Video: On fishing and development

This blog from Jens Sedemund, Executive Adviser at the OECD originally appeared in the Huffington Post

“GIVE a man a fish and you feed him for a day, TEACH a man to fish and you feed him for life.” This may well be the most famous proverb to capture the gist of development cooperation. While this beautifully intuitive message is hard to disagree with, its meaning has unfortunately too often been misused and turned on its head, as an argument against financial assistance. Some technical assistance -– the teaching part -– may be okay, but everything else is discredited.

It is a fact that in many countries, development assistance still remains the most significant source of external financing, and essential to ensure basic state functions and services. Arguing against continuing such support would essentially amount to a prescription for large-scale state failure at a cost to the international community of several orders of magnitude of their current development budgets.

The real meaning behind the fishing allegory is the need to overcome dependency so that developing countries, the poor, can prosper out of their own efforts. That also means that the solution to poverty is not just teaching how to fish, it is supporting the poor to develop the capacity to become good fishermen.

If the idea is to end dependency, what is the point of teaching how to fish if the teachers then don’t let the students do the fishing? The tendency in the past has been too often, for the teachers to cast the nets and take the catch themselves. The students may be taught, look on in amazement, and get to eat the catch, but are never really entrusted to perform themselves. How would they ever master the art of fishing?

That is behind the question of using, and thereby building, local institutions and capacity, rather than using donor systems. It may appear more reassuring, giving a false sense of control for donors to rely on their own mechanisms and processes. But they do so at the cost of undercutting their original raison d’être: helping countries develop the capacity that is essential for producing and sustaining development results.

And there is another catch: Who would the fisherman’s family look to for making sure food is on the table? If the donors assume this responsibility, governments in poor countries are neither looked to, nor empowered, to make sure their basic needs are being met. The upshot is to perpetuate dependency, and to undercut sound domestic accountability mechanisms.

Finally, being serious about supporting capacity means also looking at how, once acquired, it can be applied. Eventually, the newly trained fisherman will have to be able to pay the school for his children and afford visiting a doctor when someone gets sick. Selling fish becomes an essential part for ending the dependency that confines countries and people to poverty.

But if the fisherman is then told that they cannot sell their fish to those who helped him learn how to fish, the benefits of learning are rather limited. In the same vein, the positive impact of development co-operation is still all too often reversed by incoherence in other policy areas – at a massive cost to development, and as a waste of taxpayer resources in donor countries.

The good news is that the different development partners have not only an increasingly common understanding of these problems. They also have a new means for overcoming them. In December last year, over 160 countries, international organizations, civil society and private sector representatives agreed in Busan, South Korea, to a new Global Partnership on Effective Development Co-operation.

This has now been created. It builds on the principles of ownership of development priorities by developing countries, focus on results, inclusive development partnerships, and transparency and accountability to each other. Most importantly, while global in scope, its focus is on action on the ground at country level.

So, be clear that development cooperation is about the idea of supporting others to help themselves. But don’t stay at the pre-school level teaching, put this into practice. “Experientia est optima rerum magistra” or an ounce of practice is worth a pound of theory. Welcome the Global Partnership.