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Excerpted from "Efficient' Solutions Address Only Symptoms; Addressing Root Causes Requires Changing Power Imbalances" from the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR) Social Sustainability Resource Guide, 2011. Used with permission.
There is much debate about distinguishing between symptoms and root causes. An old analogy—but with a new twist—may help. Imagine a woman is hungry. So we give her a fish. She's less hungry. But, when we leave, she's hungry again. We only dealt with a symptom. We all know the better approach, right? Teach her to fish. She can now feed herself and her family can teach others, and we've "worked ourselves out of a job." We've addressed a deeper cause: the lack of skills/knowledge needed to catch fish.
But have we gotten to root causes? Doubtful. Why didn't that woman have the necessary skills/knowledge already? Other people—men—fish in her community. Why was that woman denied the opportunity to learn this skill?
Maybe after more digging we find out that (1) fishing is considered a commercial activity in that community, not a foodstuff for community members, (2) fishing is taught in the local school, but girls are not attending, and that (3) women have no access to the lake because fishing is considered "men's work". So, we work with community members to change those informal institutional rules. Imagine, after five years, women are permitted to fish, and fish can be consumed in the household.
Have we reached down to the root causes yet? Maybe. But let's say that after some years of trying, the informal institutional rules still aren't changing. We investigate. We find out that commercial fishing is the only source of income through which government taxes can be met by community leaders. We find out that local fishers are being ripped off by middlemen. We discover that taxes are very high because they are needed by the government to pay down the loan on the dam that created the lake. We also find that income from selling fish makes up 70 percent of local dowries, customarily the responsibility of men—fathers and uncles—to provide. We also find that the water in the river is badly polluted and the fish are contaminated because a company mining gold upstream dumps tailings into the river. This story may seem complex; but it illustrates why symptom-oriented development so rarely creates lasting change. In every chapter of the story above, there is a "development project" ready to be implemented. Let's teach fishing, do gender awareness training, leadership training, marketing. Let's clean the water, do income generation, fine the mining company, lower taxes, get the lender to be more flexible. All of these symptom-oriented things are necessary but not sufficient.
Root causes are relatively untouched, however. At the heart of this complex situation is that certain actors—urban elites, probably—have the power to direct resources and opportunities, capture rents and affect others—rural communities far from the corridors of power. Within communities themselves, long-standing forms of social inequality (sometimes reinforced by customary law) may be left unchallenged. Distant decision makers can act with relative impunity. At the end of the day, the poverty and injustice in our hypothetical fishing community isn't so "local" after all: it's tied to the policies of distant governments and private sector companies.
"Root causes" refers to this interlocking system of relationships between social actors. Poverty is about power, and power is about how people relate to other people.
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Last updated on Tuesday, October 21, 2014.
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