This story about a small boy and starfish explains global development

The story about a small boy, who encounters a beach full of stranded starfish and throws them one by one back into the ocean, is a story most students of global development are familiar with.


On the surface, this is a story about doing good no matter how insurmountable the challenge. If another living being is in need of help, help. The solution is simple. Move each, one by one, from the undesirable context (beach) to the desirable context (ocean). Move a person by throwing them (not literally?) from poverty into not-poverty, from non-literacy to literacy, from uneducated to educated. This story embodies, on its most basic level, the goal and vision of global development and humanitarian assistance.

So, poor people are starfish?

In this story, the boy represents you, me, NGOs, the United Nations, donors, business. He embodies good values. He wants to make a difference despite the overwhelming odds. It's his calling. The starfish by contrast are helpless. They represent them, others, the Third World, poor countries, beneficiaries. Power is located in the hands of this young boy. He decides who lives and who dies.

This is what bothers me most about the story; the reduction of those in need to marine invertebrates. Starfish are beautiful, exotic and resilient. They live in a different world, eat exotic foods and live shorter lives than us. Despite their variance, starfish are generally of the same shape. That is, despite the variance in the cultures, languages and communities of those in need, of aid recipients, there is a pervasive tendency to reduce them to starfish. You need only read a article on [insert African country] featuring an image of [insert poor, un-named black person looking destitute by proud] to see the same shape of poverty across communities and countries.

So, global development is about saving lives?

The story suggests that the fundamental point of making a difference is to save a life/save lives. Although there is, of course, a blurring of lines between humanitarian assistance and global development (see South Sudan), there is a fundamental difference in purpose. What the boy is doing bears more resemblance to humanitarian response, where the imperative is to save lives. To triage. Sometimes it is that simple. A person's life is need of saving, and the treatment is perhaps anti-malarial drugs, emergency surgery or the provision of safe shelter.

However, neither humanitarian response of global development are that simple. An action such as throwing the starfish back into the ocean will have any number of unintended consequences, and may even do more harm. The ocean is polluted, predators such as sharks or manta rays are waiting and the current will end up washing the starfish back into the beach (no matter how many times it is thrown back).

 Making salt near Ninh Hoa, Vietnam. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Making salt near Ninh Hoa, Vietnam. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

So, the story is largely pointless?

As Tobias Denskus of Aidnography suggests, the story offers a number of teachable moments. The story can engage us in systems thinking and complexity, overlaid with critical filters such as gender, sustainability and climate change. Before the boy takes the course of action he has already determined necessary, there are other actions he should take. For example, he could collaborate with the local community to understand the situation and what is already known (and what actions are already being undertaken). Why is it only a boy taking action? How would a girl respond? What is presenting her from responding? The action he has decided to take is very resource and time intensive. What is the cost-benefit of throwing versus other actions?

At its very core, this story can help us unpack ethical, practical and theoretical issues of humanitarian assistance and global development. At the same time, it is an accurate reflection of the current state of these industries. Simply solutions are continually offered to complex challenges, girls and women are largely excluded and so-called beneficiaries are seen and treated as powerless, uneducated and poor.

This story explains the current deficit in our capacity to address the emerging issues of this century in migration, conflict and climate change. On migration, we just want to throw the people back to where they came from. On climate change, the starfish will die in warmer, polluted oceans. On conflict, the starfish are fleeing the ocean only to find themselves in a place that does not want them and cannot provide any long-term solutions. They are excluded from the political process, at the mercy of sudden changes in current and washed over in bloodshed and violence.

Thanks to Malaka, Tobias, Michael, Zoe, Amanda and Jane over at AidSource for the provocative discussion. You can join our community at AidSource