‘Teaching a Man to Fish’ More Complicated Than It Sounds

China Scherz headshot

China Scherz is interested in teaching students in a range of disciplines to consider problems and policies related to medical care and international aid.

“If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.”

The proverb’s origin is uncertain, but it undoubtedly did not come from Uganda.

Similar to this proverb, many Western aid organizations have been shifting away from giving charity in developing countries, such as Uganda, to promoting self-reliance in sustainable programs. But this approach often ignores the diverse ways participants in development programs understand the meaning and moral significance of material support, according to research from a University of Virginia anthropologist.

China Scherz, who joined the anthropology faculty last year, published her research in a 2014 book, “Having People, Having Heart: Charity, Sustainable Development and Problems of Dependence in Central Uganda” (University of Chicago Press). The book analyzed the relationship between ethics and different approaches to care and obligation, looking at non-governmental organizations in rural Uganda.

Conflicting Expectations: Aid Groups and Recipients Often Misunderstand Each Other

Conducting fieldwork in 2007-08 and 2010, Scherz studied two orphan support organizations and discovered many Ugandans view material forms of charity as intertwined with their own ethics of care and patronage.

Historically, many people receiving assistance from charities and nongovernmental programs have seen themselves as engaged in a reciprocal patronage exchange. They offered their labor and loyalty to the organization in exchange for various forms of material support. Such relationships have long been, and continue to be, crucial for people seeking social and economic advancement in Uganda.

As organizations transitioned from years of handouts of items ranging from mattresses to school fees, to a new approach stressing community-based support programs, aid recipients find that more is being demanded of them in terms of both labor and material contributions, while less is being given to them.

“What development organizations saw as an embrace of best practices were locally experienced as a violation of an established moral economy,” Scherz said. “These shifts away from the distribution of material resources, which are tied to concepts like sustainability, participation and cost-effectiveness, were locally understood not as acts of empowerment, but as suspect refusals to redistribute wealth.”

This sense of frustration ultimately led program participants to withdraw – resulting in the collapse of the project.

Scherz found that small patches of more traditional forms of redistributive charity can still be found in some parts of Uganda, and that these are often perceived as consistent with local ethics of hierarchical interdependence and gift-giving.

“I want to be clear that I am not arguing for a wholesale return to charity,” she said. “But I do hope that my work will unsettle what are often assumed to be foregone conclusions about the ethics and effects of dependency in the post-colonial world.”

The study is part of her broader interest in exploring how people understand and make decisions when faced with ethical problems of care. “I want to know how people decide whom they should care for and how. How these values are instilled? How do they change over time?” Scherz said.

Students Across Disciplines Drawn to Her Classes

These questions are linked to Scherz’s specialization in the field of medical anthropology, a field which pushes students to see even the smallest details of a clinic visit within their larger context. Medical anthropology crosses several academic disciplines as well as physical boundaries, including medicine, nursing, ethics, global health, sociology, health policy, economics and development studies.

In her courses, Scherz is interested in teaching students in a range of disciplines to consider problems and policies from the viewpoints of all parties involved. She teaches a large multi-disciplinary class in medical anthropology with students in medicine and nursing, global studies and public policy, as well as other social sciences.

Last fall, the Ebola outbreak in West Africa served as an instructive, contemporary case to add to the syllabus. “We were all waking up to the news each morning and it seemed crucial to help the students understand why things had gotten as bad as they had,” she said. Following years of civil wars and economic policies dictated by the International Monetary Fund that devastated social services, hospitals in Liberia and Sierra Leone were not prepared for responding to the epidemic, Scherz said. The current aid strategies focus on particular diseases, such as HIV, rather than improving the health care system.

Due to demand, the 120-student class already has a lengthy waitlist for fall 2015.

Scherz also teaches “Development and Humanitarianism” to about 60 students and “Controversies of Care in Africa,” an upper-level anthropology course, with about 30 students, and graduate courses on “The Anthropology of Ethics” and “Care and Abandonment.”

Returning to Uganda, Family in Tow

Looking at a new set of problems related to medicine, morality, care and abandonment, she will return to Uganda in two weeks, this time to study the changing use and cultural understanding of alcohol and alcoholism there. Alcohol played a major role in the villages where she conducted her earlier studies, and some World Health Organization statistics have shown Uganda to have the highest per-capita alcohol consumption rate in the world, Scherz said.

Scherz, her husband and two young children will live for 10 weeks this summer in an apartment in the capital city of Kampala; the children, ages 4 and 2, will attend a preschool.

“Over the past decade, many people have started to push for more robust legislation to control the production and sale of alcohol in Uganda and for treatment programs based on a medical model of alcoholism,” she said. “My research will examine how practices previously taken for granted are becoming defined as problems and will explore how people navigate biomedical, religious and traditional medical practice as alternative moral and therapeutic forms.”

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