Teach a man to fish? Really

There is the popular chinese proverb that goes like this- Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. 

This proverb is the basis of the existence of a whole range of development organisations who are tirelessly working to alleviate poverty and disadvantage from the face of the earth ( with the exception of organisations that are working through rights based approach). They work with beneficiaries, build their capacity and give them voice in the hope that the poor and the marginalized will be able to better their lives.  All of this costs money. Donors give them to better the lives of the poor.

To put simply donors give money to development organisations so that they can build capacity of poor people to come out of poverty. What if this were to change ? What if donors were giving money directly to the poor ? Will it work ? Can they ( the poor) come out of poverty faster.

So what if instead of teaching him to fish, lets just give him the money so that he can do what ever is in his best interest  a) buy and eat fish b) learn how to fish c) or eat something else d ) save this money e) any of the other options.

For most of us in the development sector including me this is a strictly a no-no. There are many biases at work here when we think of giving money directly to the poor.

1) We don’t trust the poor person to act in his own self interest. We believe that we can make better decisions for him. We think that if we were to give him the money he will either just drink it away or spend it on things things are not needed.

2) We don’t think that there are many options available  for him. So we provide these options like training, health services, water etc etc.

3) Our advise or services have more value than directly giving him money.

Many of these could be true but all these need greater introspection. Because all this aid that comes to us and our NGOs is in the name of the poor.

May be the poor will be better off if this money was to come to their bank accounts directly. Today technologically it is possible and it can be done at fraction of the cost. May be this will lead to faster poverty alleviation. All this and much more is now being experimented and investigated by none other than Chris Hughes one of the Facebook co-founder and co-founder of Givedirectly.com. For more on how it works visit their website.

The thing is you and me get our salary or whatever in rupees and dollars. No one doles out Gym membership, compulsory education and 10 KG rice to us instead of our salary. People trusts our judgement that we will use the money judiciously or they simply do not care. So why not extend the same trust to the poor. Just because they are not earning it doesn’t mean they will not use it properly.

So why not just cut the crap and give the money that we collect in the name of the poor directly to them.

Are we worried about our futures or theirs?

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2 thoughts on “Teach a man to fish? Really

  1. My bias says we are more worried about our future than their. Why else do we have NGOs working for 20-30 years in the same location? Is this time not enough to bring change and move on to a different location?
    The irony is that the social sector walas like myself enter the sector with good intentions and feel (rightly or wrongly) that most of the others are not as sincere as myself. Then I am the righteous man doing the right thing for the poor. So, if I/my NGO is not around, the problems will worsen. So I got to sustain my NGO… hmm, do I see the focus changing from poor to my NGO.

    1. I also think that more thinking out of the box is required. I remember once Dr Mor commented in the training that NGOs don’t trust the beneficiaries that they work with. So that also need to change.

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