Teach a man to fish

NOTE: Given the strange success of Rick Warren’s “The purpose-driven life”, this has unfairly become one of the most-visited posts of my blog – because of its title. When I wrote this article, I had never even heard of that book or its famous catchphrase, which is a Chinese proverb and NOT a Bible verse.

Anyway, this bothers me, because the article below does not really represent the focus of The Upturned Microscope. I therefore invite you to take a look at my more recent posts.

The article below is just my opinion about the way(s) we provide aid for Africa. It will not help you in any way to find the purpose in your life. For that, I strongly recommend another book called The Bible.

Let’s drop the fads and get with the Word.

spesaeterna — 10 July, 2008

At church on Sunday we watched a video (yes, they do that in churches) about a village somewhere in South Africa and the work some charity is doing there. The hostess was a chirpy celebrity whose name I can’t remember; anyway, she claimed to have been working there for a year, which was hard to believe seeing how pasty she was. Cue shots of her posing with confused locals, rictus-smiling like a scull for the flashes. At least she’s getting something out of it.

The charity was one of the hundreds that provide aid to Africa, and it included the traditional “sad face” close-ups, “hard labour” cuts and, of course, a couple of “tear-wrenching” interviews. One interview that I found particularly fascinating was with two brothers, one of which told of his family loss and how he now has to provide for everyone. What was so interesting about it? When the chirpy (although toned-down to add to the gravity of the interview) celeb asked “how would blah-blah charity help you?”, the mumbling, barely audible, subtitles-needing, illiterate man replied, “If blah-blah charity could provide me with some assistance, then it would lighten the burden of my life.” Pure poetry. No, not at all rehearsed. I wonder if she even gave him some acting lessons (“If you wanna eat, learn your lines. And put some feeling into it”).

Cheesy video (and what it says about that church) aside, it got me thinking. Not about pretentious celebrity pitches like this that manipulate angst-ridden teenagers with a desperate need to fix something in the world while they ruin the rest of it. No, it got me thinking about Africa and the tragedy it’s become.

Now, I know that in the wicked, corpulent West we are used to feel bad about the Black Continent: Slavery, Apartheid, Rwanda, Bob Geldof – we haven’t exactly helped. When I was a kid and I didn’t eat my food (rare, but it did happen), my parents would start with the “The children in Ethiopia are starving” spiel (’cause, you know, if I braved my okras and artichokes, they’d be fed). But there comes a time in everyone’s life when they just have to look at the facts and ask some questions themselves (it’s called growing up). And my question is: Are we actually helping Africa?

It doesn’t matter, we say. We still have to GIVE. Country leaders cower under the enormous pressure of hippy – sorry, public opinion. They need to look like good, caring father-figures, so they hand out big fat cheques and pompous promises to the point of being downright patronising. But it makes one wonder (and if not, it should) about whether or not these handouts are actually helping the country.

I’ve come across Kim du Toit’s infamous famous essay “Let Africa sink”. The problem is that his solution (“a high wall around the whole continent, all the guns and bombs in the world for everyone inside, and at the end, the last one alive should do us all a favor and kill himself”) is downright stupid. As a Christian, I respect all human life as a gift from God. But if you take the time to read the essay, you’ll see that not only Mr du Toit has actually grown up in Africa, but also that he has several insider’s points as to why the way we’re “helping” now is actually damaging Africa:

1. Charity is no answer. Money simply gets appropriated by the first, or second, or third person to touch it (17 countries saw a decline in real per capita GNP between 1970 and 1999, despite receiving well over $100 billion in World Bank assistance).

2. Food isn’t distributed. This happens either because there is no transportation infrastructure (bad), or the local leader deliberately withholds the supplies to starve people into submission (worse).

3. Material is broken, stolen or sold off for a fraction of its worth. The result of decades of “foreign aid” has resulted in a continental infrastructure which, if one excludes South Africa, couldn’t support Pittsburgh.”

Now, although his final solution is downright redneck US, it makes you think, doesn’t it? Meanwhile, others add:

“If we keep helping, by 2050 there will be 70 million Africans dying every year and the world will be blaming us for not doing enough. But the more we help, the more Africans there will be.

Africans can now buy milk, sugar and wheat cheaper from the USA than to produce it locally so they don’t. Or to be more accurate, they can’t. Who would buy milk from Mugamba for 50 cents a quart when they can get it for half the price from America, even with shipping thrown in? How will local growers ever become big enough to feed their own population when Africa is buying food instead of growing it?”

It’s enough to keep you from dipping into your wallet and feeling guilty for not giving enough. Personally, it’s a thought that’s been bothering me since last year, when the whole Africa Aid thing started and the UK jumped straight on the bandwagon. Not to sound cynical, but this country is notorious for diving head-first into shortsighted solutions, whether it’s politics, business or even education and social issues. It’s been doing it for centuries – though it’s not alone (Greece, for example, is notorious for diving head-first into solutions, shortsighted or otherwise).

To close, I think giving handouts to Africa should stop altogether, because they have created a baby-dependent country with little or no capacity to stand on its own two feet. I’m not saying stop the aid, but I am saying redirect it. Put it under close and public scrutiny (UNICEF beware) and invest ALL of it into actually developing the country, not just feeding it. And set a budget, for goodness sake – you put a kid in a candy shop and try to teach it to bake, it’ll never learn because it won’t see the need. Like they say over here in the evil fat West, give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day; teach him to fish and he’ll eat for the rest of his life. Or sell you the fish at a better price. But let’s not get into that.

So when Jesus heard these things, He said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” – Luke 18:22

Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world. – James 1:27

And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing. – 1 Cor. 13:3

And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.” – Rev. 21:3-4

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