It’s not enough to teach a man to fish (or, Poverty is a Process)

Almost everyone knowns the proverb: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

But what good is teaching a woman to fish if she cannot afford a fishing pole? If her children are sick and she cannot leave them? If a middleman buys her fish for a pittance and keeps all the profit, because she cannot determine the market price?

Most people view poverty as a problem, as a situation. But poverty is actually a process. The many intertwined aspects of the poverty process are self-reinforcing. In order to end the process, many simultaneous individual problems need to be addressed at the same time.

Think about a 28-year-old woman in Africa who is currently trapped in the process of poverty:

Unlike us, she was not taught to read. Did you ever learn anything from a book? Do you remember every recipe you will ever make? Do you ever use a list to remember what to do? Have you ever read how to repair something, or how to use a medicine?

Our friend cannot learn anything except what she experiences directly in person. She must remember everything important in her head. There is no to-do list, no planning. No recipes. No new food preservation technique unless she can remember exactly how to do it when shown. She certainly cannot make any written agreement with a buyer of goods. If her children need three medicines, she will need to remember the dosage and timing of each one by the color and shape of the pill. Can you do all this?

Unlike us, she was not taught how to do basic math. “How much feed can I afford to buy to raise my livestock, given the amount of time it takes to mature them and the price at the market?” “Given the cost of this thread and dye, how much do I have to be able to sell these shawls for to make it profitable?” It is almost impossible to operate the simplest trade without some basic math skills.

Unlike us, she does not have water nearby. Have you ever been thirsty for a few hours? Do you remember how slow you become, how tired it makes you , how it becomes difficult to think and the mood it puts you in?

Our friend cannot fetch water because it is 2 hours away, and she must be with her baby, prepare food and tend to her family’s other needs. So her two oldest sons, perhaps 8 and 10, walk with containers to fetch water for the family. It takes 2 hours to get there, and it takes 3 hours to get back. Have you ever carried water? It is heavy. The boys make this trip 3 times weekly. This trip is one of the main reasons they are not in school. They, like their mother, will not learn to read and write, perpetuating the poverty process.

There are many other dimensions to the poverty process. Chronic illness, climate change, political unrest and many other forces can create instability that makes it difficult to thrive.

Because there are so many interacting factors that work to keep people in poverty, many attempts to address poverty fail. If there are five or six intertwined problems and a program only addresses one or two, the program won’t work.

One of the most powerful tools for addressing all the elements of poverty comes in the form of nonprofit microfinance institutions. In the absence of an industry term, in my group we call it “Microfinance Plus.” Microfinance Plus institutions deploy programs that enable the local population to address all their poverty drivers. They provide small loans to women who use the capital to fund a personal business, like making something to sell at market, opening a kiosk, raising livestock, and yes even fishing. But these loans are also tied to antipoverty programs like literacy training, math skills, healthcare education, schools, and highly local needs like how to preserve an abundant local food or how to avoid a particular local pathogen.

They also provide the intangible but critical ingredient of human support – also known as “hope.” In many areas, poverty has been present for so long and is so profound that the people need to hear about the possibility for a different and better future for themselves and their children, in order to kick-start the process of working toward that future in a new way.

Now we can see that our old proverb doesn’t give us the outcome we want: the end of the process of poverty. “Teach a woman to read and to do basic math; provide her with affordable sources of clean drinking water, basic healthcare, and business training; give her human support and respect; and enable her children to go to school.” Then you don’t need to feed her for a lifetime. She can do that for herself and her family, just as we do.

5 thoughts on “It’s not enough to teach a man to fish (or, Poverty is a Process)

  1. But what good is teaching a woman to fish if she cannot afford a fishing pole?

    My bigger concern… What good is teaching a woman to fish when she lives in a dessert! I see so much emphasis on “job training” for jobs where… well… there are none! I see commercials for technical schools that offer great training, and it probably is very good, yet when checking the job market, there are very few of those jobs available, or the jobs don’t pay nearly enough to cover the expenses incurred by going to the school to get the extra training.

    I’m perhaps hyper-sensitive to that situation because of my situation. Back in 2005, I decided to switch careers and become a teacher. After selling most of my business, a year and a half of extra school work, student teaching, and incurring $30k of debt, I got my credential. Of course, as usual, my timing was off. This was when the economy blew up, forcing California to cut teacher employment year after year. This coming year is particularly bad. Massive lay-off are scheduled.

    I don’t regret getting the training, but due to the bleak job market, I’m probably not going to teach in the near future, at least in the next year.

    PS. Sir… Why the heck didn’t you tell me you had a blog! I’ve been doing the blog thing for six years, even before it became fashionable to do so! I would have linked you months ago!

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    • That is why it’s so important for antipoverty organizations to understand the local poverty drivers and develop programs that address those local issues. AlSol in Mexico for example teaches women in the mountains how to preserve local fruits; Esperanza International in the Dominican Republic works with nonprofits to install water treatment social enterprises in the cities. The key common ingredient is that they understand that poverty is a comprehensive problem and needs a comprehensive solution.

      You cannot end poverty by giving money to the poor. You can, and I say we must, provide people with opportunities and tools so that they can lift themselves from poverty. Notice Grameen Foundation’s mission: “To enable the poor, especially the poorest, to create a world without poverty.” Not to create a world without poverty – to enable the poor to create a world without poverty.

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  2. Wow I’m captivated by this. I’m currently doing research on poverty as cause and effect of a lack of women’s participation and reading this piece has given me a whole new and deeper insight into what it really means to live in poverty. Thank you so much. I will definately follow up on your work. Keep it up.

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