When I was 22 years old, I went off to Bangladesh as an Agri-missionary. On fire in my call to Christ, I was going to teach the farmers how to farm. They would be the grateful recipients of the God-given wisdom I had acquired at that ripe age and in short order they would feed their nation.
When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
1 Corinthians 13:10
I quickly learned that the Bengali farmers were excellent farmers. They were able to survive even though they had no access to things we take for granted: the systems, resources, and models that bring about markets and flourishing economies.
I then did something I never expected to do: I asked those Bengali farmers what they needed to move from subsistence farming to the business of farming. And then I listened. My “know how” from a more developed farm environment partnered with their deep knowledge of their own land and culture fostered a deep and multi-generational transformation in their communities.
That was 37 years ago and Partners Worldwide now asks and listens to small-scale farmers and emerging businesspeople in 25 countries. Here are a few things they’ve taught me along the way:
- They know how to fish! The oft-quoted Chinese proverb tells us that if you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day but if you teach a man how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. People at the margins know how to fish … but they don’t have access to the pond. They aren’t able to engage and participate in the economic systems, markets, relationships, networks of support and collaboration and cooperation, tools, and models many of us take for granted.
- They are more resourceful money managers than most people I know. You try living on $2 a day! Yet they pay multiples more for food, water, shelter, electricity, energy and transportation.
- They are smart business people. When we take time to understand the decisions they make, they are always the best, given their circumstances, and our partnership with them only magnifies a talent they had to begin with.
- They are innovators. Their capacity to “work-around” the obstacles they face reminds me that God created us in Genesis 1 as trusted stewards of the Garden, imbuing in us the knowledge and creative power to tend to Earth and bring forth its bounty.
- They are entrepreneurs, intuitively demonstrating the traits associated with successful start-ups: keen observers of behavior, slow to speak and long on listening.
- They are servant leaders, they humble themselves to serve, they truly served me, and I realize there is still so much for me to learn about how to best serve them.
Doug Seebeck serves as the President of Partners Worldwide.