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Teach a Man to Fish & Increase the Fish Supply

Port at Porto Alegre 

The difference between philanthropy and charity is in that old saying about teaching a man to fish versus just giving him a fish. But you can apply even more leverage if you can increase the capacity of the trainers or augment the general effectiveness of sustainable fishing. Doing lasting good requires a systemic approach to problems.

Green roof in Porto Alegre 

When I talked to people at  Parceiros Voluntários, I recognized that they were thinking systemically and I was not really surprised when the organization’s president, Maria Elena Pereira Johannpeter brought up Peter Senge.  We had a common connection.

I read Senge’s book, The Fifth Discipline, back in the 1990s. It was a book that changed my outlook on work; it was one of those books that tells you things you think your already knew, but in a better form. The idea I took from the book was that organizations work as a set of interconnected sub-systems, so decisions made in one place have implications for the other parts. It sounds simple and ecological; a forestry guy like me likes these kinds of ideas, but it is hard to apply in practice, hard to consider the whole system. I still use often a formulation from the book, “sometimes thing go wrong not in spite of but because of our best efforts.” Working harder can be ineffective and sometimes make you lose ground. It is usually better to remove or smooth obstacles than to just push harder against them and it is best to figure out the path that avoids most obstacles in the first place. Simple wisdom that is hard to implement and it is impossible even to attempt w/o looking at the whole system and understanding its complex interactions. I used to think a lot about these things.

Parceiros Voluntários works on a systemic basis. Their goal to apply their effort at the points of maximum leverage, to work bottom up to encourage citizens to volunteer (something not common until recently in Brazil’s often top-down society) & then to help train and deploy those volunteers so that they can be effective – creating capacities and then enhancing them.

Part of their philosophy would be familiar to Alexis de Tocqueville. They favor individuals and groups acting voluntarily within their own communities, solving problems with their own means in their own sphere of action, managing their own development w/o regard to bureaucracies or higher authorities except where absolutely necessary.

I don’t believe it is mere coincidence that an organization like this took root first in Rio Grande do Sul. This state has a tradition of self-reliance and the inhabitants – the Gauchos – emphasize their independence.  But Parceiros Voluntários is expanding beyond RGS and setting up cooperative operations in the states of Amazonas, Mato Grosso, Bahia and Rio de Janeiro.   

Decentralized, voluntary organizations are a more flexible response to complex challenges we face. They can adapt much more readily and w/o the power of coercion, they can disappear when their time is past w/o a great disruption. America has lots of experience with such organizations.  It is one of the things that has made our society great.  It is great that Brazil develops them too. 

BTW - that teach a man to fish has a different ending.  Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will sit on the lake and drink beer all day. 

The top picture shows some port facilities on the Guaíba River from the offices of Parceiros Voluntários. The name Porto Alegre implies a port and there is one, but not a seaport. Porto Alegre is far from the sea, but ships can reach the sea via Lagoa dos Patos, a vast, shallow flowage. The port used to be a bigger deal in the old days than it is today. The port of Rio Grande, which is actually one the ocean, makes a better outlet for agricultural products of the region. The picture below is a green roof on the restaurant at the Theatro Sao Pedro.

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