Month November 2014

Relief and Development, Most Important Concepts


Understanding the Hunger Space: Part 3

By Rick McNary

It’s better to teach a man to fish than it is to give a man a fish.

That statement illustrates the two most important concepts in solving hunger. Relief-giving people a fish; development-teaching people to fish.

When I gagged at the sight of steaming spinach on my plate, Mom shared the typical message in the hunger space when she told me starving children in Africa wanted my food: people are hungry so we have to feed them now. For decades, that’s the only message I saw whether in commercials or in magazines.

Feeding people now is called relief. Getting people to feed themselves is called development.

After I was smitten with the desire to fight hunger by the starving 5-year-old girl in Nicaragua, I focused all my efforts on relief. Nicaragua is one of the poorest countries in the western hemisphere so starvation and malnutrition are prolific. Throw a dart at the map of Nicaragua and wherever it sticks, you’ll find hunger and malnutrition.

I took several teams of volunteers to Nicaragua. I traveled around the US raising money and signing people up. Once in country, we bought thousands of dollars of beans and rice in large sacks, then bagged them in smaller quantities to hand out hungry people. Working with locals on the ground, we selected villages of greatest need. All villages struggled, but some struggled more.

One rural village in the mountains was particularly vulnerable. During the dry season, crops shriveled, water sources dried up, and people grew hungrier. During the rainy season, floods wiped out entire fields of sesame or corn. It was a vicious cycle.

We’d rumble in with a flatbed truck and start handing out beans, rice, cooking oil and other essentials. After a bad experience where a riot broke out because we went about it wrong, we learned the hard way to do it orderly. Women and children (the men always stood at a distance) lined up and our teams handed out food. Gosh, we felt good about ourselves (I call it innocent arrogance; that feeling a person gets who gives charity to those less fortunate.).

We did a lot of good; however, we were not creating a lot of good. Doing good is usually defined by the giver; creating good is defined by the receiver.

While handing out food in one village that lost its sesame crop in a flood, one of the ladies asked for a private meeting. I said yes.

First of all, there is no such thing as privacy in most villages in developing countries. People live in houses that are thrown together of sticks, boards, rusted metal, plastic, mud and anything else that can keep some of nature’s elements out. They have holes in their walls large enough to throw screaming cats through. You cannot have private meetings because someone is watching or listening. Privacy fences are unheard of.

I assumed she was like thousands of others of desperate people who tell me their story of suffering and ask for special favors. I can honestly say after all my years in the hunger-space, those special requests are the most heartbreaking. Often, you can’t do much about it. If you do, then the rest of the village knows and they want the same treatment. You cannot be unfair working in these areas; it causes tremendous problems in the village. If you help one, help all.

She didn’t want more food; she wanted me to help her start a business. The interest rates at the time were an outrageous 32%; they didn’t worry about bandits robbing from them; the banks already did.

She wanted me to loan her the money to build an adobe oven to bake bread and sell in her village and a village 2 kilometers away. Other ladies wanted us to help them start a sewing business with old treadle sewing machines. Some men wanted to start a brick-kiln. Farmers needed loans to buy seeds and fertilizer.

Although they needed relief, they really wanted development.

Any work done to alleviate hunger must have at its core this basic principle: the restoration of human dignity. People who need charity are usually quite embarrassed to be needy; people who give charity usually feel pretty good about themselves. If the restoration of human dignity is the core of our motives, then the needy person will no longer feel shame and the person who gives will no longer feel innocent arrogance.

I’ve taught my children that the best way to build their self-esteem is by hard work; there is nothing that feels as good as collapsing in bed at the end of the day having worked hard.

Therefore, these two concepts; relief and development define work in the hunger-space. They are not either/or; rather, they are both/and.

This is like a parent raising a child; at the far left of the continuum is total dependence that requires relief. The baby has no way to feed itself without help. At the far right of the continuum is total independence; the baby has grown up, got an education, moved out of the house and now pays for its own cell phone.

That line from total dependence to total independence is the line of relief to development. This is critical to understand the hunger space because all efforts fit in this continuum. Some efforts are relief focused; some are developmentally focused; some do both. Here’s an important point; both are necessary.

I was in the world’s largest refugee camp in Dedaab, Kenya, and the people fleeing the conflict in Somalia arrived starving. They had to be given a fish right then or they would have died. Development has a role, but it is after relief has sustained the people long enough so that development can work. Handing a fishing pole to a refugee who is starving is the most ridiculous thought in the world.

Yes, we must teach people to fish; but they often need a fish in order to live through the day.

The union of relief and development should move people from dependence to independence. Therein lies human dignity.


Rick McNary is the Author of Hunger Bites: Bite Size Stories of Inspiration & vice president of public and private partnerships for Outreach, Inc. He also serves on the Executive Board for the Alliance to End Hunger in Washington, D.C., and is a long-time friend of Universities Fighting World Hunger. Follow him at or connect via email at