There are two ways to help people, the old story goes. Yo can give them a fish. Or you can give them a fishing pole and teach them to feed themselves.
Obviously, the fishing pole -- a tool for self-sufficiency -- makes more sense. Yet headlines in recent days raise the question of whether international aid efforts are geared toward fish rather than poles.
In Bangladesh on Tuesday, the worst storm in 20 years brought death and devastation to an area inhabited by 10 million people. By week's end the toll in human lives was 100,000, with predictions that it could reach as high as 300,000.
Meanwhile, the news from Ethiopia brings a sense of deja vu -- millions of people at risk of starvation, while rebel factions and the government carry on a civil war.
Both tragedies deserve the world's attention, and both countries will get aid. But will it be enough? And will it be fish or poles?
Beyond those questions is a tougher one: Is even a fishing pole enough when the sea is drying up -- when, in other words, the environment simply cannot sustain all the people who inhabit it?
Bangladesh is a case in point. A low-lying country with a climate punctuated by flooding and drought, Bangladesh is vulnerable to cyclones, the Indian Ocean version of the storms we know as hurricanes, as well as to flooding that results from silted-up rivers overflowing their banks during the monsoon season that stretches from mid-May through early October.
The flooding can be blamed in large part on deforestation in countries to the north. With the forests gone, soil erodes into streams and rivers, filling them with silt.
Bangladesh is too poor to divert resources to carry out the expensive remedies necessary to prevent the floods, or even to build enough storm shelters to save significant numbers of lives.
Moreover, with a population of 100 million growing at a rate fast enough to double every 28 years, the country is one of the world's most crowded areas. So when disaster strikes, the casualty toll quickly leaps into the tens of thousands.
In Ethiopia, continuing civil war has combined with two years of drought to threaten millions of people with starvation. Unfortunately, this famine comes after the world has already given that country its time in the spotlight. After all, "We Are the World," the song rock stars recorded to benefit Ethiopian famine relief, is now a golden oldie.
But the altruism of rock stars and the generosity of private citizens is simply not enough. Those efforts save lives, but they are essentially fish, not fishing poles.
The real help for struggling nations comes from the foreign aid budgets of developed nations -- led by the United States. But U.S. aid programs are too often shaped more by politics and short-term calculations of the national interest than by any vision of helping poor countries to become self-sufficient.
A report due out this week highlights these problems in the crucial area of population. In poor countries, these programs save lives by helping families space their children enough to preserve the mother's health and to give infants a chance to gain strength before being weaned to make way for a new baby. In many cases, family planning services provide the only health care women are likely to get.
Even so, the history of U.S. population aid since 1981 is a sorry tale of ideology winning out over human lives. In a bow to the anti-abortion movement, the Reagan administration cut all funding to the world's two largest population programs -- the United Nations Population Fund and the International Planned Parenthood Federation.
As a congressman, George Bush said, "Success in the population field, under United Nations leadership, may . . . determine whether we can resolve successfully the other great questions of peace, prosperity and individual rights that face the world."
As president, however, he has not summoned the courage to reverse the Reagan administration's vindictive population policies.
Family planning programs are fishing poles for poor countries. When population grows much faster than the replacement rate, as it is in Bangladesh, Ethiopia and many other countries, governments are hard-pressed to provide adequate food and shelter, not to mention education and jobs for all their people.
One result is political instability. Another is large numbers of people living in marginal areas that make them vulnerable to natural disasters, or women so weakened by annual childbirth that they have few physical reserves to sustain them in times of famine.
So as the death tolls climb in disaster spots, it's worth remembering that fishing poles in the form of humane aid policies could have saved some of those lives.
Sara Engram is deputy editor of the editorial pages of The Evening Sun.