We’ve all heard the saying: “Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.” It’s plastered on motivational posters everywhere, toting the value of education versus handouts. It’s a wonderful ideology for non-profits: instead of giving people something they need, teach them how to get it themselves, producing long term, sustainable bang for the charitable buck.
“But, there’s something missing,” says Rachel Lewis, Co-founder and Director of Research. “And it took a research trip to Haiti to realize what it was.”
Lewis continues, “Peacebuilding Solutions (PS) visited a small community of displaced families near Gressier, Haiti. Our goal was to be different, and the first step to that was simultaneously revolutionary and elementary: we asked the community what they needed, and we built an intervention around the needs of the community. They requested tarps, goats, a water system, composting toilets… the things you would expect from a community eking out a marginal existence on squatted land 5 years after the earthquake which had displaced them.”
We asked the community leaders: “What else do you need to take care of your community?”
One of the men stood up and responded: “We need fishing gear.”
We did not expect that request, so we asked: “Why do you need fishing gear?”
They proceeded to explain that several them were actually fishermen, and that it was only an hour’s walk to the beach from where their shelters were. They had the skill set, but all their fishing gear and equipment had been destroyed in the earthquake.
They didn’t want a fish.
They didn’t want to be taught to fish.
They wanted the ability to use their own, hard-earned skills to earn a living.
It had never occurred to us that there was a corollary to the old saying:
If you give a man a fish, he eats for a day.
If you teach a man to fish, he eats for the rest of his life.
But… if you don’t give him or her the resources to use what he or she’s got, it doesn’t matter how much you teach him or her.
All the education classes in the world would never have helped that community in Gressier fish. Instead, one simple question enlightened us to their true needs. Instead of a boondoggle of a fishing education program, we matched their needs to what we provided and gave them what they truly needed.
We applied this adage in practice time and again. By engaging in research which allowed us to separate the community by gender, we could get much more specific data on what the community’s needs were. When the women were interviewed without the presence of men, a different picture of the community emerged which we considered as we planned the intervention. By listening, we were able to save tens of thousands of dollars by empowering the community to decide for itself what was needed. By giving them the ability to chart their own course, they were able to make far better use of the resources they asked for than we could have ever dreamed of.
Ask those that you wish to help, empower them by respecting their needs, and match their needs to your actions. That’s what we do, and that’s the way we’re going to do it until we’re doing it worldwide. This isn’t aid handed out to passive recipients. This is the idea of treating people like people, and as active participants in their own lives and their own futures.
Simple, yet revolutionary.
With your help, we can give people just like you the ability to rebuild their lives on their own terms. Help us give others the tools to build their own futures.