Mission Issues

Thinking and re-thinking missionary issues

Helping the poor to help themselves

We’ve all heard that it is better to teach someone to fish than to merely give a person a fish to eat. I absolutely agree with the principle. But I’m not quite sure whether this is the final word about the principle. Our home-based caring group at Dwaleni had for some time now been speaking about the possibility to start raising and selling chickens. They had been able to obtain some building material and were planning to build a place where they could raise the chickens. One half of the building would be used to raise chickens to sell and the other half would be used to keep chickens which would lay eggs. Some of the chickens would be used in the orphan feeding project and the rest would be sold to get money through which the caregivers would then be supported. The idea is really good and fits in totally with the principle mentioned above.
I then discussed this with a friend of mine who owns a store where farm products are sold, including chicken feed. He had offered more than a year ago that, if the caregivers should want to farm with chickens, he would supply the food at cost. So I went to see him to hear whether his offer still stands. I was quite shocked when he told me that he himself had stopped farming with chickens. Chicken food had become so expensive that a small farmer cannot survive any longer by raising chickens. To make it worthwhile a farmer needed to keep at least 20,000 chickens or even more so that food could be supplied in bulk. In two or three minutes he convinced me that it was impossible to make a profit from chickens on a small scale.
As I listened to this, I thought about the principle of teaching people to fish instead of giving them fish to eat and I realised that it’s not as simple as that. Whoever thought out that saying, was living in different times than we are. A small farmer cannot, or can hardly, survive in the modern world where things have become so competitive. Someone mentioned to me during the week that the typical African only plants enough maize (corn, as it is known in the USA) to survive on for a year. But to me it makes sense, because it is nearly entirely impossible for a small farmer to plant maize, to sell it at current prices and then still make a profit from it. In 1985, when I arrived in Swaziland, small farmers were everywhere and products like cotton were being planted and sold and people could survive. Nowadays, when I drive through the same area I see no cotton at all. It is just not profitable to plant these products on a small scale anymore.
I still agree with the principle. But somehow I feel that the playing field isn’t fair for all. A small farmer – even fifty small farmers – cannot compete against one farmer with all the right tools which enables him to plant in time and to collect the crop in time. A small farmer with 100 chickens who has to buy chicken feed in bags cannot compete against a large farmer who has trucks of food delivered at his farm. A large farmer who loses fifty chickens hardly notices it. A small farmer will probably be bankrupt.
Another problem is the market. A large farmer can export his entire crop to the most profitable market. The small farmer has to sell his products amongst people equally poor as he is. The products are there but there isn’t money to buy it.
I absolutely agree that the people in Africa need to find alternative ways in which to earn money. But which fishing rod to use in the modern world remains an open question.

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Thursday, February 21, 2008 - Posted by | Culture, Dependency, Disparity, Giving, Home-based Caring, Mission, Poverty, Sustainability, Swaziland

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