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Is Teaching a Man to Fish the Best Model for Economic Development?

Catherine Armstrong is a recent graduate of the University of North Carolina Wilmington, where she majored in business administration with concentrations in entrepreneurship and business development/supply chain management and a minor in Spanish. She was a participant in the 2020 Summer Honors Program course on “International Economic Development: Why Institutions Matter” taught by Dr. Stephen Smith.

 

If you have had any exposure to contemporary ideas surrounding international economic development, whether through for-profit social impact business models, nonprofit work, or government aid initiatives, you may have heard the phrase, “Give a man a fish and feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime.” The sentiment behind this phrase is to equip and empower others to lift themselves out of poverty instead of creating dependencies through continuous donation aid cycles. We have seen this phrase used as a critique of TOMS Shoes, the pioneer of social impact business. With its early one-for-one model, TOMS flooded markets with free shoes and forced local shoemakers out of business. It fixed the short-term shortage of shoes in a region, but it made emerging economies dependent on TOMS for shoes in the long-term. They gave a man a fish.

The ideas behind “teaching a man to fish instead of giving him a fish” formed the basis for much of my thought on international economic development and the environment I hoped to support one day through an international social enterprise. I still hope to help break poverty cycles through empowering others. However, I did not realize how inadequate and incomplete the “teach a man to fish” expression was.

This phrase does not consider the significant role proper political institutions play in facilitating economic development. People can teach men to fish all day, but without institutions in place to enforce the rule of law, economies will not develop. It goes beyond education, healthcare, or employment. If people do not possess the basic level of security they need in order to not fear for their lives each day, no other factors matter. Additionally, proper institutions are required in order to enforce property rights, which are the cornerstone of business and essential for economic growth. A peer in my AEI Summer Honors Program cohort considered the role of property rights and added an additional layer to the well-known phrase. He suggested that we give the man property rights to the pond. It takes the phrase beyond narrowly teaching someone a skillset and widens it to empowering them with ownership enforced by proper political institutions. Personally, I would add a final requirement for institutions to construct a road so that the man can take his fish to the market. Without institutions supporting reliable transportation systems, people do not have access to larger markets, and economic growth is stifled.

While these additions may bolster the viability of the expression, these adjustments are still insufficient because we have yet to talk to the man that we are teaching to fish. Two of my peers in the course raised another important point—the aforementioned expression does not consider that these communities have been surviving on their own for hundreds of years without someone from another nation teaching them how to fish. The phrase itself is based on the assumption that developing communities do not already know how to fish and fails to take into account cultural particularities. Do the people even want the fish? Because of these assumptions, this phrase can be potentially limiting and oftentimes leads people to cause more harm than good.

“To teach a man to fish” is not enough because it is based on the assumption that the man needs fish and does not already have a way of catching fish. The real phrase should be to “teach a man to listen,” with the man in this scenario being the person who is hoping to help the man on the other shore. In short, no international economic development initiatives are going to achieve success unless they are implemented in a way that honors the long-term interests of the people they are seeking to help. Furthermore, the only way to act in the long-term best interest of someone else is to know that person and to know them well – to walk with them and listen.

Forget about teaching a man to fish. Learn to listen.