Give a Man a Line, Not a Fish (but what kind of line should you give him then?)


Fishing boats in Kokrobite, Ghana

It sometimes seems like the mantra “give a man a line, not a fish” summarizes the approach taken to development by most practitioners who wish to move away from hand outs and towards breeding sustainability. It makes perfect sense, right? If you give him the fish, he will eat now and be hungry tomorrow, and you’ll have to give him another, whereas if you give him a line, he’s going to start fishing for himself, and you can move to the next guy who needs help.

This trip to Ghana, I actually saw this motto written on some buildings, and it just kept popping up (both in my head, and in real life) – but thinking about it, I started to become slightly uncomfortable with it. Of course, it would be naive to say that this “line and fish” proverb is actually used as a strategy, but, for the sake of the argument, let’s extrapolate a bit. The whole idea behind this concept is that you want the beneficiary of your help to no longer have to extend his or her hand out for assistance, and that, instead, he or she will become self-reliant and empowered by this new found freedom.

While this is a laudable goal in theory, in practice, it seems to fall short all too often. When you give someone a “line” (could be a tractor to plow the earth, a sewing machine or oven to become more efficient, etc.), it’s not necessarily the “line” that he needs, or would have chosen freely. It’s not necessarily the most sustainable tool either – for instance, the sewing machine example : while the person you are giving it to may be ecstatic at the thought of having her own, the problem is that there 100 other people like you giving 100 other people like her a sewing machine. Which means that there will be insane competition between small scale sewers – and, unfortunately, if you haven’t given her (and the others) an effective marketing and sales strategy, you pretty much wasted your sewing machine.

This article discusses the preponderance of cooks in Monrovia – and the effects on the local economy:

NGO skills-training programmes that typically focus on skills such as soap-making, hair braiding, baking, tailoring and pastry-making have turned out far more people than there is demand for, the report found.

“The majority of [skills training] projects lack direct links to current or emerging market demand,” the report says. “Hairdressing, cosmetology, baking, tailoring, soap-making and tie-dye are offered in location after location.”

I’ve seen this in Buduburam – there are dozens of training programs for women that offer the aforementioned activities. The goal is to empower these women – the means to this end is to help them learn a trade that will enable them to generate income and sustain themselves. But when every one of your neighbors is getting the same “line”, you’re going to end up going after the same fish, right? The training skills programs don’t work together – in fact, they compete. In Buduburam, the Chrissetta Institute is where you want to be – they have the best reputation. Women of Glory churns out the most graduates, and is highly visible. It almost seems like the real point of these training programs is to empower the people who run them, rather than the people who benefit from them.

I made the mistake of sponsoring one lady’s training as a pastry chef – there are absolutely no jobs for her, and the women who already do this don’t want anyone to help them (because they can’t really scale up their activities, if they work with someone else, it will only marginally increase their productivity, while requiring them to share the profits).

So, yes, let’s give a “line”, and help people shift from dependency and inactivity to freedom and enterprise. But if we’re going to go down that road, we have to be ready to do more than just give the “line” – we also have to help them gain market access, help them develop a PLAN for the short term and the long term, give them the tools necessary to repair the “line” if it breaks or needs mending…. The “line” is just not enough, and while I admire and respect people who manage to break their own cycle of poverty with a simple “line”, if we want to create real, profound and lasting change, we have to do more than hand out these “lines”.

The word “holistic” always sounds a bit naive – so let’s say that we need to have multi-dimensional approaches to human development. The tools that we use in our own societies need to be made available – equalizing access to marketing and organizational resources, for example, is one of the ways in which this can be done. The “line”, in and of itself, can sometimes cause more harm than good, as people will harness all their hopes on it, even though the benefits it yields are marginal.

This video shows a group of village fishermen in Ghana – I watched them for over 2 hours, as they were manually reeling in their net. Involved in the process were not just the fishermen, but their pregnant wives, children… Essentially, the entire village participates in this.

(I realize that there is a white woman’s butt in this video – she was just passed out on the beach during the whole process – right after I shot this, I did in fact wake her up…. )

Point is, these people spend HOURS every day reeling in this net – and their catch is hardly worth the effort. It’s common knowledge that West African coastal waters are overfished, and commercial trawling has made the problem worse. So in this net, they had a lot of garbage, seaweed, plastic bags, and some small fish, that they share amongst themselves. Now, this is the main economic activity in this village – and the benefits they reap are measly. I kept thinking that they would save so much time and energy if only they had a machine to reel in their net – this would allow them to engage in other activities, and make the enterprise worthwhile.

I’m not saying that development practitioners should jump in and give them a motor powered reel – in fact, it’s obviously up to this community to define the need and search for the solution. I’m not even sure that NGOs (local or international) operate in this village – the point is, the “line” these people are using is clearly not to their advantage, and a big difference could be made if the process was modernized, streamlined…

There is a real opportunity for progress here, and it’s not that complicated. I too often read about or see instances where development falls just short of actually helping – and this applies to both endogenous and exogenous initiatives. The skills training programs that are being replicated all over the Buduburam refugee settlement are an example of the inappropriate “lines”.

The lack of investment in “un-sexy” dimensions of development (a motor reel, the elaboration of a marketing strategy) also handicap the overall impact of initiatives who end up failing to completely address the problem they are trying to solve. In fact, these incomplete solutions can exacerbate the issue, by making it seem like things are progressing. But appearances can be deceptive, as the hundreds of women in their skills training center’s uniform have made me realize.

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