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Give a man a fish…

If you give me a fish, you feed me for a day.

If you teach me to fish, you have fed me until the river is contaminated or the shoreline seized for development.

 But, if you teach me to organize, then whatever the challenge, I can join together with my peers…

 And we will fashion our own solution.

~Barefoot Guide to Working with Organizations and Social Change, Vol 1

There is so much that I love about this quote that I discovered in class today. First, it cleverly plays with the all too common, and now cliché, expression “Give a man a fish, he’s fed for a day. Teach him how to fish…”

Second, it touches on sustainable development. Much of traditional development theory assumes that a developing nation simply needs….well… more development. More infrastructure, more roads, more business, more factories, more industrialized agriculture, more efficient use of its natural resources. This quote begins to touch on the idea that rampant development is not the answer. Development needs to be done sustainably or you end up with polluted waterways and a citizenry plagued by inequality.

We’re talking about creating change that will last not just this lifetime, but lifetimes to come. Ultimately, sustainable development needs to be about meeting the needs of this generation, without jeopardizing the needs of future generations. This is a concept that people working in the environmental field have internalized, but, after a week and half in DPMI, I’ve definitely noticed that environmental sustainability is all too often just an afterthought for those working in the field of international development.

This is a major problem because communities–all around the world, but most especially in developing countries—rely on their natural resources. People don’t live in a vacuum. I’m sure this will come up again, but simply put, in my opinion: in order for a project to be truly sustainable, it absolutely has to be environmentally sustainable.

Third, I like the above quote because it is focused on building human capital.

Fourth, it’s not only about teaching technical skills, but about fostering social change. I’ve met farming families in rural Honduras, indigenous political prisoners in Chile, and cattle ranchers on Lopez Island off the coast of Washington state. They know about farming and ranching and laws and policies with a depth that would take me a lifetime to understand. I’m not going to help them by coming up with new practices, because chances are they’ve already thought of them. This leads into the final reason why I like this quote.

This quote is about empowering people so that they can discover their own solutions. I’m reminded of a visit to Paicines Ranch with Professor Jeffrey Langholz a couple months ago. The owner described her frustration with government regulations. She described how regulations meant to protect rivers actually led to actions that did more harm. She summed up by saying, “Tell us how you want the river to look like and we’ll get it there.” That’s a message I wish policymakers took to heart: Work with people to set goals and then let them implement.