When Teaching a Man to Fish is Not Enough

There is an old Chinese proverb that is an inspiring message for sustainability and education. Most can probably quote it and explain the virtues of it. “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Nuru International certainly touts this same message as we have a strict “no handouts” policy. We don’t “give away fish” as we believe it is actually detrimental to development. “Teaching a man to fish” however is something we have believed in and embed into all of our programs. We are very intentional about training our Kenyan staff to take over the project and we have been working on an exit strategy so that they can fully take over the project once the Western staff leaves.

Some of you may have followed these leadership blogs and know that we have taken this idea to another level by instituting this program with a local leadership team. You may also have read blogs written by Francis and John on service leadership and feedback respectively. They are two of the three members of our Leadership Program. This team has also trained our program leaders on the Nuru model, service leadership and feedback. They have done a great job of learning and co-creating the materials to be taught to our staff.

This leadership team is going beyond being taught how to fish. They are learning that true sustainability does not come when they learn how to do something from the wazungu (white people). Our intention with the Leadership Program is not only to teach specific skills but develop leaders who can make and implement the best decisions based on given options especially when circumstances change or challenges occur. For example, what happens if the man in the proverb loses his fishing pole or fish somehow runs out? If his only knowledge is to fish to survive then he is in a precarious situation. Without the tool to fish or the resources in the water, he will starve and die. The benefit of eating “for a lifetime” in the proverb only applies if the conditions never change, not a realistic possibility.

Our goal is to develop leaders who in turn can develop communities who can overcome challenges as they arise. So, if for some reason they proverbially lose their fishing rod or all the supply of fish disappear, they can recreate a pole so that they can continue to fish or decide to make a spear and hunt boars. It is not a sustainable solution if we have to return and “teach a man how to hunt” because the fish supply ran out or to provide a new pole because the original one broke. We are teaching our staff how to make a decision that benefits their livelihoods in the long run, meaning that they would continue to make the right choices on their own over time. This also means that maybe we are not teaching them to fish in the first place; perhaps, we start by boar hunting or vegetable gardening. The local leaders know which options suits the community best since they come from the community.

Our desire is to see this happening not only with our leaders and staff of Nuru Kenya, but to see this in the community. We want our farmers to be able to make decisions that are best for their families given a number of options presented to them. As we teach them the new techniques to farm maize and loan inputs through our Agriculture Program, we don’t want them to work with us only because the wazungu (white person) came and taught them something. Ideally, the farmer would be able to determine that opting into Nuru’s Agriculture Program is the best decision for her family because she can harvest more maize to harvest, eat and sell. She would see it not only as a big harvest for her family but also as a move towards self-sufficiency and therefore be motivated further to use the Nuru method of farming.

The Leadership Program aims to develop leaders who can make good decisions for the future of Nuru and raise people living in extreme poverty to make good decisions to lead their families and communities out of extreme poverty.

Thomas Hong

About Thomas Hong

Leadership Program Strategic Advisor — Thomas grew up in New York after moving from South Korea to the United States at a young age. He attended the University of Virginia graduating with a BA in Economics and a Master’s in Teaching. He recently received his MBA in International Organizations from the University of Geneva and completed a three-month internship at the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

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