There is a difference between little and a little and few and a few. Without ‘a,’ little and few have rather negative meanings. Without ‘a,’ they may suggest not as much or many as expected or wished for.
Consider this example:
The average person has little understanding of global economic issues. (little=not much)
Few people know the company as thoroughly as him. (few=not many)
A little and a few have more positive connotations. With ‘a,’ the meaning becomes some, or at least more than expected or better than nothing.
I have a little money. I can get through another few months with it. (a little=some)
He has a few friends now, and spends most weekend evenings with them. (a few=some)