Friday, June 5, 2009


Most of us have heard the saying: "Give a man a fish, and you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish, and you have fed him for a lifetime." It seems to me that the old saying may not go far enough. Giving a man a fish may provide a lesson along with the meal: the way to get a fish is to wait until someone gives you one. Simply handing out free food may, in the long run, do more harm than good.

It seems that most charity focuses on eliminating an immediate need without addressing the underlying problem. In fact, Mother Teresa herself, that icon of giving, has been criticized for perpetuating poverty, rather than trying to alleviate it. She is alleged to have said: "I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot, to share it with the passion of Christ. I think the world is being much helped by the suffering of the poor people." That, in my view, is not kindness.

Government charity is often in that vein: food stamps, unemployment payments, medicare, welfare and Section 8 housing vouchers address the need of the moment without doing anything about the underlying problem of poverty. The unintended result of this kind of charity is poverty that is passed down from generation to generation. Similarly, food kitchens and homeless shelters do nothing to address the underlying problems of poverty, addiction and mental illness that lead to homelessness in the first place.

I realize that there is a place for simply giving support to the needy. Victims of one-time disasters such as hurricanes need help now. Similarly, there are those who simply will never be able to take care of themselves for whatever reason. There is no point in trying to teach them to fish, because they simply cannot learn for whatever reason. In these instances, it is makes sense to provide what is needed. In my view, however, the more important task is addressing the underlying problems that leave people sick, uneducated and poor.

Recently, I have become a fan of, a micro lending organization that allows people to make no-interest loans to small businesses in the third world. The borrowers include taxi drivers in Moldova, small farms in Peru and grocery stores in Nigeria. The borrowers do pay interest to Kiva's local partners, but at lower rates than would otherwise be available to them, assuming that they could get a loan at all. One of the biggest problems in the third world is the lack of access to capital. Hopefully, these small loans help people grow their own businesses and move them up just a little bit towards economic Independence.

1 comment:

Kevin said...

I don't disagree about programs like Kiva. But I think you've unfairly caricatured other programs.
Medicare isn't charity, for instance.
Welfare (AFDC) has -- for more than a decade now -- included work (and other) requirements. In fact, this reform somewhat undermines your argument, because the "teach to fish" component has arguably done more harm than good.
My local homeless shelter also goes beyond the "charity" (giving people a bed to keep them out of the cold at night) -- providing programs to help people get their lives together.
I think it's important to recognize the shades of gray -- the nuances to programs that might initially seem like 'just' handouts.