make improvements in their own lives, we must acknowledge that these same individuals are ultimately affected by forces over which they have little to no control. This is because, with the exception of those few people groups that remain isolated from modern society, all people live in a world that is governed by powerful individuals, institutions, and systems that radically shape their daily realities. This is as true for you and me, as it is for anyone else, whether they live in the developing world or not. Economic policy, security measures, rule of law enforcement, welfare programs are just a few of the many ways areas of a nation’s governance that will have a significant impact on the lives of its citizens. Unfortunately, not all governments exercise its power in a way that leads to the flourishing of their people.

So, let’s look back at the proverb we started with. Of course we can all agree that it’s better in the long run to teach a man to fish than it is to simply give him a fish. But can we really guarantee that a man will be able to feed himself for a lifetime if we do the former? Not really. First we’d need to consider, things like does the man have access to fishing supplies? Does he have access to water where can fish? Is that water source being protected from harmful environmental practices that could render its fish unsafe for consumption? Is fishing even legal? While questions like are, of course, besides the point that the original proverb is trying to make, they remain very relevant to development work because they reflect the fact that wonderfully conceived programs and poverty reducing solutions can be rendered useless depending on the governance of that country. Such has been the case in the Congo, where a long history of ineffective and corrupt leadership has severely crippled its development.

There are several ways to respond to this issue. One response is to simply ignore the role that governance plays in development, and to hope instead that micro-level changes in communities will eventually bring about greater progress. Unfortunately, another response is for organizations to simply refuse to allocate resources to that country on account of the belief that its governance problems are simply too difficult to overcome. The third response, one that CLI champions in the Congo, is to tackle the issue of governance and create programs that address it.

Now, this third response can take many forms: advocacy, international aid that comes with certain governance-related stipulations, and others. At CLI, we have a created a Leadership Institute that not only teaches Congolese youth entrepreneurial skills that will enable them to create successful small business, but also trains them to be ethical leaders through lessons on things like human rights and the need for women leaders. Our hope through the Leadership Institute is that CLI will help to raise a generation of Congolese citizens who are committed to being the willing and capable leaders that the Congo has historically lacked. That way, not only will they be “fed” for a lifetime, but so will an entire country.

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