Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
Robert Frost, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
The old saw goes ‘give a man a fish and you have fed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you have fed him for life.’
The saw may help some hearts soar, but it makes mine sore. It pisses meoff . It pissed me off when it was the basis of an Oxfam advertising campaign back in 1996/7, and it pissed me off still, two decades on, when I saw it in a discussion of empowerment.
Simply this – the man may well have known how to fish all along. The problem might be that his fishing rod keeps getting stolen, or broken, or, worse, the lake is being over-fished by factory ships dragnetting and driftnetting and hoovering up every last scrap of protein and selling it to fat rich urbanites elsewhere. And so the focus on teaching a man to fish enables us to feel both virtuous and competent (we know how to fish) without ever addressing the power relationships from which we very probably benefit (we’re not the ones worried about not being able to eat in this story). And it is therefore our job to teach those to fish if they didn’t know how (for whatever reason), to help people sustain their ability to make a livelihood once they have the knowledge, but most of all ask the question – who has been fucking with the lake, and how do we stop them continuing to fuck with the lake ‘going forward’ as the bureaucrats and politicians like to say…
So, from now on, whenever someone uses that image, I will stick up my hand and politely ask two rude questions: so, in this analogy, who owns the lake? What is to stop them from strip-mining it?”