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.

There are rights, and then there are refugee rights

I attended the court hearing for the case of the 23 detained Liberian women and children today. The 16 women and 7 children (ages 4 to 17 years) are being held by the National Immigration Service (NIS) of Ghana and are facing deportation. The claim by the government is that they are illegal immigrants, and pose a national security threat, and, as such, should be deported.

This is the 2nd hearing – apparently, according to a journalist present at the first one, the NIS had already chartered a plane to deport the detainees, confident that the first hearing would be the last and a judgment in their favor handed down. Fortunately, the judge called off any further deportation until the case was resolved – and that called for additional arguments from both sides.

Basically, the prosecution (human rights lawyers) are challenging the claim that the detainees are illegal immigrants – instead, they categorize them as “undocumented refugees”. People arrived in Buduburam in waves, and while most were either registered through the UNHCR or accepted on a prima facie basis, some applied for refugee status as asylum seekers, only to see their claim fall through the cracks, being neither rejected nor accepted. Furthermore, the prosecution argues that the undocumented refugees can derive refugee status from their family members if the latter are officially recognized as such. That, to me, is a crucial point.

Indeed, one of the challenges we are faced with, as organizations and individuals engaged with refugee communities, is the issue of how to offer protection and support to undocumented refugees. It seems unjust that because of some bureaucratic failure to process claims, groups of people should be left with absolutely no protection whatsoever. In fact, the defense counsel on the behalf of the Ghanaian gov. said : “If they are unregistered, then they have no status, and they have no rights“(emphasis added) She went on to say that “rights are not absolute” and that refugees “ought to go home”.

In any case, these people are the ones who are supposed to leave Ghana for their home country with zero assistance – keep in mind these people are barely able to sustain themselves on a daily basis, so expecting them to be able to move and re-establish in another country (which is 2 international borders away) is a big stretch. These are people who were already forced to abandon their lives and families during the war, and who managed to recreate some sort of normal life for themselves as refugees. To ask them to leave everything behind again…. ? I realize that people’s rights are trampled all over the world on a daily basis, but I am just shocked at the total lack of institutional or large scale support these people receive (none). For instance, there was no UNHCR representative at the court hearing today – even though the outcome of this trial is absolutely crucial for the refugee community in Ghana. UNHCR — Is it that hard to send a rep to a trial?? Even your intern could have gone!

Meanwhile, in the Buduburam settlement, those who are registered with the UNHCR are signing up for voluntary repatriation, worried about the conditions that they will face when returning to Liberia… Again, this community has no higher authority to turn to – not their own government, not the UNHCR, not the “international community”. Of course, large scale violence did not erupt, and no one died – I suppose if that had happened, you would have seen a lot more attention given to the issue. Why does it have to come to this to mobilize the world’s attention? All the lofty rhetoric about “prevention” rather than “intervention”…. Empty shells that make policy makers feel good about themselves, but seem to be rarely adopted in practice.

The verdict for the trial is April 24th – looking forward to it.

Back in Budu

Been back in the Buduburam settlement for a little over a week now, and it seems clear that we arrived just as tensions were easing between the different parties. While the overt crisis seems to be under control now, there are still many, many unresolved issues at a number of different levels. The refugee community receives only limited, fragmented information concerning their future and the decisions made on their behalf, which leads to the elaboration of many rumors and theories that only contribute to increasing anxiety and uncertainty.

The UNHCR is essentially nowhere to be seen, found or heard – at least, not in the field. Voluntary repatriation has been reopened for registered refugees (it had been closed in August 2007), but to all the unregistered refugees living in Buduburam, going “home” seems like an almost unsurmountable hurdle… For those who can be repatriated, they are all very worried about leaving with only 20kg of belongings and $100 – imagine if you had to rebuild your life (again) with only this, and in extremely difficult conditions (Liberia, while it is in the process of post-conflict reconstruction, still faces enormous challenges)

I’m going to the court hearing of the remaining 22 women (including 6 children aged between 4 and 11) who are in custody of Immigration Services on Monday. Since internet access is – at best – frustrating in Buduburam, I will probably update then….

Random Thoughts

Riots in Senegal over food prices turn ugly – and in Cote d’Ivoire as well.

I just wrote about the potential unrest soaring food prices could cause… Funny how it works. I have to say, I think IRIN is particularly fond of this particular topic, and reports on it quite often. Nonetheless, I really do believe that food insecurity can cause tremendous damage – not just because of its obvious consequence (food is less affordable, particularly for the poorest), but also because, as we see in above examples, the tensions it can create between the authorities and civil society can be damaging. I’m curious to see how this issue will be addressed in months and years to come…. Anyway….

I’m leaving for Ghana tomorrow, and I’m really looking forward to being there. With all that’s being going on, I’m eager to see our friends and the people we work with, and get a better sense of the reality of the situation. I’m also looking forward to meeting all the new people I have been corresponding/working with over the past few weeks, and seeing what kind of long term strategy for engagement with the refugee community we can come up with.


I’ll write some posts from Buduburam – hopefully I will have not just bad or sad news to report. Meanwhile, please feel free to leave comments or write me an email with comments, feedback, ideas…. We’re going to be shooting a promo video for Niapele with my friend Val, who has just started her own organization, Ayoka Productions. We’ll try and get some footage that we can use for advocacy purposes as well – in light of recent events, it seems clear that we have a role to play in offering this community a voice, a channel to express themselves.


On this note, I’ll leave you with my favorite passage from the latest Secretary General’s Report on the United Nations Mission to Liberia (UNMIL), which was made public on March 19th:

54. Although the humanitarian situation in Liberia has continued to improve, the
country still faces serious challenges, particularly in the health, education, food, and
water and sanitation sectors. So far only 62 per cent of the $110 million needed to address the high priority humanitarian needs outlined in the Common Humanitarian Action Plan, including the delivery of basic social services, the provision of productive livelihoods for returnee communities and the strengthening of civil society and local authorities, has been received. During the reporting period, UNMIL organized a number of medical outreach activities, which provided medical treatment for some 24,000 patients.
55. During the period under review, UNHCR conducted a post-voluntary repatriation verification exercise, which revealed that 75,509 registered Liberian refugees are still residing in various countries in the subregion. There are also 10,327 refugees from Sierra Leone, Côte d’Ivoire and other countries residing in Liberia. The United Nations, in collaboration with the Economic Community of West African States and the Government of Liberia, is trying to find durable solutions for the integration of Sierra Leonean refugees in Liberia. The successful reintegration of returnees into communities continues to be a major challenge.

Sunset near the ARCH house, at the edge of Buduburam – August 2007

Keeping up

The situation in Buduburam seems to have stabilized – at least for now. My biggest concern – which is shared by the people I am in touch with regarding this situation – is for the well-being of the women and children still in detention at the Kordeabe center in the Eastern region.

Here is a message I just received from one of the human rights advocates (name withheld for obvious reasons…)

Its very difficult here in Ghana with xenophobia and people in government making certain statements, it does not help the course.The Minister of Interior has declared Kordiabe a refugee camp and UNHCR say the place is comfortable and the women and children do not want to leave […]
In terms of items that they need immediately, I was there a week ago, they need water, food, hygiene products. Yes, your colleague can get the items and then they could be dropped off there.

If you want to make a financial contribution, please visit The Niapele Project’s website – there is a link on the homepage where you can make a donation to help us provide basic necessities to the detained women and children. We have set up a special “emergency fund” specifically for this purpose.

I promise to get back to more “entertaining” posts in the near future – for now, my entire consciousness is mobilized by the ongoing crisis in Ghana…