As I prepare to embark on three weeks of volunteering in Africa, I can’t help but reflect on some of the ongoing issues with providing aid to the continent. An analysis of the cause and effects of various aid schemes is vitally important if organizations are to understand whether their programs help or harm local people and economies. This article, published by the Matador Network, looks at SEVEN terrible international aid ideas, including the largely touted TOMS one-for-one shoe program. Built on the business model of manufacturing two cheap pairs of shoes for the price of one good pair (using labor and materials from China), author Richard Stupart argues that TOMS has the potential to completely destroy the market for shoes in the towns and villages where truckloads of free shoes are shipped and delivered. Journalist Amy Costello and host of Tiny Spark makes a great point here:
We think that by simply giving people things that we enjoy – like soccer balls or shoes – that we are somehow doing good…And I think that we really need to start questioning that a lot more, and figuring out is there something we can do that is a lot more effective? [Are] consumer products what a impoverished community needs?
Here is what I think….
Like Stupart and Costello argue, giving someone a free pair of shoes does not end their poverty, or provide them a job, it just provides shoes. Yes, I freely admit that shoes are vitally important for improving health standards and cutting down on a number of health issues from communicable diseases to infections that are usually spread by cuts and wounds suffered by exposed feet. And yes, in some areas of the world children are denied access to school without a pair of shoes, so providing them with a pair gets them one step closer to an education. And YES, if you look in my closet I have a pair of well-worn, well-traveled TOMS.
HOWEVER after learning more about the company and the ways in which free “stuff-we-don’t-want” can devastate local economies that are in desperate need of their citizens to invest money and BUY local, I will never buy another pair of TOMS. In all my travels to “developing” countries, the message is loud and clear: “please buy local!” Don’t give to beggars on the street because it disincentives them to go seek real work. Don’t buy $60 worth of school supplies at the Dollar Store and ship them to your orphanage in Tanzania, buy these supplies in town and support the local economy.
Even here in Louisville you see everywhere the huge push to buy local. Places like NuLu actively promote the use of local produce and community gardens have spread across the city. Keep Louisville Weird is another popular initiative for Louisvillians to eat/buy/sell/stay local. Everywhere the message is the same–why pay to have things imported when we can make it/buy it/grow it/ manufacture it here?! And why should it be any different in other cities and towns across the world? If I can buy school supplies from a Zambian market to give to Zambian children to be used in a Zambian school, isn’t that better than importing my cheap Dollar Store crap made in China bought in Louisville?
Regarding the issue of shoes and school– shoes are not the only barrier keeping children from going to school. In countries around the world, particularly African countries like Uganda and Zambia, the school fees charged by government schools are far above what the average family living below the poverty line can afford. In these cases, it’s not a matter of if a child has shoes to go to school, the families cannot pay the fees either way.
So you can buy a pair of TOMS Blue Basket Weave Women’s Desert Wedges for $185.00 and tell yourself you are at the same time in some way abstractly helping a shoeless child, or you can take that money, donate it to an on-the-ground organization like Dream Livingstone Zambia that works directly with orphaned and poor children, and pay over SEVEN months of school fees for a very real, very needy child.