Most people have probably heard the adage “Give a man a fish, and he can eat for a day; teach a man to fish and he can eat for a lifetime.” And while that saying contains depth and truth, there is an inherent flaw in the statement. Because even if you know how to fish, you can’t readily do it unless there is an accessible pond that has fish in it to catch! When we bring this colloquialism into the arena of ending poverty, the discussion must contain more than simply the conversation of training versus a handout; the conversation has to move past the deeds of benevolence and move to the acts of a benefactor. The conversation must contain a scaffolding structure that provides an appropriate environment where the fisherman can fish, where someone in poverty not only learns a trade, but is offered an opportunity to thrive in an equalized arena. An arena that can be sustainable and in which that individual has the possibility of succeeding.
In essence, it is not enough to teach a man to fish, there has to be the opportunity for the man to actually go fishing!
The journey of benevolence is rooted in a just cause to do what Jesus asked us to do – to love our neighbor. And the Text shows us what benevolence looks like in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus is questioned by another Rabbi’s disciple, “Then who is my neighbor?” A basic question with the purpose of testing the authority and scholarship of Jesus. His response gives us a clear picture of a Biblical understanding of the concept of aid: Love God and love others. For Jesus, the greatest commandments are to love God and Love others – end of story! Jesus didn’t just give the man a theoretical answer. He painted a picture of how to practically love others. And then Jesus asks us to act accordingly, to be like Him in helping those in need.
So, when we look at benevolence, there is a clear call to love our neighbor by tending to their needs and providing for others in a time of crisis. But we will notice that in this story the Samaritan provides for the person’s needs in the moment, but then leaves and allows the man to get back on his own feet. I think we often miss the point when we look at the concept of how foreign aid runs in our world today. When a disaster hits, our benevolence overruns and our hearts pour out with a desire to help. And that is a good thing! We are acting like the Good Samaritan, Christ’s example of loving others. However, when does that aid end? And how are we providing it?
Let me give you an example. When a disaster hits a developing country, the immediate outpouring of aid comes in the basic essentials of food, water, and clothes. American products, such as rice, get shipped by the tons to this country. That’s a good thing, right? Perhaps in the immediate present. But when does that rice stop? And who makes the decision for the provision to cease? At times, years go by and the same aid is arriving. Have you ever thought about what that form of aid does to the local rice farmers? To put it bluntly, it puts them out of business. It displaces their ability to sustain a business because let’s face it, you can’t beat free in a consumer market. There are countless examples of how a benevolent act actually creates a dependency cycle that only leads to destruction. To continue our analogy, that farmer might know how to fish, but we have inadvertently taken away that farmer’s opportunity to sell fish.
There tends to be a stigma that most individuals in developing countries need to learn how to fish. There is a concept that poverty exists because those in poverty are not equipped or educated to sustain a business. I present a different perspective: Perhaps they are quite competent, but simply do not have a pond stocked full of opportunity to show off their craft and the talents that God has blessed them with.
Because benevolence only works in a short-term system, perhaps we need to reexamine the role of a benefactor in the model towards sustainability. To be truly effective, a benefactor must seek to train and lift up those in need with the mission that they would then produce and provide for themselves moving forward. It is here where Christ’s commandment to “make disciples” comes into play. Jesus is calling us to not just provide for people in need, but to elevate others so that they can help themselves. It is not enough to show what salvation looks like and to provide a taste of what it is, but instead the call is to train up a disciple so that he or she can discover the Truth of salvation on his or her own, and then, in turn, lead others to it. But once again, the mere training is not enough. It is vital, but it can’t be the end of the story. Jesus trained His twelve disciples, but in addition to that He taught them how to sustain their ministries and provided them an arena to become the Rabbi, to do the work that they were called to do for themselves.
When we look at international missions, sustainable development, sustainable businesses, and crafting a system that brings individuals out of poverty and to a level of sustainability, it cannot end by simply giving a man a fish. Moreover, it cannot end with teaching a man to fish. It must move forward to giving a person the skills needed AND an environment in which he can start a Kingdom business. A business that has the infrastructure, support, and ability to elevate itself to the point where that business is the blessing that lifts people and communities out of the miry clay. This is the hope and dream of Narrow Gate Exchange, to train up individuals that can be the change that is needed in their own communities with the hope of raising up others that answer the call to love their neighbor and to make disciples. So, next time you want to give someone a fish, consider teaching them how to fish, but more importantly, why don’t you take them to a pond and go fishing together!