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Do TOMS really help?, or: has it really GOT to be the shoes?

True altruism is more than the capacity to pity; it is the capacity to sympathize. Pity may represent little more than the impersonal concern that prompts the mailing of a check, but true sympathy is the personal concern that demands the giving of one’s soul…our missionary efforts fail when they are based on pity, rather than true compassion. Instead of seeking to do something with the African and Asian peoples, we have too often sought only to do something for them. An expression of pity devoid of genuine sympathy leads to a new form of paternalism that no self-respecting person can accept. Dollars possess the potential for helping wounded children of God on life’s Jericho Road, but unless those dollars are distributed by compassionate fingers they will enrich neither the giver nor the receiver.
-
Martin Luther King Jr.

Let me get this out there right off the bat: I will NEVER buy or wear a pair of TOMS shoes. If you’re ever thinking about buying me a pair for Christmas or some other such special occasion, don’t. Thanks.

Now, I don’t have only bad things to say about TOMS. I think Blake (the company’s founder) and the rest of the company have the best intentions. But good intentions are not enough. We need good aid, not just good intention. And TOMS, I think, are bad aid.

You might ask how I could possibly be opposed to aid work or any kind of charity. After all, TOMS is out there on the front lines DOING something, rather than just sitting back and lamenting the current state of the world without taking action. And that’s true, I grant you. They are not doing nothing, and for that I commend them. But what they’re doing, I contend, isn’t really helping; in fact, it may be hurting in more ways than one.

On the surface, TOMS has hold of a great idea. You’re going to buy shoes anyway, so why not buy the right shoes, shoes that will help you be charitable with something you do anyway? It’s an easy way to help out your brother in need, and it gets you a pair of snazzy slip-ons in the process! But I, like Aidwatch blogger Vivek Nemana, am “unconvinced that easy aid could ever be good aid.” He writes, “Instead of taking a fundamental problem that people face–say, unsafe conditions for children–and thinking of what they need to help solve it, this model takes a solution–shoes–and staples it to some problem that people have. And by attempting to view the whole spectrum of issues through this single-dimensional proto-solution, it’s easy to forget about all the unintended consequences.”

Unintended consequences is right. TOMS provides shoes because, as they say, they help protect children from things like soil-born illnesses. A nice thought, but here’s the thing: feet are tough. We’ve survived for who knows how long without shoes. Our feet are designed to take it. In fact, The American College of Foot and Ankle Orthopedics and Medicine (what a mouthful!) says shoes might actually be bad for you. Yep, the people selling you those idiotic-looking toe-glove shoes have it right: “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.” Those African kids you’re putting shoes on have lived barefoot their entire lives. What happens when, after a year of wearing shoes, the callouses they’ve developed on their feet are gone? Unless TOMS is standing buy to immediately re-shoe them (and I doubt they can keep track of all the kids they send shoes to perfectly), they might actually be in more danger of soil-borne illnesses than they were before. Not that kids aren’t contracting them now–I’m sure some of them are–but more will probably get them if they ever go back to being shoeless.

Beyond that, though, the existence of soil-based disease is a symptom of the problem, not the problem itself (much like the shoelessness, but I’ll get to that later). Living with disease is, unfortunately, a way of life for many people living in undeveloped and underdeveloped countries. It’s in their water, their food, it’s everywhere. Covering a kid’s feet is, at best, a band-aid solution to the very real problem of disease. These countries need change from the ground up. They don’t need protection from disease as much as they need the disease to not be there. Clean up the soil and you won’t have to protect their feet from it.

Which leads to the point about shoelessness. The problem facing people in third world countries is NOT that they don’t have shoes. In a manner of speaking, it’s that they can’t buy shoes. They don’t have jobs, and they don’t have money. But on an even more basic level, they don’t have sanitation, clean water to drink or food to eat, and they don’t have access to medical care. In many cases, they may not even have a roof over their heads. Will a pair of shoes really solve any of these problems?

Well, according to TOMS, they will. In their giving report, they quote a Dr. Fwasa Singogo: “Shoes simply mean everything to a Zambian child. I am called doctor today because of the shoes my father bought, which motivated me to keep going to school and to work hard. Shoes were and are still a luxury in this country…” Now, it is true that while we in America generally speak of poverty in terms of owning (or rather, not owning) material possessions: a house, a car, a big TV, etc., while in third world countries it is more thought of in terms of dignity and the feeling of powerlessness that comes from a lack of wealth. But the key phrase in that quote is “the shoes my father bought“, not “the shoes that a wealthy white person gave to me”. He was given an opportunity, not pity: a hand up, not a handout, if you’ll forgive the cliché. If you want to give an African child real dignity, give him a chance to buy his own shoes; don’t just throw a pair of shoes at him and assume he’ll end up being a doctor. Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert write in When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor and Yourself, “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.” Ask yourself: what’s a greater source of pride? A pair of shoes, or a job that helps you buy those shoes?

(Moreover, why should we only trust TOMS to inform us of the all the good TOMS does? Not that I think they’re being intentionally deceptive; it’s just that I don’t think we can trust anyone to be truly objective about the “good” they themselves are doing. Look at it this way: when you buy a new car, do you take the car dealership at its word when they tell you you’ve got the best car on the market? God, I hope not. I hope you open up, for example, Consumer Reports and see what outside, objective, third-party researchers have to say on the subject. Why should it be any different with the shoes you buy, or the charities you give to?)

The biggest problem, though, might not even be that of disease or paternalism. Now, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to assess the economic effects of giving shoes to needy people in the third world; this is, after all, a young charity, and tangible effects may take years to show themselves. But the donation of used clothes from thrift stores and other such charitable organizations that’s been going on for years is, I think, analogous enough to draw a good comparison. Garth Frazer researched the effects of used-clothing donations on third-world economies for the Economic Journal, and found that “Used-clothing imports…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.” Read that again: fifty percent of the people who became unemployed over those twenty years became so because of charitable donations. When someone is provided with free shoes, the motivation to produce disappears. When the motivation disappears, production disappears. When production disappears, jobs disappear. And when jobs disappear, the money disappears–along with the resources to provide all the things people really need: food, water, sanitation, medicine, etc.

Now, I don’t want to be overcritical of Blake Mycoskie, TOMS, or the people buying the shoes. The desire to do good is admirable, and should absolutely be applauded. Blake, TOMS, heck, all of us comparatively wealthy Americans have been given a powerful platform form which to do real good. Problem is, we don’t seem to be doing it right. Let’s find a solution to a problem, not treat the symptoms. If you want to help, send 50 bucks to a nonprofit provided to providing sanitation in developing countries instead of buying a shiny new pair of TOMS. Clean water will go a lot farther than a pair of shoes, and last much longer than the year that the average pair of shoes will get you. Or maybe you could send money to an organization that will train and equip teachers–people who will provide children in other countries with real opportunities.

Or, if you still want to be charitable with your shoes, why not check out a company like soleRebels? Headquarted in Ethiopia, they provide jobs for the locals making handcrafted shoes. They’re the country’s only Fair-Trade certified organization (a claim easily verified via the World Fair Trade organization website), and are creating real opportunities.

Don’t look at yourself as a “donor”, or the people in need as “recipients”. Look at both of you as partners.

About Jeff

I'm just a city boy, born and raised in Central California, trying to figure out what exactly he wants to do with the rest of his life. Until I figure that out, I'll be writing about it here (and probably after I figure that out, too). View all posts by Jeff →

2 Responses to Do TOMS really help?, or: has it really GOT to be the shoes?

  1. Katherine says:

    Thanks Jeff! I’ve always wondered about the profit margin on these shoes. Did you find any information on that? I got a mailer from Heifer International recently and that looked like a good alternative as well. You can give the gift of a cow, chickens, etc, and it will give a family a livelihood and nutrition. They also receiving training on how to raise livestock. They can use the manure as fertilizer and increase their crop yields as well. The family also commits to giving the first offspring of their animal to a nearby family. I’m thinking this is going to be my next donation.

    • Jeff says:

      I didn’t find any info on their profit margin…but I didn’t really try. I figure “donating” to a for-profit is a waste of time regardless, but that’s not something worth arguing. Either you have a problem with for-profit “charity” or you don’t. That part of it just seems to be a matter of opinion.