TOMS shoes and A Day Without Dignity
Every year, TOMS Shoes holds an event called “One Day Without Shoes.” Today is that day. I have been wanting to write a post about TOMS for a while, but just haven’t gotten around to it. I first looked on Stuff Christians Like to see if he had done a post of TOMS but all I found was this post. So, I will see if I can do SCL justice:
Christians love TOMS shoes. I mean, who wouldn’t really love a company where you buy a pair of shoes and then they donate a pair of shoes to a poor kid in a third world country? It is like winning the trifecta for Christians. First, you get a pair of trendy, fashionable shoes that you can show off to all your friends. Who doesn’t love that? Second, you get to wear them to church and walk around with a little hop in your step knowing that others are looking at your shoes and thinking to themselves, “Oh look, they are wearing TOMS. What a great Christian they must be. They really must love to help needy children.” And third, because they are helping poor kids then they are obviously doing God’s work and that is what it is all about. Game. Set. Match. The Christian wearing TOMS shoes is the winner, hands down.
However, I think that the TOMS model is not only ineffective, it can actually do more harm than good and I am not alone. Saundra Schimmelpfennig over at Good Intentions Are Not Enough has declared today A Day Without Dignity. She explains:
A Day Without Dignity is a counter-campaign to TOMS Shoes A Day Without Shoes “awareness raising campaign” (commerial). On or around April 5th – the same date as A Day Without Shoes – we’re asking aid workers, the diaspora, and people from areas that receive shoe drops and other forms of charity to speak up in blogs, on twitter, or at school.
If you go to that page you can read more about it and see a full list of posts from others in the aid and development community who are taking part in this counter-campaign. Like I said, I have been meaning to write about this, but now that others have done a better job, I am just going to highlight some quotes.
…It’s about giving stuff, and giving stuff is not a structurally sound solution to poverty, often creating more problems than it solves. Second, it’s not really that dignified. ADWS characterizes kids in developing countries as shoeless objects of our sympathy. It focuses on what they don’t have instead of what they do (such as ingenuity, creativity and resilience). In effect, it places a value on their lifestyle based on their lack of access to the same materialistic options that we have.
TOMS, I get that shoes are your thing. If you’re really serious about wanting to provide footwear to the world’s barefoot children, try looking at a totally different form of investment. Instead of donating a pair of shoes for each pair purchased, take the cash equivalent of that donation (the production cost of the shoe plus the shipping/handling/storage/distribution costs) and instead sink that into local shoe manufacture.
You could set up your own production facility, but far better still would be to find out who’s already making shoes in a particular area and invest in their operation. Use your cash as capital investment to improve their production processes. Use your technical expertise to improve their marketing and distribution networks. Use your knowledge of corporate social responsibility to ensure that their labour practices don’t exploit workers, and that their environmental practices are up to scratch. This way your expertise is passed on to local businesses which can grow and flourish, and even have a knock-on effect into other ventures. Local people have jobs. Local suppliers have product they can sell and also turn a profit from. Local entrepreneurs learn new skills. Local households have income which they can spend whichever way they like.
A few points. One, giving stuff does not work. It creates dependence and is not easily reproducible. Investing in local businesses and imparting your your expertise in the field to locals means that when you leave things do not come to a halt, but continue. And for the love, can we start focusing on the positives in these people’s lives instead of only the negative?
At Tales From The Hood, J. said:
I want my fellow citizens to act brighter than they currently do. Going a day without shoes is a logically bankrupt distraction which creates the illusion of “caring” and “doing something” while simultaneously accomplishing precisely zero except to further entrench a dangerous misperception about what will “help” “the poor” .. oh, and it also doesn’t hurt the bottom line of a for-profit company whose entire schtick is the cultivated appearance of social consciousness.
I couldn’t have said it better. Yes, good for you not wearing shoes today. But honestly, what have you accomplished? Nothing.
From Shotgun Shack:
Mothers told us that now, because they had cement floors, they were sending their children to school. We were confused for a minute. What did a housing project have to do with children attending school? The mothers explained that they had been unable to keep anything (or anyone) clean before, because of the mud floors. But now they were able to keep school uniforms and shoes clean and ready for school, so they were not embarrassed to send their children off to school over in the next community.
Now that the housing project was complete, the community wanted to negotiate funding from the donor for a water project. They would be able to plant two times a year instead of once if they could tap into an irrigation system. They showed us the feasibility studies that they had managed to get done. They invited us inside the community president’s home to eat giant portions of turnips they had recently harvested, telling us how they could double production if the water system could be funded.
The community was animated. They were in a tough situation, but they were moving ahead. I felt really motivated.
As we drove away, I looked over at my colleague. She was in tears, upset by the poverty she’d seen. ’Oh! Did you see the children?’ she said. ‘Some of them weren’t wearing any shoes!’
This is a classic story. The outsider sees what they want to see and decides for the people what they need and in what order. But obviously the village could have asked for shoes, but didn’t. They had other priorities. Far too often we assume and think they need something far more than they actually do. So, instead of giving people what you’ve decided they need, maybe you should take the time to get to know them and ask them what they would actually like.
Now, for a bit of honesty. Last year at this time I was of the belief that TOMS was great and this campaign was a good thing. But over the course the year I have researched and read and spent time trying to more fully understand aid and development and best practices and the more I read the more I have come to the belief that is in fact not a good idea. And that is what I am asking you to do. Stop doing things just because it looks good. Stop donating money to organizations just because they are “christian.” Stop helping companies just because they say they are “helping the poor.”
The Church is so good at this. We want to help. We want to do good. So much so that we just support any organizations and companies that claim to help, without any regard for how effective their strategy is or even what their strategy is.
So, please….understand the situation. Do your homework. Ask questions.