Give Someone a Fish, or Give a Fishing Pole and Teach Them?

“Give a man a fish, he eats for a day; If you teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime

This is an age-old idiom, but is still around today because it rings true, especially in the COVID era, at least in the part of the world where I’m currently located.

One of the most hotly-debated questions which was recently asked in the Expats Oaxaca Facebook group I’m a part of, was the following:

And though it’s not exactly the same context/scenario as the idiom, it is actually quoted specifically in one of the responses. Which, in full disclosure, I was unaware of until I started writing this post.

You can tell by the volume of responses that many people are passionate about this issue. For your reference, I have never seen 50 responses to a post in this group. Generally, even more than 10 would be an outlier.

However, a lot of the comment are non-sequiturs, either mentioning that peanut butter is largely a foreign concept to locals, and is probably not advisable as a snack, or calling out the original poster for using the term, “beggars” rather than “the hungry”.

And even though I know the terminology is not PC, in reality, this is what they’re doing, regardless of your stance on how the hungry should be identified, or degree of “sensitivity training” you have.

Fortunately, some commenters allude to the bigger picture, and commend the guy for at least making an effort, or recommend buying food that is more familiar to donate, and from local vendors – rather than supporting corporate-ocracy through buying peanut butter packets from Wal-Mart, and compounding the issue at hand – a suggestion that I am fully in favor of.

Another popular suggestion which leads to the central debate of the thread (as well as this post), is to offer money to those asking, instead of food.

“If People Wanted Food, They’d Ask For It.”

As money is typically what people on the street with their hands out are actually asking for, many in the thread advocate for giving that to those asking, rather than food. A lot of people seem to think it is most advisable to respect the recipient’s wishes, and offer what they are asking for. However, there are several reasons why I view donating money as the least preferred form of assistance, though I do tend to do it from time-to-time.

First, food is essential. Really, the third-most basic necessity after air and water. And when your stomach in nourished, you can allocate what little savings you have to other, still-important but lesser physiological needs, like shelter and clothing (warmth, rest). Also, that money may very well be utilized more efficiently in this instance, as peanut butter and bananas should provide the sustenance in the form of fat, protein and fiber to keep your stomach satiated for a longer period of time than say, a bag of chips would; an item likely to be a go-to item for someone who is on the street hungry.

Second, there is also no guarantee that your contribution will benefit those asking, regardless of if it is a child, adult or family. As an outsider, you have no idea the actual circumstances surrounding the reason that the family or individual is on the street.

In a lot of instances, it may seem apparent on the surface, for example, if the person is a paraplegic or amputee, or seems to be suffering a mental health crisis. But, as sad as it can be, the truth is that what you actually know is derived solely from the appearance of the situation, as you aren’t privy to the events that unfolded which got them to such dire circumstances.

In Latin America, Europe or Asia, there are often other factors at work, which aren’t as prevalent in Canada or the United States. Primarily, organized crime that employs methods of exploiting the disenfranchised – in particular, children – to generate wealth.

These children are often trafficked at first for the purpose of organized begging, only to later be trafficked in sex services or other servitude when they come of age, and the emotional appeal of youth has worn off.

It is also not entirely uncommon for parents in developing nations to exploit their children for the sake of income.

For example, it was reported that in China adults force street children to beg, and sometimes break their arms or legs to evoke more pity. It is thought that such individuals can earn US$30-40,000 per year by forcing children to beg (US Department of State, 2008).

A study in Cambodia suggests a shift in recent years away from trafficking gangs recruiting children for begging towards parents using their children for this purpose themselves. This is attributed to a fear of abuse by the traffickers and to parents learning the routes commonly used by traffickers and thus no longer having to rely on third parties (IOM, 2004a)., Begging for Change

Perhaps the most common argument against giving money is often, “what’s to stop that person from going out and spending what they’ve made ‘panhandling’ on drugs or alcohol?”

And while it is very unlikely a matter of drug addiction in the case of an entire family hustling together on the street, or a disabled person, this is not an entirely absurd question to pose. Obviously, substance abuse and addiction is quite common among the hungry, either as the catalyst to what led them to the street, or as a retroactive coping mechanism once they were already in the situation.

Often times, drug dealers or gang members will get children hooked on drugs and indebted, and will not provide them more drugs or settle their debt until they bring them more income from panhandling.

And though, as a lot of the commenters on the thread are correct in contesting, “it is far more common to find children who are pushed into begging by their circumstances and their need to survive than who are forced by others through violence or coercion,” according to the Anti-Slavery group’s Begging for Change report, you still may be doing more long-term harm than good, with respect to the fact you are an outsider to the situation.

This brings me to my final and most important assertion: By giving money, you are contributing to systemic poverty, or at the very least, applying a bandage to the wound of systemic inequality; a temporary solution to a longstanding problem.

In this sense, you are taking reactionary measures which create a temporary solution, rather than alleviating the root cause with a permanent fix.

This is the textbook example of the idiom, “give a man a fish, he eats for a day; teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime.”

Education Is Key to Alleviating the Underlying Cause

Here I intended to articulate my opinion on the matter, but one commenter with a similar outlook already did it very eloquently in the thread. And since he conveyed his thoughts so beautifully, much more than I will be able to now, after reading his prose, I’ll allow him the floor:

Obviously, giving money is a lot more low-involvement than educating or teaching a skill to someone, or even than giving food, for that matter. Which, I think, is a big part of the reason why most people who are legit hungry ask for the money rather than food. It is more formal and less intimate than asking for food, and doesn’t necessarily result in a common bond (empathy) like donating food does.

So, while in light of this, giving food should be the preferential route, I view it to be the lesser of two evils, because in the end, you’re still not providing a lasting solution to the problem.

To ask for or give food to someone requires an interpersonal connection on both parties. And teaching someone something requires both a connection and a commitment of resources from each.

The issue is – as stated in the comment above – that these things take time. Like, a lot of time. It took a long time for things to unravel to the point they have, and will likely take decades to correct, even if society took it upon themselves to begin today.

Nevermind correcting century-old flaws in government or cultural conduct, simply teaching an individual or family sustainable living practices or nutrition can be a day or weeks-long undertaking. Obviously, it doesn’t provide the type of instant relief that giving in the form of money or food does, and also requires more commitment on the part of the donor, which charity does not require. But as the commenter said, someone has to start.

And those somebodies should be the more privileged among us, like for example, American expats. The ones who often take this type of basic education for granted, or are oblivious to the fact it isn’t conventional wisdom in lesser-developed countries.

Obviously, you can’t teach your special area of expertise or one of the skills in your toolbox to everyone you pass on the street with their hand out. But there is power in numbers. And the more people that are willing to take it upon themselves and help even just one individual, the sooner humanity will resolve this human rights issue.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: