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A Day Without Dignity

Posted by Moe Wednesday, April 06, 2011 Labels: , , , , ,

Today I am contributing to a counter-campaign to TOMS Shoes "A Day Without Shoes" Campaign. A Day Without Dignity is an attempt to spread the word that in-kind donations acting as international aid is bad aid. Aid workers from all over the world recently participated in A Day Without Dignity. You can find some of their results, ideas, and ramblings here.

TOMS Shoes and other do-good companies like it are making bank by melding two things that Western culture, especially youth culture, has come to LOVE: doing good things and having cool stuff. Meanwhile, they're sending a pair of their super-cool shoes to some supposedly destitute poor kids in the developing world, suggesting that these shoes are going to change lives. But like Vivek Nemana wrote in "A Tryst with TOMS" at Aid Watch, the $25 worth of shoes that TOMS sends overseas would be far better used in aid that actually works to affect change at the root of the problem. For example, if TOMS shoes are preventing kids from contracting soil-borne diseases, then perhaps taking all of those tens of thousands of dollars in shoes and instead contributing to dealing with sanitation issues instead might be a far better, sustainable form of international aid. And that's just one idea (Vivek's, not mine).

I could go on and on, but instead I'll post a few links to some fantastic posts for the Day Without Dignity campaign explaining why in-kind donation based aid is NOT good aid.

Aid Watch: Barefoot on Broadway
Texas in Africa: a day without dignity
Tales from the Hood: A Day Without Dumbassery

I've been learning a lot in the past year that it's okay to be an "Aid Elitist" as Tales from the Hood puts it. There are thousands of people coming up with all sorts of ideas on how to creatively help bring the rest of the world out of poverty--but the bottom line in aid is that good intentions are simply not enough. TOMS Shoes sounds real nice, and heck--we Americans with our cute shoes get something out of the deal too! But as Tales from the Hood reminds us, aid is not and should never be about us, the giver. It is not about a tax break, a warm fuzzy, or a cool pair of shoes. It's about getting the right, most effective assistance to the right people at the right time under the right circumstances. It's incredibly complex and complicated, and should not be taken lightly. So on this upcoming "day without shoes", think about taking a hard look at your charitable giving, and change your plans to buy another pair of TOMS.

Disclaimer: No, I am not going to judge or mock you to your face if I run into you and you're wearing TOMS. :) Even me, there was a time when I owned a pair (they didn't fit anyway). I mean, they're cool shoes. So don't go throw them out if you like them, just think about your next do-good move when it comes to consumerism. Yay!


sara said...

preach it sister!

Amanda Loughlin said...

This is a great thing to think about. I see your point, but I argue in favor of the view that it is A form of aid. In this example, there is a want: shoes. TOM's caters to that want, but gives back. In the time it takes the regimes we'd be giving the aid money to to fix the problem of sanitation, these kids would still be dying from the poor conditions because we're too busy being idealistic. In TOM's case, the kids are at least protected from an immediate problem. I say let the two co-exist. Call it triage, but don't call it bad aid.

Maureen said...

Fair enough, Amanda. However, I think the reality is that shoes are not in fact a want. Any kid in the bush is going to think it's cool and love to have a pair of American shoes. But the reality is that even if shoes really were a want (a need?) then TOMS could take that $25 in their cool shoe and buy 25 pairs of shoes from the village market in any given developing community. The other reality is that kids lose/destroy shoes. When I was in Sudan, there were literally shoes dropped in the middle of the road everywhere you look. For some reason people just lose them. Then they go to the market and get more for 25 cents or less. I simply don't think that they are a want/need.

TOMS, for example, could either go buy 25 pairs of shoes for 1 kid or 25 kids, or they could take all the millions of dollars they make in a year and filter it, NOT through a governmental regime, but through a local or international NGO that has long been on the ground, working alongside the people who need the aid. IF aid was done THAT way, instead of through governments, then things like sanitation would be fixed in an instant. And a company like TOMS has the power to do just that, then they could truly change the lives of an entire community. They have the money and the power to do it, but instead they choose to just dump off a hundred pairs of shoes that are probably lost or destroyed within 3 months.

So, no, shoes are not inherently bad in and of themselves. But that much money could seriously change things from the root, and could do it quickly if done properly.

Maureen said...

Here's how another blogger put it, in reference to donations-based aid:
"This kind of situation is exactly what creates bad aid…It’s about the donor, not the recipient: We get distracted by what the giver meant or intended or hoped to do to “help” – just some nice guys trying to help – but lose focus on what the poor really need and the best ways to get it to them. Whether or not what is being done or collected actually does help gets lost in the conversation about whether or not the person doing the doing or the collected meant well."


Same blogger coined a the idea "SWEDOW" (stuff we don't want) and characterizes gifts-in-kind almost completely in the category based the needs and wants of people on the ground in the impoverished places. And now for some humor, a SWEDOW parody:

aaron said...

Man - great conversation Maux. It's really making me think. I was planning buying a pair of TOMs next week in fact (they are sweet looking kicks). I don't know if I will or not now. But I do have a question.

Your concern seems to be for the justice of the situation. And TOMs effort seems to be one of mercy. Does the argument for good aid verses bad aid have room in it for both categories of mercy and justice? Am I off in my categorization?

Maureen said...

Good question, Aaron. For me, I think the bottom line is that mercy that's enacted with only good intentions, and without a true understanding of the consequences is not true mercy. I suppose it's the classic "mercy without justice isn't true mercy" idea - in fact it was some event at YouthFront that I first remember hearing the analogy of people being swept down a river...that mercy is pulling them out as they come by you, but justice is going up river to stop them from falling in in the first place. I think that can be applied to projects like TOMS. Mercy is giving the kids shoes for now, but justice is focusing on the problems that result in them not being able to get their own shoes, or the problems that make them need shoes so badly (i.e. sanitation issues).

Here's a couple blips from a TIME article on the heavily criticized (lamblasted might be a better word) "1 Million Shirts for Africa" campaign, which is a similar kind of giving as TOMS, that gives some more insight as to why it does not spur development:

"But why gang up on a guy who just wants to help clothe people in Africa? First, because it's not that hard to get shirts in Africa. Flooding the market with free goods could bankrupt the people who already sell them. Donating clothing is a sensitive topic in Africa because many countries' textile industries collapsed under the weight of secondhand-clothing imports that were introduced in the 1970s and '80s. "First you have destroyed these villages' ability to be industrious and produce cotton products, and then you're saying, 'Can I give you a T-shirt?' and celebrating about it?" says James Shikwati, director of the Nairobi-based Inter Region Economic Network, a think tank. "It's really like offering poison coated with sugar."....

"There are some critics who argue that all foreign aid — whether from individuals or nonprofits or governments — is keeping Africa back. A vast body of research shows that foreign aid has done little to spur economic growth in Africa — and may have actually slowed it down. "The long-term solution is not aid. It may seem cruel that aid should stop, but really it should," says Rasna Warah, a Kenyan newspaper columnist and editor of the anthology Missionaries, Mercenaries and Misfits, a call to arms against aid. "Africa is the greatest dumping ground on the planet. Everything is dumped here. The sad part is that African governments don't say no — in fact, they say, 'Please send us more.' They're abdicating responsibility for their own citizens."

Read more: http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1987628,00.html#ixzz1JbMH5dkH

aaron said...

Yeah I was at that event too I want to say it was Brian McClaren who gave that anecdote. In that story the point was made that you need people to keep pulling the drowning out of the river before they go over the falls while you go on up and stop whoever it is whose throwing people in.

So from that it seems that mercy needs to be happening while justice is seeking the answer (hence your mercy with out justice is not true mercy).

But your argument seems to be that in order to really pull people out TOMS (and others like them) would need to change their model so the consequences of it's actions fit inside the large view point of justice.

In other words, make sure they're actually pulling people out of the river instead of just handing them a life vest that they may already have been handed further up the river thereby keeping them from the real help of others and letting them still go over the falls to death.

Is that right?

Maureen said...

Yeah, I think that sounds pretty right to me! The only thing I would add that, again with the shoes example, is that they're still working against the local economy by giving something that can be purchased (at an extremely low cost) anywhere in the developing world. I've been in the bush of the bush in Sudan and every market has tons of shoes (all sorts of styles, even!). So TOMS certainly needs to change their model, and I think not sending free shoes would be the first change they need to make (just b/c they're a shoe company doesn't mean they have to focus their charity on shoes too!).

Maureen said...

Oh and yeah it was definitely Brian McL now that you say that. Those were the good ol' days, eh?

Kurt said...

Aaron just told me about this post you made last night. Really well done, and nice links. You're absolutely right. TOMS is just like Operation Christmas Child through Samaritan's purse. They actually distributed packages one time when I was in Croc and it was disasterous. I had nothing to do with it, not that I haven't haven't made all kinds of DIY foreign aid mistakes myself. But it was amazing the sense of entitlement that crept into the room, the forced altar call, bad all the way around.

But yes, good intentions are never enough. Thanks for the post.


Maureen said...

Kurt, thanks. I've never thought of Operation Christmas Child in that sense, but you are absolutely right that it is a prime example of SWEDOW. Thanks for your thoughts.

Anonymous said...

Even if the items donated are "wanted" it can have ugly results. I have lived with villagers in Tanzania for whom clothing aid was synonomous wtih "progress." This point of view is inherently poisonous.