We have all heard this proverb: if you give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day…but if you teach a man to fish he will eat for a lifetime.
This is a lovely little saying that can be inserted into almost any conversation and apply to almost any topic. When we are talking about development, it tells an important story! Here, we see the difference between somebody (the man) becoming developed versus sombody becoming dependent. Obviously, the former is the general goal!
But what if we add something to this proverb? The other day, I heard it told another way…
If you give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day. If you teach a man to fish, he’ll eat for a lifetime. But don’t then go and poison the water.
Wow. Let’s have a moment to let that sink it.
Our development strategies, even the really good ones, are flawed no matter what. In 2014, Canada gave $108 million in international aid to Bangladesh. How lovely of us, right? In the same year, Canada imported $1.2 million of apparel products from Bangladesh. More good, right? Of course, Canada supports the developing economy of Bangladesh by importing from them! And we help their social and political development by giving them our aid money. Right? RIGHT?!
Wrong…unfortunately, that is very wrong. For many reasons that I won’t even touch on here. The one I will focus on is the “poisoning the water” thing. Because that is a very literal problem with the way we are “supporting” their economy. We don’t just import a huge volume of apparel (including all kinds of clothing, footwear and textiles) from Bangladesh, we import a huge volume of apparel at crazy low prices.
So as we send aid money in hopes of improving social conditions and environments, we also promote (and actually demand) degraded social conditions and environments in order to allow ourselves the option of buying $5 jeans. We give money to UNICEF to send a little kid from Thailand to school, but then we buy 10 t-shirts from H&M because they are only $2.50 each. Well, the t-shirts are only $2.50 because they were most likely made by another little kid who didn’t get to go to school.
While we create high volume demand of such cheap products, we also support the destruction of their environment. Garment factories dump millions of liters of dyed waste water into surrounding rivers and lakes. Factories that refine and tan leather dispose of an estimated 88 million tons of solid waste annually. Of course, there are other factors contributing to this problem and allowing it to persist, but if the demand wasn’t there then the problem wouldn’t exist at such a magnitude.
(Source: a beautiful picture, until you remember that rivers shouldn’t be purple)