31 comments on “A Day Without Dignity: The Power to Shoes

  1. Pingback: A Day Without Dignity | Good Intentions Are Not Enough

  2. I enjoyed reading this entry and think you have some good insight into the new trend of social entreprises. It is interesting how TOMS has been successful and I think there is both a lot to learn and a lot to avoid when looking at TOMS as a for-profit corporation. Would love to hear your thoughts on the social business I am a part of named Teach Twice. My hope is that our non-profit business will provide a self-empowering avenue for community leaders to take pride in their culture and share it with the world in exchange for funding to develop their educational infrastructure. Our website is http://www.teachtwice.org

  3. Who cares. They are still donating millions of pairs of shoes, not only ones that they donate to match a purchase but also the thousands that people individually donate and give away to people who need them. The people in other countries need shoes, yes, and that’s important. What’s more important is our realization that we don’t actually need shoes (or at least as many or as nice of shoes as we own.) You act as if what they are doing is the worst thing going on in the world. If you are going to whine and complain about something, then why not do it to make a change not just to get people to come to some “realization.”

  4. Great job! TOMS has amazing potential because of their popularity and good intentions but they need to redirect their efforts.

    If you want TOMS style shoes, alpargatas, check out this company!
    http://www.theworkingworld.org/index.php?action=market&subsection=0

    @k, he isn’t saying TOMS are evil, he is simply suggesting that are much better ways to help those in need. People need education and jobs, so that they have the option to buy their own shoes!

  5. Pingback: A Day Without Dignity – Hand Outs and Dependency | Erin Cagney

  6. I agree with much of your post, but its just not true that “people almost everywhere have access to shoes.” From my own experience, whole swaths of India have no meaningful access to shoes, either because they are too expensive or because they are simply not available. I was born in the US, but much of my extended family grew up without footwear in India. Outside of the resulting increase in risk of tetanus, lack of footwear compounds problems in health care access, and even discourages kids from going to school (since they generally have to walk a few miles to get there). Lack of footwear might not be high up the list of issues western NGOs have identified as a problem, but my father would have been damn happy to have been given a free pair of shoes when he was a kid growing up in rural India, and I think that’s worth something.

    Again, I agree with what you’re saying about aid efficiency, and shifting our victimizing mindset regarding the people we want to help. But there’s no reason to minimize the problem of footwear access to make your point, especially when the rest of your argument is so strong.

    • Thanks so much for your comment and insight, raorao, and you raise a good point. I do agree with you that a genuine lack of shoes constitutes a practical and a public health problem, and I also agree with you that there are of course some places (and more specifically, some people in particular social strata) in the world unable to access footwear. I wouldn’t want to diminish either of these issues, so my apologies if that is the tone that comes across in this post. I also agree with your reflection that in some instances, people simply cannot afford footwear, even if it is available. It has simply been my experience, visiting a fair range of communities in quite intense material poverty, that for the most part, people still have access to some form of footwear- commercially-produced and/or home-manufactured.

      I’d be very interested to hear in respect to your own example though: the physical needs and poverty in India (and other parts of the world) a generation ago, versus what they are today: would there still be substantial portions of the population in rural India growing up without shoes today? I’m not questioning the presence of intense material poverty in some parts of India. However with the level of production, the high level of urbanisation and population growth, the spread of markets and produced goods, and (sadly) the proliferation of waste products from which people recycle and produce things, India is a vastly different country today to when your father grew up there. Would you still say that there are large numbers of children growing up in India who are not able to access a form of acceptable footwear? It’s an open question, as I have only visited India a few times, but with what understanding I do have, if you were to ascertain that yes, there are still many children in India who are unable to access footwear, I’d be genuinely surprised.

      • Thanks for your gracious response. I don’t know from personal experience, but I imagine you’re right that urbanization has greatly improved the lives of the average resident of Delhi or Kolkata. The same can’t be said of the rural villages, though — the coconut farming outpost where my family lived is pretty much the same as it was 50 years ago, where kids grow up with little access to the rest of the economy of India. My family subsidizes the village’s elementary school, and the top request from kids, after textbooks and school uniforms, is footwear. But I imagine that if we asked their parents, they would ask for jobs, roads, and access to modern medicine.

        To bring this back to TOMS, clearly their free shoes campaign isn’t going to build the infrastructure that would do the most for rural populations in India. So we’re all on the same page: lack of footwear can be a real problem for the poor, but handing out free shoes doesn’t address the underlying causes of poverty.

      • Thanks raorao for your perspective again, and interesting to hear that you reckon your family’s village is still quite disconnected in that way. I also appreciate your perspective that kids would be interested in ‘stuff’ and parents would probably be looking for more abstract benefits. What I love about your example as well is that it shoes something that always excites me about most developing communities I’ve engaged with- that kids are so passionate about getting an education, in a way that few children in the West are. And yes, I agree with your conclusion very much.

  7. Excellent article and one of the best I’ve read regarding the Day Without Dignity Counter Campaign. It’s also nice to see an argument against the “take off your shoes for a day” campaign without being too unforgiving. We can’t forget that while it’s not the most efficient or useful method, TOMS has also been able to raise awareness and make becoming educated about global issues “cool” for many normally apathetic middle-upper class kids and adults alike! Donating shoes may not make the impact they were going for but if it inspires others to act or creates a more empathetic environment, I’ll take it!

    • Thank you Catie- again I appreciate the nuance and balance you bring. Not being exposed to the TOMS marketing campaign here in Australia this is something I’m not familiar with, and these are good points. Ultimately, any action is going to be some level of trade-off between good and bad impacts (not always measurable). In this instance, TOMS have some [apparently] good intentions with some good side-effects as well. What we’re primarily concerned about is a) minimising harm (e.g. to local footwear manufacturers, or creating local tensions through inequitable wealth distribution) and b) trying to encourage organizations to do better with their contributions, and not just take the easy truck-and-chuck route to overseas assistance. Cheers!

  8. Totally agree and TOMS misses the point that many people in developing countries often prefer to go without shoes. It’s a western misconception that a lack of shoes equals poverty. Like you said, best they take their cash and invest!

  9. I agree with much of what you say, however, also echo similar sentiments to what “raorao” says (…increase in risk of tetanus, lack of footwear compounds problems in health care access, and even discourages kids from going to school- since they generally have to walk a few miles to get there). In many counties I’ve traveled in South and Central Asia, many children don’t have shoes, and many I talked with indicated it would be easier to get to school if they had them (obviously not a representative sample). And shoes do lower risk of tetanus and infection, which can be deadly in places without adequate health care. Although, I agree with your assertion that the Western knee jerk reaction of throwing “stuff” at problems is often counter-productive, I’m not going to fault Tom’s for doing what they do b/c I don’t think it’s actually causing problems in other countries. Would it be better to invest locally? Probably. Is it really sustainable in the long run, probably not. But it’s also not a bad thing.

    • Thanks Claire. What you and others have raised in this comments thread is fair- I have inadvertantly played down the risk of infection and harm to feet that people without shoes have, and that’s an error on my part- I haven’t meant to do that. Shoes do obviously protect kids’ feet from getting cut, infected, etc. in terrain that is often risky. So, yes, access to footwear and the choice to wear it or not is certainly beneficial for communities, and for children specifically.

      Where we differ would be the extent to which approaching this in the ‘wrong’ way matters. If it’s better to invest locally (and I think we agree it is), and if it’s not sustainable (and again, we agree that it isn’t)- then why do things this way? When we’re undermining local investment, stretching out unsustainability, and to boot reinforcing a negative pubilc message in the West that ‘throwing “stuff” at problems’ is actually the way to solve them, then we’re actually doing real harm. In practical (and cost) terms, it would actually be easier to invest the money rather than spend all this time and effort managing a shoe supply chain. So why do the give-out-shoe thing? Honestly- because it’s good marketing. “We’re going to give shoes to shoeless kids” is an easier sell to the public than “We’re going to invest in the shoe industry”.

      It may sound like we’re giving TOMS a hard time over nothing, but in a way, it’s because they’re so close to doing the right thing, but they’re missing the mark, and they could be doing so much better.

  10. Great post. I think it really takes a personal perspective to see that SWEDOW isn’t useful, though you’ve made a simple and compelling case here. I’ve got a pair of trainers which have lasted me through hours of street basketball and trekking around Australian wilderness, with the soles glued back together numerous times and holes repaired. They’re unbelievably comfortable. They also look quite haggard. I caved and bought a new pair, but have resolved to wear the old ones whenever my appearance isn’t important (most of the time!)

    • Heh heh- I totally get that David. When I was a teenager growing up, my mum would pretty much have to pry ratty old shoes off my feet and throw them out when I wasn’t looking. I’d take pride in the way my big toe protruded from the tip. I’m not heaps better now. :)

  11. I actually liked a lot of the questions you raised within TOMS reasoning for giving back shoes. However, as an avid TOMS supporter I will have to tell you a side I don’t think you are considering.

    Not only do shoes provide a barrier between soil transmitted diseases, i.e. the TOMS Capital campaign in ethiopia against podoconiosis, but also provide a means of transportation and a means to an education.

    In fact, one of the highest factors contributing to lack of education and literacy in developing countries is because children cannot get into school. The schools require not only shoes to get in, but a black pair of shoes with rubber soles, and therefore TOMS changed its giving model for those areas. With shoes they have a chance at an education, to become leaders and help be the change in their own community for their predetermined situations.

    TOMS also does repeat giving. They work with local and national organizations in hundreds of countries world wide. In Haiti they worked with health organizations and created health kits to provide children AND families with information on proper hand cleaning, teeth brushing, first aid kits, all kinds of things AND in each kit was a pair of shoes. TOMS also like I said does repeat giving. On average each shoe drop location receives shoes twice a year, yearly. How long this will last you ask? Well it depends on supporters, regardless of initial viewpoints on their alleged misguided efforts. In China, they modified their shoe into a boot for cold weather climates, and they alternate that with other shoe models during repeat giving. In ethiopia they give a full rubber boot to protect from the soil transmitted diseases.

    TOMS also works with local shoe manufacturer’s to employee local residents and keep money within local communities that they predominately do shoe drops at.

    So maybe this is a little more insight for you or others. Shoes are empowering, they are a source of aide that leaves that particular community intact and independent, vs. dependent on aid sources.

    • Thanks Kaitlynn for your thoughtful reply. You’ve put a lot of time into responding to something you’re passionate about and I’m sorry it’s taken me some time to reply.

      I do agree with you (and others who have raised the issue in this comments thread) that shoes do protect childrens’ feet from cuts and infection, and that this also has a link to kids access to schools when they have to walk long distances. Shoes certainly have value in this sort of context and I have inadvertantly implied otherwise in my post.

      You talk about entry requirements into schools and the need for shoes or even specific types of shoes. While there may be places where this is the case, and may even be places where this is enforced, I have not come across this in my career. Most schools I have been to in developing countries, kids will wear a variety of footwear, right down to recycled flip-flops, and I have been in enough schools where kids go barefoot to class too. So I think this may be a context-specific problem, but not a generalized one.

      You talk about TOMS’ giving model and repeat giving. Your example suggests that TOMS is a more sophisticated giver of stuff than many organizations, but still ‘gives stuff’. It’s this that we generally take issue with- and the reason for this you capture yourself “How long will this last you ask? Well,it depends on supporters.” Yes- this is exactly the sustainability issue. For the few years that an organization gives stuff to this village, the supply is fine, but once supporters’ interest fades (and it always will, sooner or later), the supply of stuff stops, and then the village no longer has access to that stuff. And, the longer the supply of ‘stuff’ to the village goes on, the more the village comes to rely on that supply instead of relying on their own resources, so local capacities are undermined. This is exactly why I’d have to disagree with your statement that this source of aid leaves communities “intact and independent”.

      You talk about TOMS working with local shoe manufacturers. This is interesting and the first time I’ve heard somebody mention this fact. This is certainly a good thing- but to some extent is a bit counter-productive- with the one hand they are supporting shoe manufacture, and on the other they are filling the market with free shoes and therefore reducing the demand for local produce and undermining those same manufacturers. If TOMS could do more of the investing in local manufacture and less of the handout, then I think we could start feeling a bit more positive about the impact they’re having.

  12. I have a bit of trouble with your position, and here’s why. If giving something like shoes makes children become “objects of our sympathy” then I have to follow the thought to its logical conclusion: Why give anything at all? Why are we sending food and water instead of seed packets and directions on how to dig a well? Why send medicine and doctors instead of medical textbooks and vaccine ingredients so they can build their own labs and then learn how to make and give injections? I realize I’m oversimplifying, but do you see what I mean? At what point did giving and sympathy become a bad thing? If we have the technology and the ability, why is it wrong to give to those who don’t? Why would you want to oppose someone who is doing something to help, when there are so many millions more who are doing nothing? I guess I just fail to see how that is helpful either.

    • Hi Jen and thanks for your reply. You raise some really important point.

      I’ll jump to the end first. “Why would you oppose someone who is doing something to help…?”

      Well, two responses. First, we’re not so much ‘opposing’ them as challenging them to take their good intentions and do something better with them. This is because [second], their ‘something to help’ is, in its current form, actually running the risk of doing harm and not good.

      “Why give anything at all? Why are we sending food and water instead of seed packets and directions on how to dig a well? Why send medicine and doctors instead of medical textbooks and vaccine ingredients…?”

      YES! You’ve got it. That’s exactly what we’re trying to say here. Stop sending stuff, and start investing in helping people work their own way out of their problems. And the sorts of things you’re talking about- providing skills and the ability to use locally-developed technology- is exactly the sort of stuff that smarter givers are trying to do. The whole point of SWEDOW- Stuff We Don’t Want- is that we’re trying to get people out of the mentality of thinking that giving ‘stuff’ is any sort of a solution. We would LOVE to see governments and donors figuring out ways to enable people in less developed countries to provide their own solutions rather than the more popular solution (because it looks good to the public) of sending stuff.

      As you say, the conversation is a little simplified- there are all sorts of barriers, considerations, etc., especially at a governmental level. But for an organization like TOMS, it would be so simple for them to take that next step and focus on helping communities source their own shoes, rather than give them shoes from the US. That’s what we’re wanting to encourage- here and in many other sectors as well.

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  14. great post, and put my thoughts into words. The thing I don’t like about the whole “no shoes” day is it is showy. It is trendy. Let’s show we care by actually doing something, giving something, etc. I don’t see a problem with sending shoes to impoverished areas in need of shoes. We have friends who did a massage collection of used crocs to take to Uganda and the kids LOVED them. So, I say Good for shoes!

    BUT… I think thousands participate in this as a trend, as a fashion statement, as a cool thing to do. They buy Toms because they are cool (though totally ugly and not supportive shoes), not because they give shoes away. Really…that’s why they buy the shoes? No it’s what makes them feel good about buying a $50 pair of slippers. “oh, they give a pair away” Which is good… but come one… no one is an avid TOMS wearer just because they give shoes away.

  15. Pingback: TOMS shoes and A Day Without Dignity « Hands Wide Open

  16. Pingback: Aidwars: TOMS shoes vs dignity — Marshall Birkey Blog

  17. I once made the mistake of walking to work in flip-flops on a rainy summer day. Soon I was slipping and sliding and had to take them off. This made me a bit nervous, since i lived in New York City at the time, but the rest of the 1.5 mile walk was more or less without incident. Now, I only repeated this activity one other time, but I found (once again) that walking across Manhattan in warm weather isn’t so bad when you are barefoot.

    Walking barefoot in the country, however, isn’t the same. I grew up on a farm. There are a lot of dreamy ideas about country living, and one of those is that you are much freer to wander without shoes. That may have been in the “old days” but it isn’t smart behavior now. Wires, lost nails, chemicals and the roaming piece from a cultivator or soil-ripper could cause a lot of pain and possible infection. I imagine that many rural areas in developing nations have similar, and possibly worse, dangers.

    Most of the people who walked barefoot the other day (as well as the author of this post and me) are blessed with the fact that at any time they can go home and put on or purchase a pair of shoes. That action can be seen as either a blatant show-off “look how concerned I am about the plight of the impoverished” one or an attempt at seeing the different ways one deals with the ground when you confront it without shoes. Maybe something that small can alert someone to the facts of lives other than their own, and bring them to donate shoes or be careful about the brand of shoes they wear.

  18. a little of something is better than a whole lot of nothing….yes tom’s could use some redirecting but could your energy be spent on those companies that don’t do a blastd thing. better yet those companies that also engage in slvae type labor or extremyl unhealthy work conditions and abuse their workers.
    your post quite honestly sounds a bit judgemental and I don’t know what you’ve done yet to judge toms.

    • Hi greg and thanks for your response.

      I have to disagree with you on a couple of fronts regarding your opening statement:

      “A little of something is better than a whole lot of nothing”

      Well, that’s not true when the little of something actually causes harm, which is what we would argue dumping ‘stuff’ onto developing communities can do. You wouldn’t take that position when it comes to medicine. “Oh, if you’re sick, just take a little of whatever medicine you can find, it’s better than nothing”. Actually, not true- it can make you far sicker.

      Likewise I disagree with the assertion “a whole lot of nothing”. This is exactly the sort of thinking we take issue with (and which leads to the tendancy to dump stuff on communities). These communities don’t have “a whole lot of nothing”. They may be some things they lack (either perceived or real), but they also have skills, resources, coping strategies, labour, intelligence- in short, a whole load of potential which may be there but just need redirecting- or in fact may even be directed in just the right way, but with our external perspective we may not recognize it for what it is.

      We focus on TOMS not because we think TOMS is crap, but because TOMS is so close to doing something really good, and with a bit of pressure and an investment of our energy, maybe we can get them to do things better (unlike organizations which may have no interest in doing things better or changing). Think of it as our challenge to TOMS: Show us that you’re serious about doing the right thing here, and aren’t just out to line your own pockets.

      That doesn’t mean we neglect other organizations. In fact if you shop around the aid blogosphere, there are PLENTY of posts criticising other aid practices. And if you follow up human rights organizations, they’re forever calling out the dodgy practices of corporations doing bad things such as slave labour and poor work practices. The organization I work for is part of a group of organizations here in Australia that criticised Cadburys for their labour practices, and pressured the company into starting to produce and market chocolate that was guaranteed fair trade. So don’t think that because we’re talking about TOMS today that we’re not interested in other organizations. But right now they’re one thing we’d like to see changed.

      I’m sorry you think the tone of this post is judgemental. I don’t believe it is. It’s a challenge, made by a professional aid worker with more than a decade’s experience in aid and development, to encourage a company which expresses a good intention, to think about its actions and do a better job.

  19. I just stumbled upon this and just loved what you had to say. My husband and I agree that TOMS isn’t evil but their business model is flawed and harmful to the local shoe salesman. We support Lemonade International and their Christmas shoe project supported a local shoemaker in La Limonada, the largest urban slum in Central America. http://www.lemonadeinternational.org/2011/11/la-limonada-shoemaker-set-to-make-350-pairs-of-shoes-for-children/

  20. Pingback: Images of Africa « WanderLust

  21. Pingback: Tornado #SWEDOW | WanderLust

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