Teach a man to fish?

Over the course of my ongoing research, I have had the privilege of seeing lots of different Proactive Peace projects in action. One of the key questions I keep asking along the way is: how can we, as a wider community, support this work?

Of course, there’s more than one answer to this question, and there’s enough there to write several posts. But it did get me thinking about that old saying ‘Give a man a fish and he eats for a day, teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime’.

Now, there may well be situations where teaching someone to fish is a helpful and supportive things to do. I’m not about to say that no-one should learn to fish. But I do think that the saying overlooks a key question we should be asking when trying to provide support, or even just to problem solve issues we’re facing ourselves.

It’s a question of getting to the root of the problem

Because maybe the hungry man is a new migrant from an inland community. His favourite food is fish and he’s just said ‘I just wish I could eat fish every day, but it’s too expensive for me and I don’t know how to fish’. If that happened he may be very grateful when you use your afternoon to teach him how to fish. He might be even more grateful if you gave him a fishing rod to use too.

But maybe the man knows how to fish, but doesn’t have any fish to eat because his fishing rod was stolen last week. He might feel offended if you tried to teach him how to fish— no-one enjoys feeling like they’re being taught to suck eggs. Certainly, if you made him sit through a fishing lesson in order to get a new fishing rod, he’d be frustrated. And importantly for us to consider, your fishing lesson wouldn’t have been supportive. In fact, it would have been slightly less supportive than just giving him a fish might have been.

And humour me for a moment here. What if the man knows how to fish and has a fishing rod. But he doesn’t have the money to buy the fishing licenses that the council has just introduced.

Or it could be that he knows how to fish, has the equipment, and sits out in the harbour fishing all day. But over-fishing in the region means that there just aren’t any fish to catch.

Maybe he does catch fish…but they have mercury poisoning so he can’t eat them and he needs to buy imported fish at the market instead.

Maybe he usually fishes in a river that has dried up during a drought.

Or maybe the river has dried up because the land-owner upstream has built a dam.

Perhaps fertilizer run-off after some big rains caused a fish die-off.

Maybe he’s in a wheel chair and can’t get over the uneven ground to the jetty.

Or maybe a big fishing corporation bought all the licenses, so he isn’t allowed to fish where he used to and the big company doesn’t need to hire him.

Or he got the flu and is off work for a week.

Perhaps the fishing equipment industry has been taken over by a big monopoly and fishing equipment is extremely expensive, so he can’t afford to buy any.

Or what if he doesn’t have time to fish, because he has three children under the age of five, his wife is unwell and he’s caring for his aging parents.

If any of these situations were the case, our fishing lesson would be pretty redundant.

In short. There are a myriad of different reasons why this man might be hungry for a fish. Teaching a man to fish isn’t necessarily any better than just giving him a fish. It all depends on what the root causes of the issue are.

Really, we just should ask him how is it that he came to be fish-less and hungry?

In my research so far, speaking to those engaging in Proactive Peace work in their community, it’s pretty clear that people have a good grasp of what would be supportive of their work. From the small and practical to the systemic change. They know what they’re trying to achieve, they understand their local setting with a high degree of intimacy, they know the barriers that are in their way, and they have lots of different ideas for how they can try and address those barriers. This is their work and their community. They think about it every day. Of course they have good ideas. Certainly, their ideas for how we can support will be more nuanced and tailored to make an impact than our wild guesses could be.

Because, if we had asked our fish-less man how we could help, maybe he’d just ask us for a lift to the jetty, because he doesn’t have money for a taxi but can’t walk because he injured his foot last week.

Maybe the saying could be, give a man a fish he eats for a day, but listen to what a man is saying and provide support based on that…and he eats for a lifetime.

But I guess that’s not as catchy.

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