Of Fishes and Wishes

by Justo González

Right Sharing News

May/June 1987

Vol. XIV, No. 3

Teaching how to fish: a false truism  Probably no dictum about hunger and development is quoted more often than “Give a person a fish and feed them for a day. Teach them to fish and feed them for a lifetime.”

Yet these words, quoted so often to show our enlightenment, are wrong! They are not wrong because they are untrue, but because they are not the whole truth. They oversimplify the causes of hunger and, therefore, make it more difficult to tackle those causes. We have quoted these words for 30 years, and rather than show how enlightened we are, they show how little we have sharpened our analysis.

Where the error lies  The dictum implies that people don’t have enough to eat simply because they don’t know how to fish or how to grow food. While technologies can improve food production, most fisherfolk know how to fish in their own waters much better than any outsiders no matter how technologically informed or how well-meaning. Likewise, traditional cultures know more than we often acknowledge about their soils, their climate and the diseases that threaten their crops and livestock.

The saying ignores a number of factors that cause hunger more often than ignorance or even lack of tools. Do the fisherfolk have free access to the lake? Is the lake polluted? Who is polluting it? Who controls the sale of hooks and lines? Is the lake overfished by industrial interests?

Why we like the truism  The line about the fish and teaching how to fish has been swallowed by so many of us probably because it makes us feel good. It reinforces our natural ethnocentrism. What we are saying without realizing it is that we know how Africans ought to farm and that the problem in Africa is that they don’t know much about proper soil management. The fact is for thousands of years before the colonial age Africans were quite able to feed themselves. Barely 150 years after the “enlightened” Western civilization was introduced into Africa, the continent is suffering from unprecedented famine. This connection ought to suffice as a warning that we may not have all the solutions and that we may be part of the problem.

The fish maxim may also be popular because it puts the blame on their ignorance and the hope on our knowledge and expertise. It makes us innocent bystanders in the plight of the hungry. At most our guilt lies in knowing something they ought to know and not sharing it with them. We are not related to their plight as cause is to effect, and we certainly do not profit from their suffering!

How we profit  However, profound and detailed studies show the connection between the “underdevelopment” of the Third World——really, “misdevelopment”——and our own development. Let us look at one example:

There is in my city an incredible “Farmers’ Market” that is a huge outlet for produce from all over the world. Tomatoes cost less than I can grow them in my own backyard. Our city benefits from those prices. Yet, those tomatoes are imported from Mexico, grown on land that could otherwise be used to grow food for Mexicans. Therefore, Mexicans who cross under the bridge are doing nothing more than coming for their own food that crossed over the bridge legally. We may pass thousands of immigration bills, but they will not work as long as the legal traffic over the bridges continues to be one-sided.

What, then, must we do?  The first thing we must do is realize that, more often than not, hunger is a political problem. “Politics,” in the strictest sense, is the manner in which humans divide and distribute power and resources. People are not hungry in this country and elsewhere because they don’t know how to raise food or are lazy. (Hungry people all over the world work from sunrise to sunset on almost empty stomachs.) They are hungry because they have no access to power, and, therefore, no access to food.

We must realize that the only way to combat hunger permanently is to give hungry people the power to make it impossible for anyone to take away their sustenance.

We must learn how to trust the church unfortunately, this is the weakest link in the chain. By this I mean the church universal that hungers with the dispossessed in Ethiopia and with the uprooted in El Salvador. What was happening in the Philippines was known and decried for over two decades by Christian leaders all over the world. Yet most church people did not come to believe it until they saw it in the network news. By then, thousands of Filipinos had died as a result of our disbelief! If we are to combat the causes of hunger in Mozambique, in Korea and in Chile, we have to begin by listening to our brothers and sisters in those countries who know what hunger is all about.

We must find ways to act on behalf of those who are not allowed the freedom to act for themselves. We cannot solve their problems for them, but we can become their advocates so they will have the freedom to search for their own solutions. Since we are part of the church universal, when we learn of a situation of injustice and oppression anywhere in the world, South Africa or Afghanistan, Chile or Arkansas, we must mobilize ourselves to see such a situation corrected. Some will say that this involves the church in politics. But if it is true that humans are political beings, the church can not be involved with the real life without being involved in politics.

To those starving right now, with no possibility of fishing, we must provide a fish for the day when they may fish. To those who need hooks and lines, we should provide them. We must also work to make certain that those who live by fishing have guaranteed access to the waters by which they live.

This will not be a popular cause. To give power to the powerless usually draws the enmity of those who hold them in their power. But Christianity is not being without enemies, nor is it about being popular. It is about being obedient.

Reprinted with permission from Seeds November 1986.

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