TOMS was founded in 2006 by Blake Mycoskie with the intention of donating one pair of shoes to the poor for every shoe purchased from his company. Since the company was founded, more than 1,000,000 shoes have been donated to children in the United States, Argentina, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Guatemala, Haiti, and South Africa.
TOMS has gained great notoriety and popularity for its socially conscious business model, allowing people to donate to the poor through their own personal consumption. However, as good as the idea sounds, there is one major problem: TOMS is the definition of bad aid. Bad aid refers to any donations, charity or other form of aid which at best do not help its subject in the way it is aimed or at worst are harmful to the recipients. There are a number of reasons why TOMS and similar in-kind donations (non-cash donations - goods and services - which can be given a cash value) are bad aid, and I want to go through them one by one to explain why each is significant. My hope is that by the end of this piece you will reconsider your assumptions concerning aid and how best to help those in need, and maybe look at TOMS with new eyes.
As has been made clear by TOMS and their supporters, the most important reasons behind giving shoes to children who do not have them are health related. Children without shoes are exposed to soil-borne diseases, and wearing shoes can help prevent the contraction and spread of the diseases. Further, wearing shoes can prevent children from cutting or injuring their feet, which would otherwise leave them prone to painful infections.
This is all true, to an extent. Perhaps the biggest reason why soil-borne diseases are so prevalent in the areas TOMS is focusing on is poor sanitation. Poor sanitation is a problem that will potentially affect every part of a child's (and adult's) life, including the water they drink, the food they eat, the places they sleep, and so on. Wearing shoes is merely a band-aid solution to a much larger and deeper problem, one where the transmission and contraction of disease is much more prevalent than in places with proper sanitation.
But is this band-aid solution even a helpful one, long term? It has been shown fairly conclusively that shoes are unhealthy for human feet. A study on shod versus unshod feet noted:
"The inﬂuence of modern lifestyle including the use of footwear, appears to have some signiﬁcant negative effect on foot function, potentially resulting in an increase in pathological changes"While that doesn't mean that I am going to stop wearing shoes, it does bring an important question to mind: how did we survive for so long without shoes? The answer is that we were designed to be barefoot.
"The skin on the sole of the foot is more resistant to abrasion than skin on any other part of the body... people who wear shoes have not developed the calluses necessary to protect the foot, particularly in modern environments replete with pavement."By going barefoot for their entire lives (by choice or not is irrelevant), children and adults in these poor countries have built an immunity to foot injuries and diseases through stronger skin on their feet. Yes, some children will still get sick and suffer from soil-borne disease. And someone somewhere will cut their feet. It happens. But this is to be expected in areas where poor sanitation affects every part of the child's life.
Here is the kicker: TOMS shoes can be generally expected to last about a year, like any kind of shoe. And what of when the children outgrow the shoes given to them? After wearing shoes for a year and not going barefoot, the calluses built up by these children to protect them from soil-borne diseases will be gone. By the time the shoes they were given become unwearable, either from falling apart or outgrowing them, these children will be more susceptible to foot diseases then they were before TOMS came to town.
There are only two ways to prevent this: first, if TOMS returns at the exact right moment and gives the child new shoes to replace the old ones; second, if the child or their parents purchase or otherwise find a new pair. I find it difficult to believe that TOMS could keep track of the wear on every child's shoes or size of every child's feet in order to provide a new pair at the right moment. Providing a new pair before the first was unwearable will likely result in someone else taking the new pair of shoes or the shoes being sold; providing it too late leaves the child walking around barefoot without calluses like I discussed above, in greater danger of contracting the soil-borne diseases TOMS is purportedly trying to prevent. The burden of proof would lie with TOMS to show that they could replace the unwearable shoes at the exact moment of need. The second option would seem to be more logical, even preferable. However, if the child or parents are able to find a second pair of shoes to replace the ones donated by TOMS, then it seems that they would have been able to find a pair of shoes before TOMS came to town. In other words, TOMS gave something to these children that they could have gotten without outside aid. This idea leads perfectly into the second piece of why TOMS shoes are bad aid...
In Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert's 2009 book When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor and Yourself, the authors suggest one rule by which to avoid many of the complexities and pain which can be associated with poverty alleviation:
"Avoid paternalism. Do not do things for people that they can do for themselves. Memorize this, recite it under your breath all day long, and wear it like a garland around your neck." (p.115)Paternalism can have devastating psychological effects on those individuals who are provided with resources they simply do not need or could acquire without outside help. In the same book, Corbett and Fikkert argue that poverty is much more a psychological issue than a material one.
"While poor people mention having a lack of material things, they tend to describe their condition in far more psychological and social terms than our North American audiences. Poor people typically talk in terms of shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation and voicelessness. North American audiences tend to emphasize a lack of material things such as food, money, clean water, medicine, housing, etc. This mismatch between many outsiders' perceptions of poverty and the perceptions of poor people themselves can have devastating consequences for poverty-alleviation efforts."(p.53)Paternalism creates dependency, removing the responsibility to provide from the poor themselves to some unknown (to them) outside source. How would you feel if someone walked into your home, took note of the surroundings, decided that you needed a number of things that you neither had nor wanted, and then went out and bought them for you? You may feel demeaned or looked down upon. It may appear that the person who entered your home thinks they are better than you. And regardless of your reaction, such unwanted gifts would not encourage you to work harder to earn more to buy the things which were given. Rather, if such gifts came repeatedly over time a more likely effect would be to remove any incentive to work, as you could count on that outsider to provide for you anything they thought you needed.
Undermining Local Economies
The biggest argument by those who support TOMS is that the company is helping the poor and making an effort to close the gap between the haves and the have-nots. Unfortunately, shoe donations and other in-kind giving (or GIK...gifts-in-kind) does more to hurt the economic growth of the targeted areas than it does to help.
Extensive research concerning local shoe production is not readily available, but a close substitute is apparent and ripe for discussion: clothing donations into specific poor areas. One researcher, Garth Frazer, looked into "Used-Clothing Donations and Apparel Production in Africa", and found that there is a significant connection between donations and production. Frazer concluded that
"Used-clothing imports are found to have a negative impact on apparel production in Africa, explaining roughly 40% of the decline in production and 50% of the decline in employment over the period 1981–2000."50% of the decline in employment? That means that thousands upon thousands of jobs were lost due to the "good deeds" donors thought they were doing, inadvertently preventing thousands of poor Africans from earning a living and being able to provide for themselves. According to The Nation, "between 1992 and 2006, 543,000 textile workers lost their jobs" in Nigeria, as over 150 companies have shut down due to being undercut by outside aid. Those numbers are staggering and hopefully make you think hard for a few moments. The subject of both The Nation and Frazer's articles are used-clothing donations, but the same principles and effects apply for new-clothing and shoe donations as well. A 2010 Time Magazine article discussing t-shirt donations and the question of bad aid made a similar claim to Frazer's research:
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."I understand that the only way I can make this comparison between clothing donations and shoe donations is if shoes are readily available in poor African countries and other places TOMS gives shoes away for free. Lucky for my argument, they are. At Untapped Markets, a number of photos of shoe sellers in a Ghanaian marketplace are available. Tales from the Hood discusses the availability of shoes in Haiti, even following the recent earthquake, and provides photos as well. TOMS even donates shoes within the United States, and I don't think I need to provide proof that there is no shortage of shoes in this country (I can't really figure out why TOMS would donate shoes within the US at all, but that is a separate issue entirely). Finally, the following video highlights a number of the problems with the idea and execution of shoe donations, and includes a number of examples of shoe sellers in third world areas.
The last piece of the argument against TOMS and GIK is concerned with using resources efficiently. Many argue that the costs associated with collecting, packaging, shipping and distributing donated clothing adds up to the extent that most of the final cost is attributed to overhead rather than distribution of donated goods. Bill Easterly provides an interesting and humorous look at the economics of in-kind clothing donations here, concluding that giving cash is a preferable option to sending goods overseas.
BD Keller discusses the many of the problems with GIK, and focuses for a bit on the opportunity costs of these types of donations, with World Vision serving as the case study for his piece. He writes:
For a second, let’s assume that GIK doesn’t have any negative or positive effects — let’s pretend it has absolutely no impact whatsoever. (In fact, this may be a decently good approximation of reality.) Even then, WV would have to account for how much they spent on the programs. How much did WV spend in staff time, administrative costs like facilities, and field research by their local partners coordinating donations with NFL and other corporate groups? On receiving, sorting, shipping, paying import taxes, and distributing their gifts-in-kind? If they’ve distributed 375,000 shirts over the last few years, and done all of the background research they describe as being necessary to be sensitive to local needs… I’m sure it’s an awful lot of money, surely in the millions.Everything Keller writes about World Vision can be applied in the same way to TOMS. Every dollar spent organizing, transporting and distributing TOMS shoes to the poor is a dollar that could be spent more efficiently, with greater impact. Instead of spending approximately $25 (half the cost of a typical pair of TOMS) to get each pair of donated shoes onto a child's feet, TOMS could take that same $25, buy shoes locally for less than $5, and use the remaining $20 to make a further positive impact. That $20 could be spent on education, medicine, microfinancing or meeting some other need of the local community. But instead TOMS and other organizations that practice GIK donating waste that money on administrative fees and overhead. It is wasteful, unfortunate and (in the eyes of many) unacceptable.
What Does All This Say About Blake Mycoskie?
At best, Blake is a concerned and generous business owner who is simply unaware of the negative effects of his shoe donations. Optimism would say that he is a man with pure motives who really wants to make a difference. At worst, he is using the illusion of helping the poor to take advantage of consumers who are ignorant about how these donations really effect the people who receive them. Pessimism would say that TOMS is a scam that takes advantage of poverty to sell an inferior product and fatten Mycoskie's wallet.
The truth is likely somewhere in between. I hesitate to go so far as to accuse Mycoskie of having purely profit-driven motives; my worldview requires me to give him the benefit of the doubt. Yet I doubt that this unbelievably bright and talented entrepreneur is completely unaware of the effects of bad aid. There is no question that One Day Without Shoes helps increase sales of TOMS and adds to his bottom line, and that shoe donations are good business for the company. After all, who would buy his product otherwise? Mycoskie took a subpar product, combined it with a brilliant marketing plan, and has fattened his wallet considerably. That requires respect on one hand and cynicism on the other.
Do Better Options Exist?
I was talking about this issue with one of my friends, and she mentioned that she gets frustrated with those who complain about the ways aid or charity is given without proposing alternatives for helping those in need. There is a lot of truth to that statement, and I actually agree with her. But the difference with TOMS is this: I am not arguing against Mycoskie's methods because I think he should be donating something other than shoes; rather, the reason I am arguing against TOMS and the in-kind donation model is because such giving is bad aid, harmful to the very people it claims to be trying to help. All that being said, my friend is right. This piece would be incomplete without briefly discussing other alternatives for charity and aid.
How and where is best to donate depends completely on who and how you are trying to help. For example, if you are concerned with the health issues faced by allegedly barefoot children in Haiti or Africa, you would be better off donating money to build wells or latrines which would have a positive effect on the entire community and last much longer than a pair of shoes. After all, water borne diseases are as prevalent and devastating as soil borne diseases, if not more so. Building wells or latrines will have a greater, longer lasting impact on more people than "donating" through TOMS. Everybody wins. You can donate to The Water Project to help build wells in Africa or to Water Aid to help build latrines. If donating clothes or shoes is your passion, find a way to purchase the goods from local sellers rather than flood the market with free goods and undercut the local economy. Finding such avenues might not be easy, but it is necessary that donors do their due diligence in order to make sure that their aid is actually making a positive impact rather than a negative one.
A simple rule of thumb can be used for questions like this: if the good is available locally, it is almost always better to purchase it from the local sellers, which both provides the poor with the goods they need and supports the local economy; if the good is not available locally, donating the good from the outside might be appropriate.
At any rate, cash is always a better alternative to donating goods; cash is more efficient, can be used to meet the specific needs of a village or family, and has virtually no transportation or overhead costs. Another trend that has been developing alongside in-kind donations is microfinance. While microfinance is not without its own problems, it is a form of aid that forces recipients to take responsibility for their own development and encourages economic and personal growth. In this way it is at least an improvement on in-kind giving.
There are certainly other "good aid" options available besides the ones I have mentioned, and I encourage you to seek them out. However, be careful to consider the ramifications of any donation scheme (not meant in a negative context), no matter how good or pure the intentions may seem.
If you want to learn more about the issues with TOMS and in-kind giving, I have provided a number of links which are well worth reading. Saundra Schimmelpfennig's Good Intentions Are Not Enough site is the most complete and in depth place to learn about the issues with bad aid, but the other links I've provided are informative as well. Hopefully you find at least some of them useful.
- Discussion of the effects of in-kind donations and TOMS at The Social Change Collaboratory
- Donating Shoes and Other Aid Fads at Good Intentions Are Not Enough
- Thoughts on TOMS and why the problem is poverty, not shoelessness, at Where Am I Wearing
- Buying Products Tied to Charities Depresses Giving at The Chronicle of Philanthropy
- TOMS out-competing local businesses at Short Sentences
- Extensive discussion of good and bad aid at Aid Watchers
- TOMS vs. Whole Foods at smorgasblurb
- Discussion of Stuff We Don't Want (SWEDOW) at katintanzania
- Why Foreign Aid is Hurting Africa at The Wall Street Journal
In the end, I don't aim for anyone who owns TOMS shoes or supports Blake Mycoskie to feel attacked or singled out. That isn't my goal at all. However, I believe that it is essential for us to consider the effects of our interactions with the poor and to make sure that we aren't doing more harm than good in our dealings with people in need. In some limited cases, yes, in-kind donations may be an appropriate approach. But too often we make assumptions about how to fix the world without considering the negative impacts we are having on it. Our desire to help is understandable and commendable. But vehicles such as TOMS are not the best ways for the haves to help the have nots. My concern is not motive, but rather outcomes. And because of all the issues that come along with shoe donations and other GIK aid, TOMS can and should be classified as bad aid.
If you have read this far, I appreciate your attention. This is the longest post I have written to date, but this is an issue which I believe deserves our full attention. I don't claim to have all the answers, and I have tried to borrow from articles and other blogs as much as possible so as to lean on those who are more informed than I am. I would love to know your thoughts on this issue; please don't hesitate to leave a comment below. If you want a concise takeaway from this post, this quote from The Point Weekly sums it up perfectly:
"Solving issues of poverty takes a long-term commitment to communities and involves more work than just giving shoes away."And so on...