I’ve been known to trot out a saying from time to time. The old “give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day, teach him how to fish and he’ll eat forever,” is sadly not heard much these days. I guess there’s a couple of reasons for that, firstly, and most obviously, by narrowing the saying down to only men, we deftly ignore roughly half of the global population – not a wise move at any time, and especially not in these (hopefully) more inclusive days.
The second reason is that, with the industrial fishing that goes on by commercial fishing companies today, even if said man has the knowledge to fish, there is no guarantee he’ll catch anything in a sea left barren by over-extraction. The fact we’re raping our natural environment, however, is the subject for another day and I’ll get back to the topic at hand.
No matter on its usage or not, the saying is a valuable one and speaks to initiatives that get to the very heart of an issue rather than skirting around the flow-on effects.
I’ve been thinking about that saying of late, ever since I heard of a seeming act of philanthropy from a particular company. This company is in the financial services sector and is one of those entities that make billions of dollars in profits simply by borrowing and lending money. I’ll not even get onto the fact that recent years have seen some horrendous press for that industry, with dodgy sales techniques, ridiculous pay and benefits packages to executives, or the Teflon-like ability for nothing bad to ever stick to them. Maybe I’m just bitter that I’m involved in an industry that, you know, still actually makes physical goods without making those bank-level supernormal profits.
Anyway, I digress. Said institution made a big splash recently when they announced far and wide that they had purchased several thousand rain jackets to donate to school children in low-decile areas. Of course, since this was, at its heart, a marketing initiative, they had the camera crew all set up at the requisite school to show smiling and happy (but obviously with enough lack of privilege to get the requisite media effect) kids so excited to be receiving their new clobber.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m all for kids being able to walk to school warm and dry and, like all Kiwis (or at least those with any degree of empathy) I struggle with the examples of kids going to school with empty stomachs, with no shoes on their feet or unable to afford to go on the next school outing.
But there’s the thing, all of those conditions are symptoms of a deeper cause. And by giving away jackets, for all the good sentiments it brings, we don’t impact upon the underlying conditions. We treat, to mince yet another metaphor, the symptoms rather than the cure.
Those thousands of jackets that the marketing department sourced are made in sweatshops in China, Vietnam and Bangladesh. They are a very real part of the problem and, at least in part, the reason that those same kids’ parents live on benefits and can’t afford to buy their kids decent clothes.
The last thirty years have seen us run, nay sprint, into a globalised world of outsourcing and offshoring. Our stuff isn’t made here anymore. And what that means is all those people who used to be gainfully employed in the manufacturing sector in Greytown, Mataura and Mangere, now need to eke out a living driving for Uber, serving French fries to already poorly nourished customers, or having to head down to the local MSD office to apply for a benefit and further feel like a burden on society.
Imagine a world where, instead of lacking gainful employment, those parents could work (to use but one example) in one of the apparel factories that used to keep provincial New Zealand afloat. Imagine if, rather than having to rely on charity to keep their kids and warm, they could, proudly, use the freedom that a fair pay-packet gave them to buy their kids quality garments. Maybe even garments that they themselves helped to create.
Some would call it systems thinking and would wax poetic about the circular economy, downstream benefits and socio-economic equity. I like to think of it in more simple terms, it’s just about taking someone out, teaching them how to fish and sitting back in contentment as they go forwards with the ability to feed their family.
Ben Kepes is a Canterbury-based professional director and businessman. There’s nothing he likes better than sitting out on a dinghy trying to liberate blue cod.