The problem with teaching a man to fish

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You know you’ve solved a problem when you’re no longer needed.

This is as truistic a statement as it is common sense. And yet, how many international charities follow this principle?

For two years, I studied International Development at university. We were taught that the aim of foreign aid was to make ourselves redundant. We fly experts over to a country. They work with local partners on a certain issue, such as lack of education. And then, once people in country are able to do it themselves, we leave.

This model is based on this widely accepted adage, of dubious origin:

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

If teaching someone to fish is enough to sustain a country, how come we don’t see many international charities eventually leaving those countries?

To truly make ourselves redundant, we need to move beyond teaching people to fish.

Here’s why.

There’s an increased awareness of the futility of giving fish. But what’s next?

Firstly, the entire premise of this approach, often called “capacity building”, sets up a false dynamic – a one way transfer of knowledge from “us” to “them”. I’ve personally met many well-meaning but inexperienced volunteers in Asia.

Particularly if you’re flying over to a new country for a few weeks, it’s your own capacity, of cultural norms and poverty, which needs building.

Capacity building often misfires. It ignores the inherent strengths of people in developing countries. It doesn’t leave space to ask the most important question – “what is it that you really need from me?” (Here’s a hint – the answer will often be financial resources, not your time).

Secondly, teaching a man to fish often involves outsiders doing the fishing first. Handing off existing projects is almost always painful. In Cambodia, a group of international charities created Physical Rehabilitation Centres, to provide physiotherapy and prosthetics for free. For decades, these centres served many in need.

And then, the charities needed the Cambodian government to take over. They first withdrew management of the centres, and gradually reduced their share of funding for staff salaries. On the day they completely withdrew funding, one of the centres faced a huge problem.

The salary of the physiotherapists dropped from around US$350 a month to almost a third of that figure. The majority of them left.

Handing off a foreign-led, foreign-funded initiative can be difficult – it often leaves people in the lurch.

What happens to local institutions when we pull out of country unexpectedly?

Finally, teaching a man to fish has no definitive end point.

Doing aid work is much like being a car mechanic. Some mechanics are great. They work on your car to get it to a point where it’s like it’s brand new. Others are not so great. They tinker away at your car every few months, just doing enough to look like the problem is going away, but just doing a little to keep you bringing it back.

For an international charity, there is simply no business case for solving a problem at its root cause.

Once a problem is solved, the charities are no longer needed – staff are made redundant and offices are closed. I can’t imagine the head of many international charities would want to oversee this process.

A recent publication funded by the US government singled out the two most common reasons why organisations leave developing countries. Firstly, political reasons. The donor decides that they don’t like the host country anymore, and they’re going to cut the aid budget.

Secondly, the money dries up. Funding is withdrawn, a particular issue comes out of vogue, or perhaps the charities are unable to raise enough money.

Wouldn’t it be better to signal your intention to leave, and then work yourself towards this point? Isn’t a planned exit better than an enforced one?

There’s only one outcome of making yourself redundant – local ownership of an issue.

I think we need to get past the idea of teaching people how to fish. We need countries to create their own fishing industries, and then we need to get out. The incentive for this mindset shift surely has to come from donors.

As an individual donor, foundation, or government body, wouldn’t it be comforting to know that funding won’t be required forever?

I want you to think about the last time you saw an international charity that didn’t measure success in one of these ways:

  1. The number of children seen in a year

  2. The number of wells provided to communities

  3. The number of girls who had gone to school

These are all admirable things to achieve, and there is no doubt that millions of people have benefited from this kind of work. But, like the car mechanic, there is a difference between addressing root causes of a problem and just fixing symptoms. The only way to know you’ve addressed a root cause of a problem is when you’re not needed anymore.

Here are three more relevant questions donors can ask charities, to measure success:

  1. When do you plan to exit country A?

  2. How will you exit?

  3. Who will take over the work once you leave?

The final question is perhaps the most complex to answer. At times, the work is best suited to local government to continue. Other times, it can be taken on by local organisations or private sector. On rare occasions, it may not require anyone to take over anything.

We need to re-conceptualise our views of international charity.

Let’s get charities to plan and execute their own exits from other countries. Let’s make sure we’re truly making ourselves redundant. Let’s make sure we’re addressing root causes of a problem, rather than fixing symptoms.

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