Teach a Man to Fish

Recently, I came across two critiques of a common saying: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

One of those critiques was in the video below (hat tip to James McGrath and Ross McKenzie)

The other was in a post by Vu Le at Nonprofit With Balls that I linked to earlier:

The teach-a-man-to-fish paternalism. This philosophy, so ingrained in our culture, is patronizing and often ineffective, sometimes harmful. It assumes one person is a fount of knowledge while the other is an ignorant, empty vessel to be filled with wisdom. It ignores systems and environmental variables. We can teach someone to fish, but if they have no transportation to get to the pond, or if the pond is polluted, or if better-equipped corporations have been destroying aquaculture through over-fishing, then they’re still screwed while we feel good about ourselves. We see the same dynamics in funding via this belief that nonprofits can be self-sustaining if we just teach them to earn their revenues instead of constantly asking for free fish in the form of grants and donations.

Perhaps I’ll share my own thoughts on this later; there’s a lot that I could say about teach-a-man-to-fish colonialism. For now, I just want to share this video and this quote along with a quick comment.

The idea of teaching a man to fish often ends up looking like this: we who have the fish teaching the people from whom we took the fish how to work the systems that we designed to distribute the fish and ensure that we get to keep most of the fish. That’s deeply problematic. That’s an idea that we need to interrogate.

Right now, there is a movement in churches and nonprofits arguing that charity is toxic, that helping hurts, and that the entire nonprofit sector needs to be reformed to truly lift people out of poverty. These charity skeptics are telling Christians that traditional charity deepens dependency, fosters a sense of entitlement, and erodes the work ethic of people who receive it. Charity skepticism is increasingly popular; and it is almost certainly wrong.

Now available from Wipf and Stock’s Cascade Books imprint, Radical Charity: How Generosity Can Save the World (And the Church) weaves together research and scholarship on topics as diverse as biblical scholarship, Christian history, economics, and behavioral psychology to tell a different story. In this story, charity is the heart of Christianity and one of the most effective ways that we can help people who are living in poverty. Charity—giving to people experiencing poverty without any expectation of return or reformation—can save the world and help make God’s vision for the church a reality.

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