Tossing Starfish; The Rest of the Story
9 July 2015
It’s hard to pull yourself up by the bootstraps when you don’t have any boots. Minnesota Senator Al Franken.
“Give a man a fish he eats for a day, teach man a to fish and he eats for life.” Anne Isabella Ritchie, Britain, mid-19th Century.
Give a woman money and she will buy what she needs to support her family. Maryjane Westra
A boy from Minnesota along with his grandpa were vacationing in Florida enjoying a walk on the beach. They came across thousands of starfish drying and dying on the hot sand. The little boy was picking them up and tossing them back into the sea, one by one. The old man asked, why are you spending your time throwing those starfish back into the sea? “ The boy replied, “The surf is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them back they will die.” The grandfather said, “There are miles of beach and thousands of starfish. You can’t possibly make a difference in the starfish community.” The wise lad replied, “I can make a difference to this one. And he gave it a toss.” 1
The starfish was so happy with a new lease on life. He swam back to his Echinoderm buddies and said, “ I have a new friend who saved my life. I will never have to worry about anything again. If I get in trouble my friend will be there to save me. “ He stopped worrying about the future. His tube feet got soft. He didn’t bother cracking open clams for dinner, because he knew his friend would be there for him if he got hungry. Wearing the new shades over the five eye spots at the end of his arms, a gift from his new friend, he began strutting his stuff. He lazed around on the bottom of the ocean while mussels and snails strode by him with little fear.
The other starfish in his community were jealous and began making fun of him. They grew tired of his lazy ways, his fancy clothes and constant bragging. They cast him out of their village. One day, a storm came up. His village friends huddled together and, using their tube feet, pushed valiantly out to sea, but the starfish’s skills had grown dull. He was washed onto the beach. He floundered in the sand, calling out to his friend to throw him back to the sea. But, you guessed it, the little boy had returned to Minnesota.
How many times have we heard this story? Many aid organizations use it as their motto, their inspiration. Changing the world one person at a time, they say. But have we stopped to examine what happens after we leave? Have we thought about the unintended consequences of our actions?
After nearly a century of providing aid relief to developing countries, hunger, disease and poverty rates are alarmingly increasing. There are some successful programs, but few have relieved poverty in the way they had hoped. Initiatives come and go. Micro-financing has shown anecdotal evidence of success but very little has been said about the consequences in real life to people whose businesses fail and they can’t repay the loan. 2.
Cash transfers, money that goes directly to the poor, is the new generation of aid, and has shown positive impacts in terms of education levels, nutrition, long term financial security and, interestingly, mental health, in some 40 countries around the world. This concept flies in the face of traditional aid agencies who believe that the poor will squander the money on alcohol or other items of immediate gratification. Proponents of these programs say, with a carefully designed system of giving, they are seeing success in alleviating generational poverty. Indeed, in Brazil, where 53 million families have received monthly cash transfers since 2003, extreme poverty has been reduced from 22% to 7%. These numbers far outshine the United States’ efforts to reduce poverty in the same time period. Cash transfers, in their simplicity, have the added benefit of reducing administrative overhead and eliminating corruption. Personally, I am not a believer in quick fixes and miracle cures for poverty, but I am impressed by how the concept of giving-money-to-the-poor enables individual preference and choice, thereby fostering trust and independence. I will be watching these ideas closely in the future.
The Common Board of Global Ministries adheres to a partnership concept in which international agencies join CBGM in mutual trust and respect. Projects are not thrust upon our international partners, rather the requests for projects are initiated by the partners. There is an expectation of mutuality.
1. Adapted from original text by Loren Eisley
2. In Mozambique micro-financing enterprises are known as the ‘furniture takers.’