“Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.” That proverb contains an important truth about sustainability, but it also makes some assumptions that might be false. It assumes that people who are poor don’t know how to fish when often they are excellent fishermen. It could be that they just need a net or a small business loan to purchase their own equipment. The poor have no collateral so it is difficult for them to get loans. Sometimes they have been prevented from fishing, or factories, mines or cities may have polluted the river and killed the fish. The proverb also assumes it is all about men when
it is women who usually face the brunt of poverty and are often the key to
While this proverb holds a degree of truth, it also illustrates perhaps the biggest mistake we make in responding to poverty: we assume too much. We often assume that we know what the issues are as well as the best response. Without doing a great deal of work, we cannot know what the issues are for any particular poor community or the most appropriate response. In responding to poverty there are no simple formulas, magic bullets or standard responses that fit all situations. There are many different causes of poverty and every context needs its own solution. Understanding the issues and developing a responsible response to any situation requires a lot of research that usually takes considerable time.
Apart from false assumptions, our response can easily be driven, not primarily by the needs of the poor, but by what we want to do. The whole thing can be easily twisted by what pleases donors. It is reasonable that donors should have their desires and expectations, and it is commendable that they are willing to give their money. However, whose issues should drive the response? What happens if what donors want does not match what the poor need? In these cases, what the poor are given is not necessarily what is needed most.
Whose issues drive the response?
Some responses to poverty are donor driven. The first questions asked are “What do the donors want to give to?” or “How can we raise the most money?” Then aid must be delivered in a way that is consistent with the messages used to motivate the donors, whether or not they address the most pressing needs of the poor.
Other responses are driven by the needs of the poor. The first question asked is “What are the most pressing needs of the poor?” Then money is raised to address those needs — but that’s very hard because most people in Australia have not had an opportunity to learn about the needs of the poor. Furthermore, the needs of the poor change from country to country, community to community and year to year. There is no neat package for which to fundraise, no simple formula, because the needs of the poor are so diverse and variable. It's far harder, therefore, to raise funds.