Learning from the proverbial small creatures
11 MINUTE READ
Disempowerment is at the heart of poverty, therefore effective responses focus on empowerment rather than transferring resources. The goal is for communities to meet their own needs rather than depend on aid. How can the poor be empowered?
Agur, son of Jakeh is the author of Proverbs chapter 30. In Proverbs 30:24-28, he wrote about creatures that are small and wise but we miss the point if we don’t realize that he was really talking about people. While good community leadership is important, there’s a lot that small people can do. These proverbs about small, vulnerable creatures show what small people can achieve if they are wise.
“Four things on earth are small, yet they are extremely wise:
Ants are creatures of little strength, yet they store up their food in the summer;
Hyraxes are creatures of little power, yet they make their home in the crags;
Locusts have no king, yet they advance together in ranks;
A lizard can be caught with the hand, yet it is found in kings’ palaces.”
What are the implications for empowering the poor?
Ants – Plan ahead
“Ants are creatures of little strength, yet they store up their food in the summer.”
There is much to learn from ants: power in numbers, cooperation, productivity and persistence. The quality that Agur highlights is, “they store up their food in the summer”. Ants plan ahead: they work hard in summer to ensure adequate food for winter. Ants are proactive. You can’t pay tomorrow’s bills today, but you can do today’s work and bank today’s savings. The wise focus on what they can do today.
Agur wrote about small creatures because they represent vulnerable people: these principles are particularly relevant to the poor. Savings groups are a very effective empowerment strategy and they basically apply this lesson from the ants. Many people who were once poor, malnourished and uneducated now own their own businesses because of savings groups.
Savings groups meet weekly and only the poorest can attend. At first they learn literacy and numeracy because they missed out on school. Then they start saving. Each member brings something like 20 cents every week which is banked on behalf of the group. Each week they learn about issues like nutrition, hygiene, health, family planning, safe water or sanitation. As the group accumulates assets they also learn business and vocational skills to enable them to earn a better income. In time, they take out loans from the group savings for income generation ventures. Many participants in Tearfund projects have gone through a process like that and now own their own businesses such as small shops, fishing, rickshaws, livestock or poultry breeding, or food production. Five years before, they could not even read but now they own businesses. How did they do it? They learnt from the ants. Every week, they learnt something new and made small changes that together result in a huge change. Each week they saved a little and eventually established their own businesses. One step at a time, with the help of project staff, they learnt to read, write and do arithmetic and all the other skills they needed to become healthy and sustainable.
Hyraxes – Make safe choices
“Hyraxes are creatures of little power, yet they make their home in the crags.”
Hyraxes or rock badgers are about the size of rabbits but with short legs like guinea pigs. They eat plants and live in Africa and the Middle East. Hyraxes are big enough to be a meal but small enough to be easy prey.
They protect themselves by living in crags and crevices between rocks out of the reach of predators. Even though they are defenseless, they survive because they make safe choices. The point is that people who are not powerful can protect themselves if they make wise choices.
Safety is a common aspect of development projects Here are some examples…
Providing safe places.
Some projects build flood shelters where the poor can escape floods and cyclones.
Disaster management teams consisting of trained and equipped locals also warn of approaching disasters, rescue, and provide first aid, relief and rehabilitation.
Teaching how to avoid risks or dangers.
In Nepal women are encouraged to register their marriages with the government. This protects them in cases where husbands take new wives and deny ever being legally married to their first wives. Teaching safer migration (like using the banking system to avoid getting robbed) helps protect Nepalese who travel to India for seasonal work.
Informing people of their rights.
The poor are often unaware of their rights, especially if they can’t read. Some countries, like India, now have social security benefits for the unemployed, elderly or widows but many poor people don’t know they are eligible and would not be able to complete the forms. Projects can help them access their rights and benefits. People who know their rights and entitlements are in a much safer position.
Locusts – Power in community
“Locusts have no king, yet they advance together in ranks.”
Locusts demonstrate power in numbers. One locust can’t do much but together they can quickly strip farms bare. Agur makes two points here:
1. Team work – working together.
Locusts “advance together”. ‘A champion team will always beat a team of champions.’ People who are united and work together achieve far more than a group of individuals.
That is another benefit of savings groups. Apart from the economic benefits, groups provide a context to help the poor work together. A lady in Bangladesh said that she faced her problems alone before the project began. She rose early and worked hard all day to provide food for her family. She knew other ladies in the village but they were all so busy just trying to survive. When the savings group started, they all met weekly and discussed their problems and worked out solutions together. Some groups are established without the savings and loans component just to help the poor work together. They’re called self-help groups where the poor learn and work together to meet their needs.
2. “Locusts have no king” – self-organizing community.
Locusts seem to work effectively without anyone telling them what to do. People are like this in some areas of life. Who organizes for cities like Sydney to be fed every day? The answer is no one, but at another level, everyone. Households get food from shops and shops get food from food producers. No one is trying to feed Sydney: businesses are just making a living and shoppers are just purchasing food but, in the end, Sydney gets fed. It is not necessarily fair or just, but people get fed.
If you could work out where the food came from to feed Sydney last month, that might not tell you where it will come from in future. People come and go, food changes with the seasons and producers also come and go. Food supply involves complex, social systems1 that are usually not master-planned. Some things need to be planned like public transport, road construction and water supply but other things just happen as people interact with each other. Communities are a wonderful resource. Many needs are met just by being connected with others.
Some responses to poverty involve building new things that need technical design. Mechanical projects like drilling wells or building toilets are planned in a problem solving way. Other situations need a different approach. Improving food production requires coming to grips with how communities already get food. The people must have some food or they would be dead. Their food might be inadequate but they must have food. Maybe we need to ask questions like: Are all the farms producing poorly? Do any farmers produce good crops? What are they doing that the other farmers can learn from? That is more like what we do in Australia. If there is a food production problem, we don’t scrap our farms and start again but seek to improve what is already happening. Human beings, like locusts, often meet their own needs and it is often better to help them improve what they already do than try to introduce a different approach. This kind of development is called Appreciative Inquiry or Assets Based Development. Instead of just asking, what is wrong? We ask, what is good in this community? And how can it be improved?
Solutions can be unrecognised even when right under our noses. Some early Australian pioneers perished in places where indigenous people thrived. They were surrounded by food they could not see. There are over 30,000 edible food plants in the world2 but most people only know about a few of them. Bryant Myers3 tells the story of a project in Vietnam addressing child malnutrition in a poor community of rice farmers. While most were malnourished, the project staff noticed that a small minority were well nourished. What were they doing differently? Investigations revealed that most in the community were only eating rice and were malnourished as a result. The well-nourished minority were also eating rice but added small shrimps and crabs that lived in the rice paddies as well as the green tops of sweet potatoes. The majority were unaware that sweet potato tops, shrimps and crabs were edible and nourishing. Food aid was not required and the solution to severe malnutrition had been available all the time and was being practiced by a minority who were also unaware that they had a different diet to the majority. This type of development is called Positive Deviance because it focuses on practices that deviate from community norms.
Lizards4 – Access to where others cannot go
“A lizard can be caught with the hand, yet it is found in kings’ palaces.”
Lizards enter houses and most people don’t care. We would not let horses or cows do what lizards do in our houses.
There are advantages in being small. Most people could not enter the king’s palace in Old Testament times, not even the wealthy or heads of foreign countries, yet kings had ordinary people, even slaves, around them as cooks, servants and guards. The point is that some ordinary people have access to kings when powerful people would be excluded. These ordinary people can influence the powerful for good and the powerful can assist ordinary people. Old Testament examples include the slave girl in the household of Naaman, commander of Aram’s army, who influenced him to seek help from Elisha to cure his leprosy and Naaman converted to the God of Israel.
(2 Kings 5) Joseph as a slave in prison influenced the Egyptian Pharaoh resulting in the saving of many lives and the alleviation of Joseph’s own suffering. (Genesis 41-50)
This proverb is about people who may seem unimportant but work in the farms, businesses and households of those who have influence in government and the community. They can influence decision makers who might shut out people of higher rank. Also these vulnerable people had access to powerful people they could call upon for help.
Empowerment projects encourage and train the poor to talk to politicians, government officials and community leaders about needs in their communities. Some of the poor have even managed to join community committees or organisations and some have been elected to various levels of government. They have become lizards in king’s palaces. This proverb encourages the poor to use what influence they have in the contexts they can access.
Let’s learn from the small creatures: help the poor to plan ahead like ants; make safe choices like hyraxes; harness the power of community like locusts; and go where others cannot go like lizards.
This article was first published in Serving Together
Ross Farley Ross Farley works for Tearfund Australia as an educator and Bible teacher. He has decades of ministry experience with several organisations and churches. Ross is the author of several books and has lectured in several theological colleges and training programs.
- Atkinson, David. The Message of Proverbs. England: Inter-Varsity Press. 1996
- Hubbard, David A. The Communicator’s Commentary. Proverbs. Dallas, Texas: Word Books. 1989.
- Myers, Bryant L. Walking with the Poor. New York: Orbis Books. 2011.
- French, Bruce. https://foodplantsolutions.org/bruce-french/ See page 244ff of Walking with the Poor by Bryant Myers.
- See page 244ff of Walking with the Poor by Bryant Myers.
- Myers, Bryant. Page 263.
- Some translations translate this word as ‘spider’. This is the only place in the Bible where this Hebrew word is used and there is some difference of opinion as to what the word means although ‘lizard’ is most likely. It makes no difference to the meaning of the proverb. See page 468 of Hubbard, David A. The Communicator’s Commentary. Proverbs. Dallas, Texas: Word Books. 1989.