The wrong way to offer help
category: Newspaper Articles

The wrong way to offer help

by Emily Richardson Fanjoy
Guest Columnist

In my last article I summarized the history of Peace Corps, mentioning briefly our approach to sustainable development through capacity building. This month and next, I would like to talk about two kinds of development, paternalism and sustainability, and what falls in between.

I could go into a long-winded definition of the two approaches, but I think it’s best to keep the breakdown simple. Here’s a parable to illustrate: “Give a man a fish, he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime.”

To “give a man a fish” is paternalism. This is a power situation in which a person with means shows benevolence by giving a less fortunate person something for free. The giving of the fish, an act of good will, is finite. The next day the poor man will need more fish, but will someone be willing to give him another?

To “teach a man to fish” is sustainable. This scenario is also an act of benevolence, but the outcome, teaching the man to fish, is infinite. The man can catch fish to eat until he is full, and do it again tomorrow. He is empowered to help himself. Paternalism creates helplessness, but sustainability teaches empowerment.

However, paternalism is still a frequently used method of aid for many reasons. If we have the extra resources, giving is fast and easy, and makes us feel good. That all sounds fairly benign, right?

Let me tell you a story. There once was a European aid organization called Intervida that had millions of euros at its disposal. It came to Guatemala and sent its workers into homes to build improved wood-burning stoves and family latrines. The idea was that if the villagers possessed these technologies, their standard of living would automatically improve. There was a flurry of activity, building and painting and giving, and then the workers disappeared.

A few years later, two of our Peace Corps volunteer friends were sent to live in this town now thoroughly painted with the ubiquitous blue and yellow Intervida logo. They came to teach home preventive health, like my husband and I, and met with local committees and groups to explain their project of health education. But at the end of every session, someone would inevitably ask, “OK, but what kind of projects are you going to give us?”

Forget education. The locals wanted more latrines, more stoves, something concrete from these foreigners who claimed to want to help their town. Incredibly, our friends found during home visits that many villagers asking for latrines and stoves already had both. In the worst cases, they were using latrines to store farming tools or house chickens. When they found the stove inconvenient to use, they built fires on the kitchen floor next to the stove, using the stove as a table or counter.

Most rural Guatemalan adults have completed a few years of elementary education at most, and have never been taught preventive health. Without a basic health education, they don’t make the connection between the technologies they were given and improved family health. Money, materials, and time were all extravagantly wasted. Finally, the town rejected the health education project that could have benefited them. Our friends were reassigned to a new town that hadn’t been damaged by bad development.

Unfortunately, the simple act of giving things to those in need isn’t always as helpful as it sounds. Intervida’s paternalistic approach upheld erroneous ideas about power relationships, inherent values and a common education base. The organization was so blinded by the idea of developing a town in need, it didn’t understand the real needs of those it was trying to help.

Guatemalans are some of the hardest working people I’ve ever met, and are quite capable of constructing these simple projects themselves if they’re shown how to do it. It’s also reasonable and often within their means to contribute some materials to projects in their homes. Their strengths were ignored by Intervida, and now the townspeople lack an appreciation for their own abilities. Instead, the community was taught that its residents are “poor” and entitled to sit around, waiting for free gifts. Because they didn’t contribute money, materials or labor to obtain their latrines and stoves, they didn’t understand or value the projects.

There are people in the world who are in desperate need of development aid, and there are generous people who want to help them. Therefore it strikes me as a kind of tragedy when such effort and resources meant to help people are mishandled in a way that actually harms them. It really isn’t development at all; it’s a town full of fishbones and hungry people, none of whom know how to fish for themselves.

Fortunately it’s not as hopeless as it sounds; next month, I’ll talk about fishing lessons.

Emily Richardson Fanjoy is a 2002 graduate of Logansport High School and a Peace Corps volunteer serving in Guatemala. Her views do not necessarily represent those of the Peace Corps.

Published: March 28, 2009 08:06 pm in the Logansport Pharos-Tribune

Posted by: emily