But I want to build a house!

“Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day, teach him how to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.” Old, over-used Proverb

There is this story about a guy who is hiking through a forest and he comes across this beautiful and fast flowing river. As he stops to admire the scene and take in the moment, he spots something in the water bobbing up and down, struggling against the current. He sees this small helpless figure being thrown about by the strength of the water, going under and popping up to gasp for air before going under again. The hiker drops all his baggage and dives into the water. As he swims towards the figure, he discovers it is a small kitten and he reaches out to grab it just as it is about to go under for the last time. He pulls the kitten close to his chest and swims back to the shore, and lovingly places the gasping kitten safely on solid ground.


Whilst sitting in the joy of this rescue and lovingly looking at the thankful kitten in front of him, he spots more movement in the corner of his eye. He looks to see another kitten struggling, just like the one he rescued. So without thinking he dives back in to retrieve it. In a déjà vu type moment, just as the kitten is about to go under for the last time his hand reaches out and saves it. But he doesn’t get all the way back to the shore before he spots another kitten rushing past him, then another, and then another. Soon enough the hiker is spending all his time and energy rescuing poor, helpless kittens from drowning in this awful river. So much so, that he doesn’t notice that 50 meters upstream there is a guy throwing kittens into the river.

The desire to help is strong. That is a good thing. Often our response is, instead of giving money, to fly overseas and be drawn into offering physical help to fulfil practical needs of those who seem to be much worse off than we are. There is so much need and we want the help we give to be immediate and practical. Although, often immediate and practical responses are not entirely useful, and can create bigger problems in the long term.

But we have this need, this desire to do good. There is something about getting stuck in and making a difference with your own two hands. I have heard people say “I just want to travel to poor countries and build a house”, “I want to start an orphanage”, “I want to dig a well”, “I want to see poverty with my own eyes”. The heart behind these statements is good. I applaud that response – by all means, travel, see the devastation that poverty creates and let it change your life and the lives of those around you.

For many, though, it can become more about the experience than the benefit for those living in poverty. Think about it for a moment… We want to get our hands dirty and feel like we are making a difference. So we travel to developing countries, connect with some people and build a house or a school or visit an orphanage to hug some children, take some selfies with kids who have different coloured skin and beautiful smiles. But there is no shortage of man-power in poorer countries. Often they have huge populations, so why do we think that when we go and build a house, or paint a building, or dig a well, we are fixing poverty?

There has to be a better way. We need to change the way we think about poverty instead of always thinking of it in terms of “aid” – which is a response to an immediate need, usually after a natural or man-made disaster or some sort of epidemic which has caused widespread destruction. This usually brings about an appeal and will lead to supplies of blankets, food, medicine and other necessities being dropped into a country to assist in their time of greatest need. Often people want to go and help out to give out the blankets, to be on the ground. This is pulling kittens out of the river. We connect with that. We love the feeling of rescuing people. It makes us feel good. And so it should. But this is only one part in the spectrum of need, which is the most commonly known, but there is so much more to be done when it comes to development and aid. The other areas can include education, advocacy in seeking policy change at a governmental level and agricultural development.

Take the cat story. It’s true that we need to rescue the cats, and often this immediate need can be met by someone who has the means to travel and volunteer some time. But mostly, we need to train cats to swim so that they can rescue themselves. We also need to stop those who are throwing the cats in the river, train other cats about the dangers of being thrown in the river and train those future cat throwers as to why it is a bad idea to abuse cats.

But most importantly, we need to train cats to be trainers so they can help their own species. I know it sounds a little ridiculous and it’s not the perfect analogy. Yes, we need people to be on the ground and help at times of great devastation, but if we are going to create lasting change, mostly we need to assist those living in poverty and suffering other injustices to be educated and empowered so they can work their way out of poverty. We need to find ways of advocating for them and using our influence to provide a level playing field for all people lest we end up in the river rescuing cats and become overwhelmed by the sheer volume and eventually drown in cat fur. Enough of the cat story.

Here are the main causes of poverty:

The Poverty Cycle– being poor and not having enough food to eat, causes you to stay poor and not have enough food to eat.

Low Investment in Agriculture – high transport costs, scarce storage facilities and unreliable water supplies leads to less food being produced and shipped, and higher prices.

Climate Change & Weather Phenomenon – disasters on the increase leads to food production on the decrease. This always hits the developing world the hardest.

War & Displacement – it’s hard to grow food when you are fighting for your freedom or fleeing for your life.

Unstable Markets – price spikes can make buying food impossible for many families.

Food Wastage – we produce enough food to feed everyone, but one-third of all that we produce is wasted.

To be blunt, travelling overseas to practically help those in need is not going to fix the issue or even make the tiniest dent in it. It may assist the person right in front of you, although, for how long and how effective it will be is anyone’s guess (and the topic of the next post…stay tuned!).

The real change that comes as a result of a short-term trip is in the individual who does the travelling. They can be overwhelmed by the reality of poverty and it can change their life for the better, and as a result the lives of those living in poverty (if that internal change leads to action for the benefit of others). And that’s okay. Let’s call it for what it is. But let’s not damage those living in poverty in the process.

There are plenty of stories from people who have travelled on a mission trip to go and build a house or paint a building, only for it to be touched up and fixed by the locals after the travellers had left. It was more for the people who were visiting and what they would get out of it than it was for the people they were ‘helping’.

Then there is the story of a mission trip to help some people in an area to clear some land, but the travellers didn’t know how to do it as well as the local people, and it turned out that the locals just wanted some white faces in a photo in an attempt to get some funding from the government to help boost tourism. They were helping, but not in the way that they thought they were.

You may have heard the term ‘orphanage tourism’ where orphanages are set up in developing countries with kids (who may or may not be orphans in homes) who are kept in squalid conditions sometimes to guilt tourists who come to visit to give money. It’s a money-making scam that hurts the children we are trying to help.

These are just a few stories of what happens when we travel to the developing world on a short-term basis to rescue the poor. It’s still good to travel and see the positive changes that we are working towards, but perhaps we should recognise that often the money we spend on travel could be more effectively put to use by organisations who save kittens as their profession (sorry – no more cats I promise).

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