Too Many Fish? Redefining the Proverb

The “give a man a fish” proverb is well-known (and overused) in philanthropic circles. The idea starts off well – teaching skills produces more long-term benefits than handouts. That’s true, but the next generation of philanthropy is evolving even further.

Yesterday, I saw a blog post about the limits of foreign aid, both as directed by governments and by philanthropic organizations – GlobalGiving was cited as an example. The conclusion was that GlobalGiving (and others) provide too many fish and not enough fishermen.

To start, programs such as that being undertaken by Swire or Kuraishi feel good while they are being done yet the final result is that nothing changes. It is the proverbial give a man a fish and you can feed him for a day and you are content with that and you will need to come back with fish the next day and the next and the next. We are not solving the problems these countries face by simply giving.

From a less than generous position, the people that the aid industry helps most are the aid industry itself.

I initially scoffed at the premise of the argument. Then I realized that perhaps the issue is that we are not defining ourselves well enough. The fish/fishermen proverb is inherently binary – you’re either giving fish, or making fishermen.

But I don’t think GlobalGiving does either. I’ll let Bert & Ernie explain:


In the video, we see Bert and Ernie enjoying a lovely fishing excursion. Bert is frustrated by his unsuccessful luck with catching any fish. Ernie offers to try, and Bert shares his fishing pole – the traditional tool for catching fish. “No, thanks,” Ernie says, “I know how to fish in these waters.” Ernie proceeds to call the fish into the boat, “HERE FISHY FISHY FISHY.” And the fish fling themselves into the boat.

Traditional philanthropy is the Bert in the boat. It identifies a problem (no fish). And it has a solution (fishing pole). Traditional philanthropy insists the fishing pole must be the solution. The fishing pole is high tech, there’s research that says the fishing pole catches fish, and the tool is named after its objective. This has to be the solution – except Bert isn’t catching any fish.

The local guy in the community (Ernie) also recognizes the problem (no fish). But he lives here. He knows what catches these fish (calling to them really loud). So he does, and the fish jump into the boat.

GlobalGiving doesn’t want to change Ernie. We know that all the Ernies we work with know their communities and their communities’ needs much better than we ever could.

So we want to empower Ernie to share his fish-catching solution with others, so that everyone can catch fish more quickly and in greater quantities, eventually creating a budding fishing empire. Or enough to provide fish for the community to eat and sell.

But this isn’t all just Muppets and make believe. Want a real example?

Karrus Hayes from Vision Awake Africa Development has a project on GlobalGiving called Educate Repatriated Refugee Children in Liberia. This project makes sure refugee children in Liberia can go to school, even if they can’t afford it.

Think this is a handout? Think this is only putting a bandage on the problem? Think again.

Karrus Hayes knows about civil war. Hayes sold candy and biscuits on the streets of Monrovia before civil war forced him out of his country. He was fortunate enough to have a high school education through the generous donation of a woman named Carolyn A. Miller.

Unable to afford school himself, Hayes was the grateful recipient of a scholarship – a situation students in the US take for granted every day. Knowing what this scholarship and his education did for him, Hayes is now giving back to his war-torn community to make sure others can have the same chance.

Karrus isn’t dependent on someone else’s fish today. And he’s making sure others won’t be tomorrow.

That’s not charity. That’s smart.

Another: Twesigye Jackson Kaguri runs the Nyaka AIDS Orphans School in Uganda and has a project on GlobalGiving called Provide education to AIDS orphans in rural Uganda.

Kaguri worked hard all his life. He went to college in Kampala, and eventually in the United States. He met and married an American woman, had an American job and was ready to put a down payment on a home. It was the American dream by any standard, and Kaguri was a living success.

But that wasn’t his dream. Kaguri and his wife went back to his village in Uganda and saw the need there was for a school for children of parents who had all died from AIDS. The down payment on his house became the first investment into what is now the Nyaka School. Kaguri had “made it” and chose to go back to Uganda because he knew how to help.

And still more: Workshops are put on to teach women how to live with HIV and AIDS, and then these women are trained to give the workshops. Microfinance opportunities help men and women all over the world start business to become self-sufficient. Leaders are honed in Nigeria so they can approach local challenges with local solutions, like jobs and community activities.

GlobalGiving isn’t handing out fish to these communities. We’re not even handing out fishing poles.

If you’re sticking with the metaphor, we’re here to provide the boat or drive you to the lake.

But just like businesses start out with investors and graduate students survive because of loans, sometimes you need some support to get your ideas off the ground.


Andrew Whitman

about 10 years ago

THANK YOU!! Finally someone is shattering the notion that giving is a handout. Very well written, and a good analogy that I will using in the future.


about 10 years ago

Absolutely brilliant. Well done!

Comments Closed