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Teach a Village to Fish

What if we were to take the popular adage “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime” and modify it slightly. Let’s make it:

Give a village fish, and you feed its people for a day. Teach its people to fish, and you feed them forever

On one hand, the change doesn’t disturb the central message. Whether it is the man or village, over the long term, they are better off being taught to fend for themselves. On the other hand, it is easy to see that this small change complicates matters considerably. 

Moving from helping a single person to helping a group of people raises new and difficult questions. If, for example, the quantity of fish you can give is limited, on what basis will it be divided? Should every adult and child get the same portion? And how will the fish be distributed to ensure each person receives their allowance? Alternatively, if you can’t teach the whole village to fish, who should be eligible for training? Will learners be expected to use their newly acquired skills in ways that benefit the village?

Suddenly there are questions about equity, as well as power, politics, and economics. And sustainability now matters. The solo person, as if marooned on a deserted island, doesn’t need to worry about other people and whether they are hungry. If part of a village, she has future generations to worry about. How will the village transfer the knowledge across generations and ensure the survival of the fishery?

Our village version is closer to reality than the solo one. Most people live in groups. They live in villages—towns, cities, communities, societies, and economies—with existing customs, traditions, and cultures and established social, political, and economic systems. The contexts can vary significantly and that can make assisting people complicated. We’ve seen how this plays out in the space of international development. 

In The Great Escape, Sir Angus Deaton points to a central dilemma with foreign aid, “When the ‘conditions for development’ are present, aid is not required. When the local conditions are hostile to development, aid is not useful, and it will often do harm if it perpetuates those conditions.” Without proper institutions for legal protection, enforcement of contracts, access to clean water for sanitation, managing communicable diseases, and the like, aid will seldom reach the people intended to be helped. According to Deaton, “we often have such a poor understanding of what they need or want, or of how their societies work, that our clumsy attempts to help on our terms do more harm than good.” 

Moreover, technical solutions, including “teaching villagers to fish,” are also harder to get right for similar reasons and others. Techniques that work in one village often do not work in others. Foreign-designed training programs may perpetuate existing inequalities. When local problems are viewed as technical, we are more likely to ignore the larger (institutional or systemic) reasons why hunger continues to be an issue. 

So where does that leave those of us who care about reducing poverty, improving health, and protecting the environment? For some people, they believe we won’t succeed in our fight against poverty unless we stop trying to help completely. For others, we must continue to learn and get better at technical solutions to poverty and health problems. Regardless, to me it is clear we must focus on education, enabling and empowering people where they live. By doing so, we help people to develop and discover their own ways forward—and to build more effective organizations and institutions. 
Networks like GBSN can play a special role. By working together, we can build education capacity faster. We can exchange information about what works and doesn’t work in different contexts. Technology helps. It reduces the friction, enabling us to quickly share innovations in business and in business education across the network. Through global networks, discoveries made anywhere can move swiftly across the planet, especially to places where they can be of greatest value. The key for networks is that these innovations are pulled in by local institutions in developing countries rather than pushed out to them. As the great development economist, Jagdish Bhagwati, argued, “it is hard to think of substantial increases in aid being spent effectively in Africa. But it is not so hard to think of more aid being spent productively elsewhere for Africa.”

Dan LeClair, CEO

Dan LeClair was named CEO of the Global Business School Network (GBSN) in February of 2019. Prior to GBSN, Dan was an Executive Vice President at AACSB International, an association and accrediting organization that serves some 1,600 business schools in more than 100 countries. His experience at AACSB includes two and half years as Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer, seven years as Chief Operating Officer, and five years as Chief Knowledge Officer. A founding member of the Responsible Research in Business and Management (RRBM) initiative, Dan currently participates on its working board. He also serves in an advisory capacity to several organizations and startups in business and higher education. Before AACSB, Dan was a tenured associate professor and associate dean at The University of Tampa.

Dan played a lead role in creating a think-tank joint venture between the European Foundation for Management Development (EFMD) and AACSB and has been recognized for pioneering efforts in the formation of the UN’s Principles for Responsible Management Education (PRME), where he served on the Steering Committee for many years. Dan has also participated in industry-level task forces for a wide range of organizations, including the Chartered Association of Business Schools, Graduate Management Admission Council, Executive MBA Council, and Aspen Institute’s Business and Society Program.

Widely recognized as a thought leader in management education, Dan is the author of over 80 research reports, articles, and blogs, and has delivered more than 170 presentations in 30 countries. As a lead spokesperson for reform and innovation in management education, Dan has been frequently cited in a wide range of US and international newspapers, magazines, and professional publications, including the Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, New York Times, China Daily, Forbes, Fast Company, and The Economist. Dan earned a PhD from the University of Florida writing on game theory.