“Give a man a fish and feed him for a day, teach him to fish and feed him for a lifetime”. For a long time, these words have been echoed and promoted by countless leaders and NGOs throughout Africa. Despite this, the continent is more in debt and more dependent on external aid than ever before, and words like "poverty", "disease" and "food insecurity" are more often than not associated with Africa. Why then does it seem like Africa has not “learnt to fish”?
For a relatively long time now African countries have been involved in all the manner of schemes, initiatives and programmes aimed at wresting the continent from its unending cycle of poverty and scarcity. These projects, which are development oriented, are geared at empowering Africans to be more self-reliant. The policies appear well meaning on paper and perfect on the drawing board but all too often fall short of the desired results. Yes pockets of improvement can be seen littered across the continent but there is no denying the fact that generally speaking the rich are getting richer and hardly anything has changed for the poor.
The shortcomings seem to lie in the lack of skills to determine when it is necessary to “give a man a fish” and when it is imperative to “teach him to fish”. In times of crisis such as during droughts or floods, when the poor people are in dire distress and require emergency food intervention then it is appropriate that they are given the fish. However, such interventions are short-term and should be proceeded by medium and long-term interventions that will give the affected people resilience in case of future shocks and stresses. Many Africans have been so used to getting handouts from the government such that whenever there is a crisis, they wait for the government’s intervention. Resources which are spent on “giving people fish” could be freed up for more sustainable development projects.
The governments too have got this dependency syndrome, but in a greater scale. For some governments, a substantial portion of their national budgets is financed by donor funds. This situation is neither acceptable nor sustainable, considering the high rates of corruption. Africa should not behave like the sea gull that follows the trawler hoping the fish will be thrown into the sea. It is high time Africa learns how to fish for herself.
In many ways, the African leaders are teaching their people how to fish. There have been successful projects that have made a difference in the lives of many poor people. However, there are many cases whereby people have been taught to fish for the big fishes in the big ocean without being taught how to catch the little fish in rivers and dams that they are familiar with. Many projects have been inappropriate to the livelihoods of the people they are targeting. For example, some leaders have been talking about the modernisation of agriculture through tractors yet the majority of the farmers they are targeting do not have hand-held hoes and/or own less than a hectare of land. The governments often assume that what is successful in one country or region will automatically be a runaway success in another hence providing the right answers to the wrong question.
Who or what is to blame for Africa’s backwardness? I believe that a significant part of the explanation lies with Africans’ chronic lack of self-confidence. We are not confident in Africa as a continent. We are not confident in ourselves, our people, and our countries. We have all the resources and tools necessary for economic growth but we seem to lack the confidence that they will work. Even if development friendly policies are developed, they are not enforced because they lack the support from the general public, who expect to be spoon-fed. Furthermore we cannot keep blaming colonialism or apartheid because they are long gone. Although the current generation of Africans has been raised in independent countries, we unfortunately still behave like we are not independent. The finger remains firmly pointed at us, the people of Africa and it is about time we pulled the veil of dependence from over our eyes. Let us learn how to fish sustainably, and if we cannot fish then maybe we can try something that works for us.