How many times have we heard it said, even from unexpected sources, that the work of NGOs and foundations in Africa or South America may well be motivated by good intentions, but is entirely irrelevant given the mountain of problems affecting the countries of the global south?
But I believe that a purely quantitative, scientifically measurable approach, is mistaken. Actions that pay attention to the local reality serve first and foremost to fuel virtuous networks, to give dignity to the work of farmers, to make experience and knowledge available. But even if we have to evaluate the practical results of a project, we cannot limit ourselves to assessing the monetary cost of the intervention compared to the results. We are not talking about having enormous resources available (though it should be said that the commitment of rich countries is completely inadequate). And we are not even talking about obtaining incredibly impressive results. In these cases I like to recall the Japanese story of the old man and the little girl. Perhaps you know it, but every so often it is worth remembering.
A grandfather and granddaughter are walking along the beach. A freak wave breaks, washing up thousands of fish who begin thrashing around in agony on the sand. The girl lets go of her grandfather’s hand and starts throwing some of the fish back in the water: three, four, just before they die. Her grandfather comes up to her and says, “Dear girl, what you’re doing is pointless, saving just three or four fish in front of such a massacre does nothing.” The girl thinks for a bit and then answers, “Try asking those three or four fish if it’s pointless.”
Essentially, if a project improves even only slightly the living conditions of a community, then it is never a futile project. Self-referential projects or those that feed extravagant wages and privileges compared to their context are useless. But, for example, starting a food garden in Africa, launching a coffee Presidium in one of the poorest parts of Guatemala or helping Mauritanian women create an efficient and hygienic salt works for their fish processing business might be modest interventions, but they concretely help communities. In short, we’re with the girl on the beach.
President of the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity