“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?

Libraries groan under the weight of academic theses and books analyzing poverty and theorizing about development. They have provided employment and financial security to economists. They have done precious little for the world’s poor.

The biggest single obstacle to ending poverty is not the lack of economic knowledge but the lack of political will. Politicians who truly care for the poor will somehow find pragmatic solutions rather than being bound by ideologies of the right or the left.

One doesn’t have to be a high-paid consultant or “poverty expert” to know that, for instance, corruption robs the poor; that social class is the principal determinant of school performance; that nutrition, healthcare and education are more vital for a nation’s security and well-being than missile systems, national airlines and superhighways.

Yet, the rich states continue to sell arms to poor nations and invest in projects that benefit their businesses more than the poor.

Kofi Annan recently stated that capital flight from Africa to banks in the West (including tax havens that are British and American protectorates) amounts to three times what is given as official development aid.

The individualistic approach to poverty is most evident in organizations that promote child sponsorship programs.

Whenever I visit friends in the U.S. or Europe, I often notice pictures of African or Asian children pasted on their refrigerator doors. They pray for these children, whom they have never met but know by name, and support them monthly through a nongovernmental 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.

No doubt child sponsorship is a near-perfect marketing strategy for raising funds. That is why it persists despite repeated concerns expressed by local people.

If the money raised does go to support a specific child, then there is at least a financial integrity about the program. But it raises some difficult questions.

Who gets chosen and why? What about the children in the village or slum community who are left out?

Since the cost of living varies enormously, how does a child-sponsoring organization based in the U.S. determine that (say) $30 per month will meet the needs of a child in South Sudan, the Philippines or Bolivia?

Are local economists and educationists consulted in the process? Never, in my experience.

Quite simply, someone or some group in the donor nation is employed to work out how much an average donor is willing to donate each month and this suddenly becomes what sponsorship costs! It has little to do with real costs on the ground.

It’s also a very expensive process to manage, which means a large fraction of the money raised is swallowed up in the bureaucracy of the organization.

Many child sponsorship programs have long moved away from real child sponsorship, and the photos and stories of children boil down to a means of hooking people into funding community development projects in which the children in the photos are among the beneficiaries.

At a local development level this makes far more sense. At the fundraising level, I think it does raise issues of integrity. Are the donors informed that this is how their funds are being used?

Whatever the style of sponsorship, the process also inevitably exaggerates the importance of the donor over that of the local people providing the care and training on the ground.

The biggest and best-known of the child sponsorship organizations promises its donors – largely drawn from conservative, evangelical American churches – that they will “present every child with an opportunity to become responsible and fulfilled Christian adults.”

For those of us living in societies largely hostile to Christian faith, and where churches working with the poor are often accused of using financial help as an incentive to “conversion,” such promises send shivers up our spines.

Are parents and guardians consulted? Or does the promise mean that only orphans are helped, and that parents who oppose their children being taught Bible stories will be sidelined? This, too, raises ethical concerns.

Moreover, when a sponsor asks on the organization’s website questions such as “Should I visit my sponsored child?” it is other sponsors who reply, not local people on the ground.

There is no shortage of Christians in poor nations who have learned the skills necessary to court donors from rich nations. They know what is the “flavor of the month” where giving by evangelical Americans or Singaporeans is concerned.

That foreign donors need to be educated does not seem to register on their thinking.

Vinoth Ramachandra is secretary for dialogue and social engagement for the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students. He lives in Sri Lanka. A version of this column first appeared on his blog and is used with permission.

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