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TOMS shoes and A Day Without Dignity

April 5, 2011

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.

From Wanderlust:

…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.

Ready? Go.

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15 Comments leave one →
  1. Chris permalink
    April 6, 2011 3:29 pm

    Thanks for your participation in A Day Without Dignity. I hope that those of us who have been critical of TOMS can actually rally enough momentum so that they might shift toward a model you have proposed, one which affirms the dignity of the giver and the recipient and empowers under-resourced communities to develop their own solutions to the challenges which exist.

  2. April 6, 2011 8:54 pm

    Well, crap.

    I was so blissfully happy and barefoot just yesterday.

    Now I’m just confused. With significantly less bliss.

    • April 8, 2011 9:36 pm

      Missy,

      I certainly understand how you feel. I am glad that you used the word confused, which is a good place to be sometimes, instead of words like disillusioned or discouraged. The past is the past. Use this newfound information move forward and choose to look at things differently and choose to not support organizations without figuring out if what they do is a good thing. I am going to talking more areas where good intentions are not enough, so stick around and ask questions if you have them.

  3. April 10, 2011 1:04 am

    Just when I thought it was safe to buy TOM’s I learn that their business model is flawed, and as I read on it all made sense. Or at least in the sense that I have no clue how to effectively help. I remember the days where “seemed helpful” was enough. Now I have enough awareness to be cautious, but not enough knowledge to be effective. That is what I am trying to change. You are inspiring me to have more than good intentions.

    • April 12, 2011 5:12 pm

      I get that. I really do. “How to effectively help” is the best question you can ask. The problem is that finding an answer to that question is not easy. It takes time and effort, trial and error. I will be writing more about this as I venture more into this area of good intentions. The general idea would be the “give a man a fish vs teaching a man to fish” mentality. Gifts-in-kind do not work and is not a sustainable model, but teaching people how to things better or investing in their economy is reproducible. Keep the thoughts coming

  4. Max permalink
    April 11, 2011 11:10 pm

    As a TOMS wearer and a Christian I am really sad by your post. I’m not sad about TOMS – I’m sad that you are writing things without checking your facts and trying to hurt a really responsible company.

    If you had checked your facts, you would know that while TOMS does produce footwear in China (as do 99% of shoe companies) they also produce in developing countries. You should also know that producing in developing countries, where materials aren’t readily available, isn’t an easy thing to do. If the materials aren’t available, how do you produce? Before we criticize, we should understand all of the facts.

    Are shoes the first thing a community needs, maybe or maybe not. We should ask them. Did you see the news clip by Compassion International? Probably not. Here it is: http://www.newsfirst5.com/news/one-day-without-shoes-hundreds-go-barefoot1/ You can see that the President of this NGO talks about how shoes are one of the most necessary items.

    Do you know how TOMS gives? Probably you didn’t read their Giving Report or their blog. You’ll notice that they give through NGOs. If you look, you’ll see a lot of great NGOs who get mentioned as receiving shoes. If organizations that many of us donate to, are ask for shoes and giving the kids in the communities they are working in shoes, we are WE to say it isn’t a good thing? Unless you are the one working in that community, it is hard to judge.

    Sorry, it was just hard to read an article telling people to do their homework when this is all public information. I just don’t want to see people being mislead. Read the TOMS website and Giving Report….

    • April 13, 2011 5:23 pm

      Max,

      I am sorry you felt that way about my post. First, let me say that I have done a lot of reading and research about this and other areas of aid and development and I have spent time overseas in a number of places. I have been on the TOMS website and I have read their giving report and no, I had not seen that article and video about compassion but I just watched it.

      I am not advocating that TOMS build a production facility in lots of countries. That would undermine the local industry and like you said the infrastructure is not there to support that. I have been to a bunch of countries overseas (including extremely remote areas) and I have never seen a place that did not have access to shoes. I was in Haiti twice last year and even after the earthquake there were shoes available for purchase from street vendors. So, instead of making shoes elsewhere and bringing them in, why can’t they (and other groups) buy locally? Or why can’t they invest in the local industry and help it become better so that more people have access to shoes? There are more options than just giving away shoes.

      I understand that TOMS works with other NGOs to give out their shoes and yes many of those are big, well-known organizations and yes they asked for the shoes. That does not mean that these groups are correct in their thinking. Gifts-in-kind, whether it is clothing, shoes or a myriad of other products, have not been shown to be effective and research indicates that it can actually do more harm than good. Did you click on this link in my post, A Day Without Dignity (http://goodintents.org/in-kind-donations/a-day-without-dignity)? The lady that runs that site has decades of experience in this arena and most of the people that contributed posts work in this field. You will see that it is not just me that believes this model is not effective.

      My reason for writing the post was not to bash TOMS. I truly believe they want to help people. I am just not convinced their model is the best and my desire is that a dialogue can begin with organizations that give gifts-in-kind, to come up with a better and more effective model.

  5. Jessie Marie permalink
    May 6, 2011 8:23 pm

    My friend Rebecca was telling me about your blog and mentioned this particular one. I was intrigued and decided to read the whole thing for myself. I definitely see your heart behind the things you wrote, and I agree with you. I’m not against TOMS, as a shoe company, but I do agree that many organizations need to go deeper in helping other countries in need, instead of just throwing surface-level material things at them. I am confident, however, that even though there are flaws within how TOMS is set up, God uses it for good. There is a good and bad side, a helpful and harmful side to everything. And I am thankful that even in flawed systems of trying to provide help for people, God moves within and through the broken cycles to accomplish great things that most of us are not even aware of.

    • May 25, 2011 6:10 pm

      Jessie Marie,

      Thank you for your comment. I believe that, as you said “God moves within and through the broken cycles to accomplish great things.” However, the problem lies in the fact that many Christians use this “Romans 8:28” line of thinking to justify doing anything without spending time time researching what is really needed or how best to provide for a need. The thinking goes “as long as I do something it will be fine because God will make it work out.” I am not saying that is what you were alluding too, but it is a definite problem. That verse is discussing our relationship with God and how, as we grow and he refines and the Holy Spirit intercedes, God is using trials and tribulations in our life for our good. We cannot use that verse to say that if I go and try to help someone and I do it poorly, it is ok, because God will make it right.

      At the same time, not having all the answers shouldn’t stop us from doing anything and if God has told us to step out somewhere then we should do it and trust him, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t have to do research, use best practices, and honor those we are trying to help by allowing them to determine what they need, in what priority, and in what capacity.

  6. erin permalink
    January 25, 2012 6:06 pm

    Please educate yourself before publishing ignorant words. TOMS utilizes “giving partners” so that the shoe gifting isn’t about White Knights in Shining Armor. The communities are not disrupted, they are not given shoes and then abandoned, to be left worse than they started. The giving partners are established groups in the communities, they have local members provide the shoes to the children, and they also provide complimentary deeds such as clean new water wells, education and shoes for teachers (so that THEY can also walk to school to teach the children).

    • January 26, 2012 10:48 am

      Erin, two things. First, while TOMS does use “giving partners” as you say, they also tend to take a number of people from the US on each of their distribution trips so that they can help distribute the shoes. Second, in the end, no matter who does it, they are still giving shoes away and that is a bad and harmful way of helping. You create dependency, you undercut the local shoe industry, and you do not contribute to the local economy (jumpstarting the local economy has been found to be one of the biggest drivers for getting people out of poverty).

Trackbacks

  1. A Day Without Dignity | Good Intentions Are Not Enough
  2. Aidwars: TOMS shoes vs dignity — Marshall Birkey Blog
  3. One year anniversary « Hands Wide Open
  4. Creating jobs, not dependency « Hands Wide Open

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