Sometimes you *should* give fish
General philanthropic principles can't replace the hard work of understanding a specific context
The best way to serve your neighbor isn’t just to give them stuff. After all, if you give them a fish they’ll eat for a day, but if you teach them to fish, they’ll eat for a lifetime!1
(Unless your neighbor is a young, low-income Rwandan adult, in which case evidence suggests that handing them cash today will do more to help them find future employment than a highly-regarded job training program2.)
If you really want people to eat, you should introduce their farmers to modern Western agricultural techniques so you can boost both the farmers’ income and feed their communities.
(Unless your Western “experts in African agriculture” perfected those techniques in Chad and they’re incompatible with both the terrain and the culture in rural Lesotho, in which case you might spend a lot of money to make your clients’ lives a bit worse3.)
And of course the most important lesson is that establishing sustainable markets will do much more good in the long run than just providing services for free.
(Unless we’re talking about malaria nets, in which case the best studies have shown markets aren’t sustainable even with heavy subsidies and free distributions have been doing an unbelievably good job4.)
But the lesson of this isn’t that markets are bad, or that handouts are always the best answer, or that we should ignore modern science. I’ve also heard plenty of truisms in the exact opposite direction, and if anything they fare worse:
The best way to serve your neighbor is to avoid paternalism: give them what they ask for and let them make their own choices.
(Unless you’re in a region with high child mortality from vaccine-preventable diseases, in which case you can save many, many lives by making cash gifts conditional on newborns getting vaccinated5)
Industrial farming techniques work well in the American and European environments they were developed for, but they’re no match for traditional knowledge in African and Asian contexts.
(Except in 1960s India, where importing a new variety (“IR8”) of rice more than doubled production and probably prevented a famine.6)
Free markets will never bring people out of poverty.
(Except in China, where Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms helped at least 600 million people move out of poverty in the most successful poverty alleviation program of all time7.)
The lesson, to the extent that there is one, is that poverty alleviation and “doing good” aren’t really scientific endeavors in the way I wanted them to be. There is no “best type of program” to help everybody struggling with poverty or food insecurity or repression because this sort of problem is deeply contextual: American redlining and Latin American civil wars both kicked people out of their homes and created lasting economic disenfranchisement, but it would be ridiculous to expect one simple trick to apply the same way to re-empower both sets of people.
Should you raise money to let you serve your neighbors for free, or charge a small fee to get some sort of buy-in and possibly make yourself more sustainable? Should you partner with a local (potentially corrupt) government, or should you try to do your own thing? Should you try to help people directly or to change systems?
The only honest answer to any of these questions is “it depends.” Each possibility has its plusses and its minuses, and it’s not too hard to come up with real-life situations where any particular side would be better
My worry is that when we set questions like this up as “debates” with people on “each side” we’re missing the question that actually matters, which is when and in what sort of situation each might be better — for example, charging clients small service-supporting fees seem to be more effective (for a variety of reasons) in the American context than when serving the global poor, and nice tight “fees are good” or “fees are bad” slogans elide this sort of distinction.
And that’s too bad, because the slogans we started the post with really can be useful! If you need to decide between two options, you need to know the pros and cons of each, and thinking about markets and paternalism and fish is helpful to make sure you’ve captured all the information.
But the last step — actually seeing what each of these looks like in your context and weighing them against each other — is a whole lot of work, and too often I’ve seen (and been guilty of ) the slogans used as easy answers to avoid really struggling with the difficult questions.
Free markets, for example, aren’t universally good or universally bad. Learning the benefits and drawbacks of them through economic theory (e.g. the Coase theorem or recent work on monopsony) can tell you what to look for, but at some point you have to actually do the work of understanding your context: do buyers and sellers generally have full information? Do people have the time and mental energy to properly negotiate? Is the state stable and powerful enough to properly enforce contracts? Are your clients in any way being coerced? You cannot fully answer these questions by learning more theories or gaining more “expertise” — you have to, at some level, actually go out and check.
Similarly, the line about fishing doesn’t apply universally, but it contains useful questions to ask yourself: what happens to the people you’re serving when you stop? Does your service help them to take control over their own lives, or does it make them depend on you in a way that gives you power over them? Are you letting them take an active part in their community, or are you drawing sharp lines between “those who serve” and “those who are served?” Again, you can’t answer these questions without actually talking to the people you’re working with and understanding the way they’re experiencing your actions (or, even better, giving away some of your decision-making power.)
The possibility of paternalism is similarly important-but-blurry. I helped with a homeless ministry for long enough to hear plenty of stories of well-meaning programs undermining themselves by treating the people they meant to serve as children unable to make their own decisions. (Seriously, “we’ll give you a sandwich if you listen to an hourlong sermon” is not the magnanimous display of love you think it is.)
But sometimes people do make bad decisions (e.g. not vaccinating your baby from polio). This isn’t necessarily because they’re dumb or bad or childish or anything like that, but because people respond to incentives and sometimes incentives go the wrong way. If you could save a lot of babies by offering $5 to parents who vaccinate their children, I think it would be ridiculous not to take advantage of this.
Which is more important — the good you do by changing incentives, or the risk of paternalism? The boring, unsexy answer is that it depends and you have to figure it out for your specific intervention for the specific people you’re serving. I don’t know a way to answer this question that doesn’t involve a lot of talking to people and listening — not just “we want you to know we’re listening” but “we are sincerely willing to change when you identify problems in our approach”.
The point of all this is, I guess, the dusty old discipline of humility. If you take the lessons of philanthropy as things that let you railroad any your critics because you’re certain you know best, you probably aren’t going to do a whole lot of good.
On the other hand, if you take them as pointers to help you and your teammates identify possible problems and address them properly as they come up, they can be a whole lot of help.
But only if you’re willing to.
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See “Using Household Grants to Benchmark the Cost Effectiveness of a USAID Workforce Readiness Program” by McIntosh and Zeitlin.
See chapter eight of Ferguson’s The Anti-Politics Machine. If you don’t want to read the book, I wrote a summary of it here.
See here for an example study, or chapter 3 of Duflo and Banerjee’s Poor Economics for a fuller discussion.
See GiveWell’s review of the evidence here. Their cost-effectiveness model currently lists these conditional transfers as approximately 10x as effective as cash alone.