What Teach a Woman to Fish Can Teach Us

Ritu Sharma, founder and CEO of Women Thrive, recently published Teach a Woman to Fish. The book centers on her experiences working beside poor, women-led families in four developing countries. 

The book is much more than just a nice, interesting, feel-good story about the lives of strong women in poor villages. It is a tapestry woven from a medley of threads—human interest stories, political and social analysis, economics, history, development policy, grassroots organizing, how to influence government, and policy prescriptions—all at a very close and personal level. The book “humanizes” development, bringing the lives of real people to what too often are sanitized statistics and policy papers. Teach a Woman to Fish is a series of real human stories interwoven with brief wonk-free tutorials on important policy issues. 

For 17 years Ritu has been a force leading Women Thrive, which in turn has been a key driver behind the Washington policy community’s growing acknowledgement of the critical role of women and the importance of taking a gender approach to development.

The Teachers are the Poor, Not Us

For me, the overarching message of the book is that the poor have the solutions to their problems. Our western answers often are not the only, nor the best, solutions. But those struggling to improve their lives, and their country’s future, can use our support and understanding in helping them unlock those solutions.

There are many local organizations—companies, NGOs, grassroots networks, government—that are helping to create those opportunities. External donors and other development actors should be seeking out these local organizations and supporting them in their efforts to empower and unlock opportunities for the poor. This is the fundamental rationale that underpins the priority USAID and the development community put on local ownership. The book offers real examples and explanations of why this policy is the right approach. Local ownership is not a silver bullet for development, nor is it the sole approach, but in many instances it is the right approach.

This fits with how Ritu sees poverty: “…poverty is not about having no money; it’s about having no power to change your own circumstances.”

The “Girl Effect”

If you have ever wondered about the “girl effect” and why education is so important—not just for its direct impact on girls and women, but also its contribution to moving entire communities and countries out of poverty and onto sustainable patterns of prosperity—read this book. There are entire books devoted to the role of education in development, but in just a few pages Ritu gives you the basic course and makes it alive with real people. She explains why education is more than just teaching in the classroom, and why food, nutrition, and health are all critical for children to be able to focus and learn. She explains why education is not achieved simply by getting children into schools, but that they must actually learn to reap the benefits, to achieve the girl effect.

She describes the nature of discrimination against women and why we should all stand up to end this all-too-prevalent practice. She confronts us with the reality of violence against women, including sexual violence. She explains why child marriage disempowers and harms girls.

Ritu introduces the reader to small-scale farming and why the practice of prohibiting women from owning land—the very land they farm—discourages efficient and productive farming and must be overcome. This is happening in some countries, although much too slowly.

Influencing Government

Teach a Woman to Fish is a tutorial on how to accomplish practical goals. Do you want to know about networking, organizing, and advocacy? Ritu explains how these work at the grassroots and the national level and why they are powerful tools for empowering the poor. She explains how village-level women’s networks function and what they can accomplish; how women’s groups organized at the national level to influence a government’s request to the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) and even circumvented their own government to go directly to the U.S. Congress and the MCC; how Women Thrive mobilized to influenced the MCC to adopt a gender policy, and not just a notional one but a strong one, and then to hire a gender expert to make sure the policy was implemented; how Women Thrive worked the halls of Congress in pursuit of legislation on violence against women; and what you can do to influence your representative in Congress.

And then there is Fair Trade and the power of the purse—how we can influence corporate behavior simply by our purchasing decisions.

Role of Foreign Aid

Ritu explains why foreign assistance is important for U.S. interests in the world.  She advocates using assistance to promote poverty reduction and the rights of people, and warns against cutting off assistance as the unintended consequences of that action may adversely affect the very people we seek to help.

The stories provide an insight into how the American aid agencies—USAID and the MCC—sometimes get it right in improving the lives of individuals and communities, but not always.

The book introduces you to village heroines: Irangani, Malini, Maria, Carmen. Ritu tells us about a few heroes named Kepali and Mahesh. And she even introduces some U.S. heroes and heroines: a corporate hero by the name of Ed and two Congressional heroines named Nita and Beth.

Who Should Read This Book

  • Development policy experts who know the theory and policy of development but not the reality on the ground
  • Field-grounded implementers who know what happens in villages but not how to communicate that to policymakers and translate that experience into policy
  • College professors teaching an introductory course in development, international economics, international relations, and global women’s studies
  • Regular people who want to understand how others live and how we can make a difference

What comes through in Ritu’s stories is her admiration for village women who are sustaining the lives and livelihoods of their families. She is humbled by their stamina and fortitude, their good sense and good humor, and their kindness and generosity. She relates how much she has learned from them.

Ritu, I thank you for this essay and sharing with us your experiences at the village level and your well-reasoned policy prescriptions.

Thank you for teaching us.