Thursday, September 16, 2010

Neither of Either

Teach a man to fish rather than give him fish. That's the kind of principle I use regularly when I drive up to a red traffic light and wave away the beggar that rocks up to my window with his grubby hands and filthy attire. The light turns green, I engage the accelerator and pull away. I do neither of either.

I want to look briefly today at a legitimate concern raised at conservatives, of which I am one. It seems that every time some kind of crisis occurs in the world, small or large, the liberals want to drive in some new legislation, some new safety by-law or some new disaster relief fund. Whenever a new flood occurs in Bangladesh, there are massive cries for emergency funds, without ever questioning why the Bangladeshis seem to never learn from their experiences. The conservative counter to the constant band-aid approach of the liberals is to use catch-phrases like the one I alluded to earlier.

The question is: do the conservatives really stick to their suggestion of teaching a man to fish instead of giving him fish? Or do they simply do neither of either? As an example, instead of dishing out millions in aid to Bangladeshi flood victims, is there a group of strategic thinkers drawing up plans to avert future flood disasters, and then presenting these in an aggressive "sort it out now" fashion to the Bangladeshi authorities? Or do the detractors simply carry on living their comfortable Western lifestyles, safe in the knowledge that their cute catch-phrase alleviated them of responsibility?

Let's take another look at the culture of education. In Western society, for example, it is considered standard duty for parents to take responsibility of their children up to about 18 years of age. When a child wanders into the road and gets hit by a car, it's not the child who is blamed, but the parent. The child grows up to follow the example set by the parents, and in turn takes care of their offspring. There's a cycle that continues here.

Now you might argue that the nurturing behaviour of a parent is purely instinctual and received genetically at birth. I'm not convinced. Either way, why am I bringing this up? Well, by the same logical deduction, you might want to reason that the Bangladeshis should genetically have been born to avert the consequences of their future disasters. If they keep dying from the same floods and don't learn from their experiences, whose fault is it? It's a very interesting point. Let me ask the harsh question because it has to be asked: are they stupid?

Perhaps some roleplayers in the Bangladeshi administration are stupid. There are enough stupid administrators in Western bureaucracies not to discount an equivalent in Bangladesh, but there are more issues here. For one, spiritual bondage, such as the spirit of gaya that teaches reverence for a mother earth, instead of the dominion which God gave as a specific instruction to Adam and Eve. Look for example at the Dutch approach to dealing with low-lying land - that's taking dominion of the land. Secondly, I pull back to my earlier point that there is a cycle of education that needs to start turning in a society. At some stage, parents take on a culture of problem solving, and children adopt that culture and perpetrate it themselves.

When does that cycle kick off? In my mind many of the disaster recovery programs don't help in this regard, because they seem to prevent the benefactors from being forced to review their situation. Why bother to redress your situation when help from the West is on its way? Now I'm not suggesting that we never help, but as the West we need to recognise when we're helping and when we're keeping the needy locked in a cycle. I remember social workers instructing Cape Town residents not to give money to the beggars on the streets, because you keep them trapped. It's true - desparation is so often the first step towards the cure.

While you administer sufficient help, there needs to be a long-term focus on the bigger problem, and more than that, a culture of medium and long term problem solving. There is a cycle of education, and it is taught as much as inherited.

But are we doing that? If we have been given knowledge and problem-solving knowledge by our parents and our teachers, do we pass it on? Do we look at the problems, use cute catch-phrases and then get back to the golf course or the pub? Do we acknowledge that one solution is better than the other, but then still do neither of either?

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