It’s better to teach someone to someone to fish, but if you’re just going to give someone fish, at least you shouldn’t poison the village lake

The Apparent Project Blog explains the serous unintended consequence of giving help in Haiti while ignoring the economic context in their post Peanut Butter and Shelley.

Those of us in the West desperately need to understand the culture, economy, and local situation when we want to move cross-culturally. We can provide wonderful blessings but can cause harm without intending to.

I’ve discussed this in other posts: Does humanitarian aid actually help and how do we know? along with Cross-cultural partnerships.

Back to the situation in Haiti.

Some churches in the US are trying to help the hungry in Haiti by shipping huge quantities of peanut butter. Sounds like a great way to help since it is a superb source of protein – as good as pork for nourishment.

What do you think happens to the local economy if peanut butter and pork are major products? It can seriously disrupt the economy.

From the blog – A pastor in the U.S.says:

“What we are hoping to do is send about 28,000 jars of peanut butter to Haiti. The children there just don’t have a good source of protein. Peanut butter is a wonderful source. Ounce for ounce, about the same protein as pork.”

The blog explains the problem:

I agree that many Haitians’ have a diet with less than sufficient protein and I’m glad that this Church cares enough to do something about it, but, in unfortunate irony, the well-meaning pastor named two of Haiti’s staple protein sources: peanuts and pork. Mamba (peanut butter) and Grillo (salted fried pork) are beloved Haitian foods, both coming from native sources and farmed here on Hispaniola since before Columbus made his first landing. What do you imagine 28,000 jars of peanut butter coming to this island and being given away might do to the local businesses of peanut farmers, mamba manufacturers, and retailers? Good intentions to save Haiti have already all but ended the long legacy of the Creole Pig‘s positive nutritional and economic impact, and now the kindhearted, peanut butter-wielding, generous faithful of Wisconsin are posing a benevolent threat to Haiti’s “pistache”.

The overall unintended consequences are further described:

Those of us who live in Haiti and frequent one of the hundreds of local markets or the scores of grocery stores here know that food scarcity in Haiti is simply not the issue. There is plenty of food in Haiti… if you have money. The food is not cheap and the produce is not always as cosmetically enhanced as what you may see in your American super market, but it’s here. All around. And it’s for sale. If you have an income. Oh… and 70-90% of the food is American. That’s a big part of why there are no jobs in Haiti. The unemployment rate hovers hauntingly around the same percentage as the imported food rate. As American imported goods, largely sent as food aid, have swept into the Haitian market, Haitian farmers could not compete with the low prices offered by U.S. farmed grains. The prices of American grains have been lowered dramatically by excessive production and government subsidies. … Our cheap food is not only making us fat, but it’s making the world poor and dependent.

So the massive aid has seriously undercut the competitiveness of local farmers and retailers,  driving up unemployment as a result.  Not a good way to teach someone to fish. 

All those good intentions and deep, driving desires to ease suffering didn’t quite accomplish the goal. It’s not for lack of concern or lack of effort or lack of love.  The complications arise from lack of awareness of the local situation, which produced unintended consequences.

Before you do something cross-culturally, do some serious research.  Figure out if there are some unintended consequences that follow in the wake of your efforts.  Check with people or agencies on the ground who know the local situation.

Hat tip: Tim Murphy on twitter.

2 Responses to It’s better to teach someone to someone to fish, but if you’re just going to give someone fish, at least you shouldn’t poison the village lake

  1. […] is something I’ve mentioned here, here, and here.  He provides several examples in the interview how development aid actually harms […]

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