Why “Empowerment” is not really better than “Charity”

“Give a man a fish to feed him for the day” is bad advice, but not for the reasons we like to believe.

In the world of nonprofit development initiatives, especially in the international scene, charity has been slammed into the ground in recent years.  Critics of child sponsorship programs, food distribution projects, and all kinds of other charity initiatives have rightly accused NGOs near and far of paternalism, breeding dependency culture, and failing to consider the long-term outcome.  Consequently, the cliche “Giving a man a fish feeds him only for a day, but teaching him to fish feeds him for a lifetime” has been the metaphor informing a shift in modern development approaches which many believe has been quantifiably more helpful.  Empowering someone to do something himself indeed seems better than doing it for him.

The outcome seems obvious because the metaphor implies something simple: why wouldn’t the man want to have food for the rest of his life, rather than one day?  Once he has knowledge, he can use it to better himself and others.

But we have traveled down the long path of this metaphor, only to discover a few things wrong with the big picture: our waters have been overfished (literally and metaphorically), and it turns out the man knew how to fish all along.  So why did we teach him to fish in the first place?  There are a few answers to this question:

1) Perhaps we (especially expats from first world nations living in the two-thirds world) want to subconsciously reinforce our position in the world as “givers,” as those who possess (whether it be food, money, knowledge, or spiritual leadership) and have the ability to bestow that possession upon others.  We don’t feel comfortable calling this “offensive privilege,” so we label it something self-righteous like a “calling,” “passion,” or “talent.”

2) Perhaps the man did not need more fish. Maybe there was a good reason he wasn’t fishing that day we decided to “help” him with his “neediness.”

3) We are afraid to go upriver and question why the waters are not conducive to fishing.  We might find ourselves at the source of the problem.

Empowerment and Charity are really not different things, in common practice.  Empowerment is synonymous these days with all kinds of programs: Bible studies, savings and loans projects, schooling, art projects, football trainings, even seminars on how to repair vehicles.  Though not inherently bad, these programs are also not inherently helpful.  Much like a field worker once gave a recipient the item he had (fish, for example) to the person who did not have it, he is now sitting in a classroom giving the knowledge he has (how to do fishing) to the same person who lacks that knowledge.  Maybe it’s a step in the right direction, but it’s certainly not a model that can continue to exist without a degree of dehumanization and paternalism infused in the process.

To empower implies giving power to one who is powerless, a fundamentally dehumanizing concept, because everybody has power (whether or not it has been fully discovered).  Isn’t it ironic that empowerment projects in the world of development rarely include discussions on the nature of power or the systems that create an inequality of power?  Development workers should shift toward a less dichotomous view of teacher-student / giver-recipient / powerful-powerless unless we want “empowerment” to become the new “charity.”  Rather than aiming to “empower,” we should “participate in the facilitation of the process of mutual humanization.” Anyone have a more concise way to say that?

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