Teaching people how to catch a fish: A problem deeper than that?

Teaching people how to catch a fish: A problem deeper than that?

I kept hearing the same famous Chinese proverb repeated several times while I was conducting interviews for my doctoral dissertation project on social assistance plans in my home country, Turkey: You should not give people fish; you should teach them how to catch a fish. This reflected the prejudices embedded in our society about destitute populations, a vision which also reflected the association of basic social citizenship rights with employment. Most of my interviewees believed that poor people were dependent on social plans, were lazy and did not want to work.

Another striking prejudice that I observed about poor people had to do with the consequences of a specific social assistance program, a conditional cash transfer program which allocates money to poor mothers on the condition that they send their children to school and bring them to clinics for their health checks.

Some of my interviewees believed that women kept having more and more babies just to receive this social assistance program. The possibility that this program could lead to more pregnancies was such a grave concern that it was among one of the issues investigated as part of the evaluation of the program carried out by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in 2006. One of my interviewees, who was part of the research team, told me that beneficiary mothers laughed at the researchers when they asked them whether the program acts as an incentive for them to have more babies.

You would think that the program distributes a remarkable amount of money per child so that it would increase the incentives to become pregnant, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. As of now, the highest amount that a mother receives from this program (for a girl who is continuing secondary education) is 55 Turkish Liras. A quotation taken directly from the Qualitative Assessment Report of the Conditional Cash Transfer program nicely depicts the situation: “They think that people would make babies to get money, as if they were giving billions.”

I observed similar manifestations of these prejudices directed against lower segments of society in Buenos Aires. The Spanish version of this well-known Chinese proverb was the way especially middle and high-income people in Buenos Aires started their conversations with me when I asked questions about social plans: “Es mejor enseñar a pescar que dar un pescado.” You need to work to have a life with dignity, most of them thought, adding that these social plans end up leading to nothing but laziness (vagancia), the sources of which were paid from their own taxes.

It was also a surprise to me to observe the existence of the same rhetoric with respect to the issue of pregnancy. Women would keep having babies and they would get their Asignación, some believed. While the amount distributed per child as part of the Universal Child Allowance for Social Protection in Argentina (Asignación Universal por Hijo para Protección Social) is greater than that distributed in Turkey (460 pesos, around $60 at the unofficial dollar rate), it would still be a huge mistake to blame poor people for continuing to have babies just to receive an extra Asignación for each baby.

In my opinion, the above-mentioned predominant view toward poor populations is tremendously short-sighted. This perspective not only impedes us from discerning the root causes of poverty, but also prevents us from developing fruitful public policy suggestions that are capable of tackling poverty in a systematic manner in developing countries. After all, the existing hurdles that destitute people face cannot be explained simply because they are lazy but because of the precarious working conditions in developing countries that do not allow them to pursue a dignified life. We should also keep in mind the fact that there is a concept of the working poor. In most cases, families cannot escape poverty even if they are working.

Last but not least, rather than developing conspiracy theories suggesting that these social assistance programs are going to increase pregnancy rates among the worse-off populations, we should improve the conditions of social assistance programs, especially regular cash transfers addressing children in order to ameliorate the disadvantages they encounter just because they were born into needy families.

Mine Tafolar is a PhD candidate at the Government Department at the University of Texas, Austin, that specializes in comparative politics and international relations.