Friday, April 15, 2011

TOMS: A Discussion on Bad Aid

We are a culture fixated on the newest thing. Whether it is the iPad, hybrid cars or some other fad, we grab hold of it in an effort to be "cool" or some other adjective. Perhaps the biggest fad of the last few years has been a five year old footwear company: TOMS shoes. On April 5, TOMS and their supporters came together for the event "One Day Without Shoes", asking people to go barefoot for a day to raise awareness concerning "those people who don't have a choice."

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.

Health Effects
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...

Creating Dependency
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 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.

Resource Inefficiencies
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.

Learn More
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...


  1. Very interesting. I never thought about undermining local businesses by sending GIK. I like the ideas about building wells, and microfinance. I don't know the details about how much GIK World Vision provides. I know that they do have child sponsorship programs, like Compassion International. Compassion provides an ongoing commitment to communities and individual children, providing education, food, and medical care. I believe that money sent to them is spent locally on these goods, if I'm not mistaken. It seems to be really needed. Whenever we send an extra gift of money for the child's birthday, Christmas, etc., it is spent on basic food and clothing for the child and sibling. It doesn't seem that they can afford to spend it on non-essentials.

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  2. Kevin,
    This is a very well thought out piece with a lot of insightful information -- aspects of this issue that I have NEVER considered. Not sure if I agree with all of it yet (still thinking about some aspects) but I think anyone would be hard-pressed to refute the case you've made here. Really good stuff.

    If you have ANY interest in getting this published, shoot me a FB message or something. I can recommend a couple of magazines/editors that might be very interested in something like this.

    Thanks for the post.

    Cheers ...

  3. I only wish everyone and their mother would read this. Or that Jon Krakauer would read this and be inspired to give TOMS the same treatment he gave to Three Cups of Tea. Very, very well done.

  4. Stumbled upon your entry - Thank you for providing a well written and detailed posting of the major issues.

    I've relatively recently dived into this issue and am inspired to find additional content to add to your "Do Better Options Exist?" section. Specifically, how can we leverage business to create sustainable impact in local economies, whether they be the base of the pyramid demographic or even in developed countries that have people in need.

    Thoughts or resources to help this research?

  5. Great post. Well summed up. However, couldn't help but notice the TOMS tower ad to the right of this post. Coincidence?

  6. @policyonrye: Thanks, I appreciate that.

    @Michael T: Thanks for the kind words. To your question, only one real answer comes to mind with regards to how to leverage business: money. The only way to "force" businesses to do any one thing or another is by showing them that it's better for their bottom line. Unfortunately, that isn't a very tenable option, as neither you nor I have the ability to affect (m)any companies all that much. It seems to be more purposeful and impactful to educate the average consumer and donater on where their dollars and going and what impact they are really having. We won't likely be able to change TOMS business model, for example, but we may be able to get its customers to reconsider.

    @Anonymous: Thanks. As to the advertisements, it seems that Google AdSense places ads based on web page content, meaning that a post on TOMS will have TOMS ads, while a post on Christian bookstores might have one for Berean. Nevermind that the posts are critical of these institutions. Either way, it isn't something I'm concerned about too much in the grand scheme of things.

  7. Have you personally been to these countries where the children are exposed to disease? Such as Ethiopia?
    Have you seen the symptoms these people have to endure from going barefoot?
    Are you aware that TOMS makes their shoes in Argentina, Ethiopia and China? And they GIVE in those countries!?
    Have you contacted any of the NGO's that TOMS works with world-wide about how often or how they maintain the sustainable giving to the children when they out-grow or out-wear their shoes?
    Is there any studies specifically linked to the places where TOMS gives shoes and to show what kind of impact whether it be negative or not??

    Do you realize that there are many other organizations whether it be a non-profit or a for profit business donating goods around the world?
    You have a bigger task at hand to take down the whole reason charitable giving exists.
    And if you donate money $$ how do you know if that money will even go towards the reason you are donating?? And what exactly is the money for?? They sure aren't handing an envelope of cash to these people in need. They are using them for goods, or to build schools, etc.

    You might as well boycott all charities, non-profits, for profits, and any company that gives in anyway.
    What are you doing personally to help the world? Probably nothing because you are spending your time trying to take down people who are trying to do good and help people. You should be ashamed of yourself.

    Oh and where is your blog post on Sketchers BOBS?? They apparently give TWO pairs of shoes!! Now we are all in trouble according to you.

  8. To My Concerned Anonymous Commenter,

    I appreciate your thoughts, though I do disagree with your premise rather completely. While you lose a number of points in my book for hiding behind an Anonymous tag while making an attack on me, I do believe it is important to give everyone their due time. As such, I'm going to try and respond to your questions point by point.

    First of all, no, I have not been to any of the countries where TOMS donates shoes (except the United States of course, but I'd suggest we ignore that piece, for both our sakes). However, that is not something I shy away from at all. I freely admit (and did so in the post) that I am not an expert on anything; instead, I am an individual who is committed to seeking answers to some of the big questions facing us as human beings. One of the things I've discovered is that it would be a waste of time and resources for me to go to Africa or Haiti and try to "help". In fact, to do so would be quite literally hypocritical of me. As such, I have and will refrain from doing so.

    Instead of going to these place myself, I have chosen to rely on others who have gone before me, listening to and learning from their experiences in these places. Overwhelmingly, the evidence they have provided has pointed to the ineffectiveness and lack of need for in-kind giving.

    As I stated explicitly in the article, there are not any studies linked specifically to the places where TOMS is donating. However, extremely relevant studies have been done concerning clothing donations, studies which can be applied with a great degree of relevance to TOMS.

    Yes, my anonymous friend, I do realize that there are a great number of organizations who engage in the same kind of donating that TOMS is involved in. I certainly am not trying to argue that TOMS is the only company or organization at fault; in fact, I speak about World Vision a significant amount in the article. I hope you didn't skip that section.

    And while TOMS and WV are not alone, it would be foolish to waste my time discussing every single other organization doing the same things as TOMS. In writing this piece, I assumed a measure of reading comprehension from my readers through which they would understand that the same arguments against TOMS can be carried through to other players in the charity world. I thought this was clear, but perhaps not. This same point applies to your wish that I wrote about BOBS; obviously if Sketchers was simply copying TOMS and their donation model, the same issues would apply. It isn't worth my time to repost the same article and simply replace every instance of TOMS with BOBS; I trust that you can make the comparison for yourself.

    Regardless, this does not mean that I must boycott all charities and non-profits. Rather, it means that I refuse to support organizations that do charity the wrong way, while supporting organizations who do it the right way. The issue isn't that all charities and donation schemes are bad; rather, many of them (especially many of the most popular ones) do aid the wrong way, overshadowing those few who do make a real lasting positive impact on the world. Those are the ones I choose to support, and I do so proudly.

    1. I was wondering what some of your sources are. I am interested in finding out what charities are best to support, do you have a few favorite websites that you visit frequently?

    2. I either provided the link or a citation to all of my sources. Due to the nature of online writing, many of these are hyperlinked within the post. If there are any pieces of information or sources you are having trouble tracking down, please let me know and I will do my best to point you in the right direction.

      Finding out which charities are best to support is an extremely personal and difficult question to answer. I would say that the first step is to educate yourself on which charities are effective in whatever area of giving you are most interested in. Websites like, and are good places to start looking for which charities are efficient, successful and trustworthy, and perhaps more importantly, which are not.

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  9. I really enjoyed and appreciated this post - thanks!

    I don't have a whole lot of money to spare so I started out trying to find the most efficient way for me to help people a while ago. That was when I first discovered how inefficient or downright harmful some charities are.

    I'm always on the look out for organisations I can support that will do the most good and posts like these really help.

    My only gripe (I couldn't let you get a bid head, could I? : P ) is with your response to the anonymous commenter from July 11. Although I do disagree with that person I never begrudge someone the status of anonymous. There are a whole lot of reasons that a person may not want to share their identity and I don't think that should be held against people nor should it stop them from being able to participate in discussion - oftentimes their opinions become even more important to be heard because of whatever is preventing them from posting under a name.

  10. I have seen a TED talk about why our entire model of aid is flawed. Currently, most of our governmental aid is used to buy American corporate products, so big business is the real winner. Also, foreign elections are frequently won by the man who will generate the most foreign aid, which is to say the man who will have the most pro-western policy.

    Lets look at Haiti. The US has threatened to cut off aid because their election didn't go our way. Hurray democracy! The US does MUCH worse things, like overthrowing entire governments...

    An glaring example of what I mean is the popular, nationalistic Sandinista movement, in Nicaragua. They were socialists who took the country from a literacy rate of 50% to 90%. They did this by nationalizing the country's resources, and equitable land distribution. Poverty was nearly eliminated in just a decade.

    How did the US react to this? The CIA attacked and undermined the popularly elected sovereign government, training and supporting the Contras to fights the Sandinistas.

    Why does the US oppose raising other countries out of poverty? We lose the dirt cheap labor, and natural resources. This is the real reason so much of the southern hemisphere is in poverty.

    We can talk about TOMS, but all of this is just a band aid on a gaping wound that my own country has inflicted on the world. Kevin, I do appreciate the in depth discussion on aid, and your piece is well written. In reality however, footwear aid pales in comparison to the harm our nation has inflicted on the world.

    The Sandinistas are but one example. Almost every country in the Southern hemisphere has a similar tale.

  11. I'm totally jumping on this blog post way late, but I really liked what you had to say. Dambisa Moyo would be proud! Keep up the good work!

  12. Kevin -

    You nailed it. Thanks.

  13. Kevin,

    Great blog post, as per usual. This is a fairly controversial topic, and your viewpoint has some spot on points as well as a few points I don't necessarily agree with. BUT, the bottom line is that you took a side and stuck with it - which is something not too many people will willingly do. That right there makes this blog post better than anything you've written (so far)!

    I definitely agree with a large portion of your position. TOMS is probably one of the better-known cases of Bad Aid and, while I believe you're a bit pessimistic towards TOMS' business model as a whole, it's still true TOMS is making a few mistakes.

    Your strongest points are without a doubt about Creating Dependency and Undermining Local Economies. In the effort not to regurgitate your content, I think you nailed those two points.

    Quite frankly, I think your position on Health Effects is unfounded for the most part, and I'm a bit curious as to why you led with that. The question as to whether or not shoes are helpful or hurtful seems a bit trite and ridiculous. We wear shoes or sandals every day because they provide a slew of benefits in various forms. With your argument that TOMS wearers are more susceptible to foot diseases after a year, put it in light of another condition. Could you really argue that providing insulin to a diabetic for a year, and then removing insulin, is creating more harm? That's one year the body has to wear sandals, or use insulin. Given the option to wear shoes for a year vs not, I bet you'd probably take it.

    I loosely disagree with your positions on Resource Inefficiencies in general, specifically because I don't think you could make the case that cash donations are better as an absolute.

    It's easy to look at someone's work and go one-by-one to find reasons why points are wrong. It's easy to voice opinions for the sake of being loud. My disagreements aside, this post is fantastic and you're spot on. I doubt that Blake Mycoskie is sitting around and using ONE-FOR-ONE as a profit-generating ploy alone; in fact, he's probably proud that he's building a sustainable company with social capital. But, this doesn't mean we should ignore the problems associated with disrupting local economies and creating dependencies. There are better ways to solve the problems of a world without shoes.

    P.S. The tiff between the Anonymous poster and you is just hilarious. Chances are that the poster didn't have any credentials to post with any profile. But let's face it: if you have the balls to take name credit for a positive post, you should sure as hell have the balls to put your name behind a negative post. Kudos to you, Kev.

  14. Totally late getting in here, but what do you guys think about Two Degrees Food? They are doing the one-to-one thing with food and just got picked up for national distribution @ Whole Foods selling snack bars.

    For each one sold they give one of those plumpy nut medical nutrition packs to a kid in Africa who is malnourished. They don't mention anything about the famine in the Horn of Africa, but they gave to Malawi in Feb and I would guess more are on the way.


  15. From a local business owner in Texas who donates many things to our local charities (most of which goes towards donation waste, and on our end we foolishly don't market our donations such as Tom's does), I think this is a great article.

    Honestly, I am sick of being targeted daily for donations for charities that people are running usually for 'feel good' marketing or because they have nothing to do and it makes them feel special.

    Nancy the housewife loves to put together a gala for the women's club so they can raise $10k, spend $1k on her dress, hair, and makeup, and donate $1500 total after the event is over. So everyone got sloppy drunk and looked like a million bucks in 3 layers of spanks and make up for a night while each tried to flirt with their ex boyfriend Johnny she used to blow in high school.

    It is an entire industry of greed and self fulfillment so they can make it to heaven aka fool themselves into thinking they won't be rotting in a box one day.

    Yeh, I got off track a bit. But its all true.

  16. It really bothers me when somebody sits on their couch criticizing and nit-picking the people who actually got off their couch and tried to help someone. It's just an appallingly conceited thing to do. Instead, how about getting out there and helping people yourself and then letting us know how it goes?

    1. Zane, thanks for taking the time to lend your thoughts. The thing is, we’re starting from two different places in this conversation. You believe that it is admirable simply to “get off your couch and try to help someone.” I believe that before anyone jumps off their couch and runs into the war on poverty, or drugs, or whatever, they need to make sure that what they’re doing will have a positive effect. In other words, you’re all about motives. I’m all about outcomes.

      The first rule of teachers and doctors is well known: first, do no harm. However, I firmly believe that this should also be the first rule of charities and aid workers. Unfortunately, I fear it is not. If it were, aid wouldn’t be given in a way that cripples local economies and creates dependency among its recipients.

      Moses Isooba (Coordinator of Uganda’s Civil Society & Poverty Reduction Programme) said that “a majority of civil society actors in Africa see aid as a fundamental cause of Africa’s deepening poverty.” He isn’t alone in saying that. And if that is true (and I believe it is), we can’t continue to regard misguided and ineffective attempts at solving poverty as a good thing. If we want to help Uganda, we need to start listening to Ugandans. And so on.

      In the end, we both agree that when it comes to aid and charities, we should all get off our couches. You believe we should get up and pitch in, supporting organizations like TOMS who have wonderful motives and lofty ambitions. That’s where we split…I agree that we need to get off our couches, but when it comes to organizations like TOMS, we should do so in order to run the opposite direction.

  17. Kevin,
    Life is complicated. Doing anything -- and that includes helping people and offering aid in the form of shoes-- doesn't ever, ever yield perfectly black or white results, despite our good motives. The outcome is always a vast murky gray. Always. Just as it is in every other charity, and all areas of life. There is give and take, good and bad, and often when one aspect flourishes and improves, another one unsuspectingly suffers. There is no getting around this, no system is all good for everyone and everything, and to think otherwise is, I'm afraid, dangerously simple-minded.

    When people do get off their couches and take action, they soon find that action requires making really tough choices: Deciding what bad you will take with what good, knowing that there's no avoiding a little of both, and ultimately making that difficult call. For the people still sitting on their couches, however, it's very easy to point out all the bad, since of course they aren't the ones having to make the tough choices, anticipate the unexpected, and somehow prioritize human needs. This is why I find your piece frustrating.

    My urging you to go out and help someone yourself was actually an earnest one. I really do feel that if you put together your best strategy, went out there and did some of this work, you would see that the effort yielded varied results, though hopefully more good than bad. Outcomes, like life, are imperfect, but we get back out there and keep trying to help.

  18. Hi there, a facebook friend posted your blog link and I find your thoughts insightful and appropriate. I agree that it is admirable for anyone to try and be a more ethical consumer, but I also agree that if someone has got to a point were they want to be more ethical they need to take a small amount of extra time to really look at what the best consumer choices are.

    You have obviously done good research and reading for this post, it was a pleasure to read. Particularity I like how you do not chastise those who do try to do well, our awareness of the consequences of our aid is not always in line with what is the truth.

  19. You made several nice points there. I did a search on the matter and found the majority of persons will have the same opinion with your blog.

  20. I was intrigued by your argument until I realized that you have no hands-on experience with aid whatsoever.

    1. The beautiful thing about truth is that it doesn't matter who says it, it's still true.

  21. This article is full of excellent informative content. The points you make are interesting and original, and I agree on many of them. Thank you for writing on this topic.


  22. How many shoes have you given to poor and needy people who cant them anyway

    1. ...None. But that's my point, so I'm not sure what you're really asking.

  23. I enjoyed reading this article and it provides many great points, however there is (as usual) another side of the coin that should be examined. A bit about me and my credentials, I founded and ran a charity that donated soccer kits to charities all over the world, who in turn used them to reach their charitable aims. It was very successful, helping thousands upon thousands of people.

    Reading this article, I do feel like you've only considered one method in which donated items can be used. Donated items can replace money, say the donated items are being used by the charity saving the charity money and in turn allowing more money to be spent on their cause, office space for example or stationary or items they use to promote their charitable cause. Donated items can be the carrot on the end of the stick, overcoming social stigmas to achieve charitable aims. This is what the charity I ran was effective at. We helped one charity whereby they began to use sport to improve the levels of school attendance, for boys it had increased from 40% to 92%, for girls it had increased from 14% to 91%. We were able to provide a way of overcoming the stigma attached with getting tested for HIV/AIDs through the use of soccer kits and soccer. We helped to bring warring Muslim children and Christian children together again through soccer and soccer kits. The list goes on and on. Donated items can provide new opportunities for charities. Charities that deal with people have two major roadblocks to achieving their aims, the ability to make the change and the willingness for change to occur. Engagement is essential if change is ever going to be truly achieved (ie. through the use of sport and sport kits). Engagement can be difficult, but donated items can provide that engagement for a fraction of the cost of actually paying for the items themselves, saving the charity money and, essentially, allowing charities to be more effective.

    With regards to appropriate practice on how many soccer kits should be provided, I always gave this advice to charities:
    Take no more than what you can get in your luggage allowance. A baffling point maybe, but it resulted in it being cheaper for the charity (no freight) and donations are more likely to be targeted to the individuals who truly need them, thus providing care without necessarily flooding the local economy.

    However that is not to say that you are wrong. Lets take TOMS as an example. Say they donated a sizeable proportion of their shoes to one community even though the item is already available there through commercial means, consequently undermining the local economy. If those items are not needed then that is bad. Ultimately though I don't feel that profit is a good enough reason to prevent the donation of goods if they are truly going to be of life saving help.

    Whilst there are negatives with the donation of goods there are also negatives with your alternative, the donation of money. As someone who has worked in the industry, I have seen and heard of money being ineffectively and inefficiently used, falling into the hands of the wrong people at times and doing little to actually help, an issue the charity sector needs to address. HOWEVER, virtually all charities rely on money in some shape or form so please do keep on donating.

    I think that when all is said and done, the reality is that donating money and donating items can both be classed as Bad Aid, but they can also be classed as Good Aid. It depends entirely on how they're used to create positive change.

    1. No doubt that donating money can be ineffective in certain situations, just as donating goods can be ineffective.

      I have no issue with donating food to starving people, or donating live-saving medicine where it is desperately needed. The thing I struggle with is donating goods where they are NOT desperately needed, where they are already available, and where the donation does more harm than good. That certainly doesn't describe every gift-in-kind situation, but it does describe many of them. So many, in fact, that I believe ANY giving-in-kind needs to be done carefully and only in specific situations.

      In the end, I think you're right...any kind of aid can be good or bad, depending on how effectively and efficiently it is used. I just worry that more aid is ineffective than effective, and inefficient than efficient, and we need to make a concerted effort to change that fact.

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

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  26. Thanks for the article. I do have one issue with your comment about donating in the US. It is horribly ignorant to assume that the united states has a surplus of shoes. So many people struggle with food insecurity everyday in the US they also have difficulty putting clothing on their back and shoes on their feet. We may be a first world country but we suffer from growing social stratification.

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