A Very Good Critique of the Starfish Parable and Development Aid

The starfish parable, if you are unfamiliar with it, goes something like this:

Walking along a beach covered in stranded starfish washed up by the tide you encounter a young girl picking up the starfish one by one and throwing them back into the ocean. “Why,” you ask her, “are you bothering to throw the starfish back into the water, when you obviously will never be able to throw them all back?” “True,” she says, “but look” and she bends over and picks up another starfish and throws it out to sea. “See I have helped that one.”

Kathryn Mathers of Harvard University critiques the parable as it is used in the context of development work, for example by Nicholas Kristof. The problems of the parable are deep and fundamental:

It also illustrates the extent to which his [ Nicholas Kristof’s] writing embodies and defends a particular relationship between Americans and Africans—naturalized, individualized and apolitical—that is so prevalent today. First, starfish are washed ashore by an inexplicable random and completely unstoppable force—a high tide, an ocean without cause or agenda—certainly not worth interrogating about why or how starfish are being washed ashore. On the beach the starfish are helpless and voiceless, unable to solve or even articulate their problem. One young girl comes along, and without pondering or asking what the starfish might prefer—a nice rock pool or a communal return to the water, for example—throws them one at a time back into the ocean. Especially scary is that her action will inevitably lead to the starfish being once again washed ashore by a mindless tide.

This model does not question the causes of poverty, either general or specific, for the people it is meant to help. It does not pay attention to what people are doing for themselves or ask what they need. It is founded on a story that treats people as if they were just part of a natural landscape washed ashore by forces that aid agencies do not participate in or have any control over. It offers solutions, often expensive and technological, and therefore measurable, that inevitably cannot be sustained or make any genuine long term change in the lives of poor people around the world. This makes it difficult to tell my students that there is not a single solution to the problems they want to solve—that solutions are multiple and very particular to place, people, and the problem itself.

This is from a much longer piece by Mathers, which critiques in depth the work of Kristof. The article can be found here.

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