I believe that it is without question that rich people have an obligation to share what they have with those who are not as well off as them. The haves should be generous towards the have-nots. This is as true of nations as it is of individuals.
This doesn’t mean that all forms of generosity are wise, helpful or appropriate.
“Give a person a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”. So runs a popular traditional adage about economic development.
But poor fishing communities don’t need us to teach them how to fish. They may have much to teach us about more sustainable fishing practices. We are not the ones denuding their lakes and oceans, or polluting them with our refuse. And what if they are unable to fish, not because they lack the skills, but because the fishing rights to their rivers and lakes have been sold by their governments to foreign corporations and governments as a way of servicing the nation’s external debt?
This quote comes from a very thoughtful blog post by Vinoth Ramachandra which goes on to question one of the most popular forms of helping the developing world: child sponsorship.
The individualistic approach to poverty is most evident in organizations that promote child sponsorship programs. Whenever I visit friends in the US or Europe I often notice pictures of African or Asian children pasted on their fridge doors. They pray for these children, whom they have never met but know by name, and support them monthly through a non-governmental organization. I am impressed by their concern for children in the Two-Thirds World. (Rarely, however, do I see pictures of impoverished children from their own cities!). At the same time I share my reservations with them and also try to give them a bigger picture of what hinders the development of poor communities.
Whether you agree or disagree with Ramachandra, he is doing us a great service by asking hard questions about the way we go about our ‘generosity’. It isn’t comfortable, but it is vital that we think through issues like this.
Two years ago, in a post called Is Aid Defensible?, I wrote:
That earlier post linked to a number of good articles and books if you want to explore this issue further.