“Give a man fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for life.” It’s an old proverb of indefinite origin but universal relevance.
To many of us, it would seem a self-evident truth that it is better to provide someone with the skill to help themselves and thus become increasingly independent and free of the need for help. Indeed, in doing so, it is likely that they may well become able to contribute to assisting others to achieve the same end.
It may well be argued, in fact, that to equip people with the skills, freedom and tools to take responsibility for their own lives not only improves their material situation but as importantly, if not more-so, builds their sense of self-worth, self-respect and dignity. An excess of pride may certainly precede a fall but just as certainly, an absence of it is a soul-destroying factor that is detrimental to motivation, hope and aspiration.
When people are in dire straits, as a result of displacement; chronic abuse or repression; extensive and continuing poverty; social, racial or religious persecution; economic manipulation; natural disaster; or whatever calamity or calumny has befallen them, with only rare exception are they likely to be either well-placed or particularly open to a tutorial on how to thread a line and bait a hook. At these times, often drastic and immediate intervention is needed and the only rational response may be to put the food into their mouths; to bathe and dress the wounds; to provide the shelter or to protect or remove them from a place of danger. Thus, giving a man a fish, to feed him for a day, may be exactly what is required and the most responsible and prudential response.
It is precisely for that reason that we see governments, international and national aid organisations, charities and individuals responding to the needs of those caught up in an armed conflict, natural disaster, or other severe tragedy. At times, such aid is delivered rapidly and in adequate amounts but, all too often, there may be a significant delay before it can be delivered, particularly in the manner and degree with which it is required. That, of itself, is cause for concern and may suggest that the global readiness of nations to deal with such tragedy is neither well planned nor optimal. After all, such crises are not new and, sadly, are becoming more rather than less frequent.
During World War II, for instance, it is estimated that between 7,000,000 and 9,000,000 people were displaced. At the end of 1945, approximately 6,000,000 of those had been resettled, leaving around 2,000,000 – 2,500,000 people seeking homes. By the end of 2013 the numbers of displace persons/refugees/asylum-seekers had increased to 50,000,000, some 20 times as high as after the greatest war in our history and represents an average growth of around 600,000 persons a year. When considered against the enormous affluence and advances in agriculture, science, technology and almost all areas of human endeavour over the same period, it is hard to comprehend that this could be the case – it seems horrendous. How is it that human beings can allow this to be the fate of their fellows?
We are very aware of the severe tragedies to which aid organisations, governments and charities respond and public response is often extremely generous. Unfortunately, the needs are not confined to the time of immediate, crisis but continue for increasingly lengthy periods. 85% of the displaced and refugee burden occurs in the developing world – a massively disproportionate burden for the poorest countries, least equipped to deal with it. Of course, the international community and richer nations often provide substantial aid but, as benevolent and generous as this might be, it really misses the point for it is largely the actions of developed nations and their economic exploitation that creates the conditions that result in such massive displacement and tragedy.
I can’t claim qualifications or lengthy service in International Studies, Global Economics or Political Economy to give credibility to my views. I am a product of a depressed, post-war, working class family from the north of England. I played in bombed buildings, took ration coupons to the shop for groceries and wore hand-me-down clothes. The people amongst who I lived were poor and dishevelled, down at heel and ugly in ill-fitting, cheap or second-hand clothes. The place was grimy from the soot of coal fires and industrial pollution and the houses were cramped, terraces without grass or “family rooms”, without television, telephones, bathrooms or, in many cases, even hot water.. For all of that, the people were “good” people. There was community spirit and caring. Children played in the street for it was the only open area they had but they did so in safety for there were always several pairs of adult eyes on them, regardless of whose children they were. There was equity in their humanity & sharing with one another.
I now live in the “Lucky Country” – Australia – and though I came at a time of hope, change and passion for a better society, sadly, that is gone. Globalisation and neo-liberalist economics has produced a nation that is obsessed with material consumption; with individualism and with wide support for an insular politics that sees the gap between rich and poor widen with each passing year. Ironically, in a country built on the backs of migrants, asylum seekers are locked up, indefinitely, in atrocious detention centres or turned back at sea, to either drown or face further persecution or poverty back at their point of origin.
Giving a man a fish and teaching a man to fish are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, they are related. The first is a response to symptoms, the second to the problem itself. The immediate and obvious need is a symptom. The continuing and less obvious need is the malaise that gives rise to that symptom. Displaced persons and refugees are a symptom of a flawed global ethos. As necessary and benevolent as it may be, applying a band-aid to the symptom may give some temporary relief but is ultimately futile if we fail to eradicate the underlying cause. Our governments, our leaders and each one of us must stop, think and listen to one another. We must stop fearing & disrespecting difference and, instead, relish diversity. Those who are better off must learn to share with those who are not and recognize that society is only as wealthy as its poorest member. If the human race is to have a future, all men must be able to fish and have equal access to the water.
Author’s note: For brevity, I have used the masculine gender here to refer to both men and women. However, I readily acknowledge the disproportionate suffering of women in situations of conflict and their significant contribution to stability and peace. The figures quoted are based on reports and publications of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. (UNHCR)