In mid-2006 I travelled solo across West Africa for a number of weeks. I hitched, bartered and generally coerced my way onto pretty much anything that moved (and found myself on many things that subsequently stopped moving). I had a backpack, a small wad of cash, and a single pair of flip-flops.
I liked my flip-flops. A couple of weeks before leaving I lost my sandals in an ill-conceived swim across the Niger River after a wayward current took me out of control and sucked them from my feet. I trust they ended their days in the care of some lucky fisherman. To ease my loss, a friend donated an old pair of flip-flops that had belonged to her brother. They were tatty, worn, and extremely comfortable. Travelling light, they were my only footwear.
Weeks later I found myself in a rickety Mercedez wagon with 8 other passengers, somewhere between Nouakchott and Atar, when the thong on my right flip-flop finally gave out.
Disaster. Here I was, white guy in the middle of the Sahara, and my beloved and only pair of footwear had just broken.
We were stopped in some nameless desert outpost, and a bunch of kids, seeing me limping with one foot in the dust, took pity on me and called me over. One scrounged in the dirt until he found a thin bit of discarded wire. With practiced expertise he fed this through the broken thong, down through the hole between the toes, and then into the bit of broken rubber I’d salvaged. A couple of tugs and twists later, and he presented the repaired flip-flop to me with a big smile. When I offered him some cash for his efforts he waved me away with a toothy grin.
The jimmy-rigged footwear lasted me all the way back to London, where I proudly (and to some consternation among my friends) showed them off.
A company called TOMS Shoes in the US is running a campaign called “A Day Without Shoes” today (April 5). It’s to raise awareness of children in developing countries who have to grow up without shoes, and asks people to spend one day barefoot to raise awareness of this fact. ADWS is also to help TOMS sell more shoes. TOMS has a buy-one give-one policy where they will donate a pair of shoes for each pair bought through their campaign.
(If you think I’m being cynical, our web-filter at work blocks access to the ADWS campaign site because it is categorized as ‘Shopping’).
It’s great when for-profits use their wealth to look for solutions to poverty. Definitely. When they do it well. And by well, I mean it has to be effective, sustainable, thoughtful, appropriate and needed. TOMS and ADWS falls a little short.
First, it fits neatly into the SWEDOW category (Stuff We Don’t Want), right alongside winning concepts such as the Million T-Shirts campaign. It’s about giving stuff, and giving stuff is not a structurally sound solution to poverty, often creating more problems than it solves.
Second, it’s not really that dignified. ADWS characterizes kids in developing countries as shoeless objects of our sympathy. It focuses on what they don’t have instead of what they do (such as ingenuity, creativity and resilience). In effect, it places a value on their lifestyle based on their lack of access to the same materialistic options that we have.
People almost everywhere have access to shoes. Maybe they’re not $200 cross-trainers. Maybe they’re jimmy-rigged flip-flops or thongs made from the rubber off a car tyre. But I have yet to find a place where nobody has shoes (which is not to say I don’t go to places where some people don’t have them). Even in Tonj, southern Sudan, in 2004- one of the most globally disconnected markets on earth- you could find cheap flip-flops for sale from the handlebars of a bicycle.
Instead of throwing shoes at kids, maybe we could sit and learn about shoes from them. I’ve now applied the trick this kid in Mauritania taught me half a dozen times to other broken flip-flops. Children in developing countries are masters of improvisation and creativity, whether it’s about shoes, or toys, or some other facet of childhood. I hope that when my own kids are teenagers they’ll exhibit the same sort of initiative and creativity- as well as veering away from our western knee-jerk response to chuck something out the moment it’s broken.
I am not suggesting that it’s a good thing that children live in poverty or lack material goods. I am suggesting that the dearth of shoes in poorer communities is not the blight that TOMS implies. There are things we can learn from people in these contexts if we stop and see them as people with resilience, skills and insight, rather than as subjects for our sympathy. We need a collective mindset shift.
There are far worse things out there than having to wear a pair of second-hand flip-flops instead of the latest MTV-driven foot-trend. Lack of health-care, for example, which causes millions of preventable child deaths per year. Lack of shoes won’t factor highly on mortality and morbidity statistics. Why don’t we use the world’s available resources to stop kids from dying from malaria first, and then spend what’s left after that to get them nice shoes.
I’m not suggesting that TOMS is the worst organization in the world for wanting to give out shoes. I’m not even suggesting that wanting to turn a profit and help people at the same time is intrinsically a bad thing- although the motivation to make a profit can often blind people into making bad decisions (and exploiting people’s emotional reaction to poverty to make a mint would be a pretty feral trait). Using for-profit resources to make a difference in the developing world is a great approach. Really. But let’s do it right. Let’s not just give stuff.
TOMS, I get that shoes are your thing. If you’re really serious about wanting to provide footwear to the world’s barefoot children, try looking at a totally different form of investment. Instead of donating a pair of shoes for each pair purchased, take the cash equivalent of that donation (the production cost of the shoe plus the shipping/handling/storage/distribution costs) and instead sink that into local shoe manufacture.
You could set up your own production facility, but far better still would be to find out who’s already making shoes in a particular area and invest in their operation. Use your cash as capital investment to improve their production processes. Use your technical expertise to improve their marketing and distribution networks. Use your knowledge of corporate social responsibility to ensure that their labour practices don’t exploit workers, and that their environmental practices are up to scratch. This way your expertise is passed on to local businesses which can grow and flourish, and even have a knock-on effect into other ventures. Local people have jobs. Local suppliers have product they can sell and also turn a profit from. Local entrepreneurs learn new skills. Local households have income which they can spend whichever way they like.
You can see that, if you just give the shoes away, you forego all that good stuff above that you have the potential of acheiving. Not only that, but you’re actually working in the opposite direction- undercutting local manufacture and distribution, taking from their profits, and stymying the potential for local growth.
Give it some thought. Don’t take the easy way. There are no quick fixes to poverty. Don’t insult those of us who dedicate our lives to this stuff by implying that there are.
To finish my flip-flop saga: When I reached London I met some friends of the people I was staying with. They were a very sweet couple who noticed me careening around London in this ratty pair of flip-flops and were quite horrified. So much so that, without consulting me, they went out and bought me a brand new pair of flip-flops.
I was incredibly touched by this generosity. It was a beautiful gift from near-strangers, and if you’re reading this guys (you know who you are) that gesture has stayed with me all these years. That said, I didn’t actually need new flip-flops, and I didn’t actually want new flip-flops. I liked the ones I had. More to the point, tatty as they might have been, I was incredibly proud of them. I’d travelled 7,000km of West Africa in them, had had them patched together, and they were part of my story. In the end, much as I appreciated them, I barely wore the new flip-flops.
I’m not saying that people won’t want new shoes if you offer them some. I’m sure they will. I am suggesting that maybe they don’t actually need them as much as you think they do. And I’m suggesting that maybe, rather than just giving people something you’ve decided you want to give them, you should ask them what they’d actually like.
If you rock up in a village with a bag of shoes and say “would you like some free shoes? I have some to give away” they will, of course, say yes. But do you think this is giving people a choice? Do you think this is giving people respect? Imagine instead if you rocked up in a village with a mind towards dignity and an empty agenda and asked people, “if you could have anything, what would you like most?”
I suspect the response might be quite different.
PS- TOMS, if you’re really going to go ahead with this, maybe you could join forces with this guy…?
This post written as a contribution to @Good_Intents counter-campaign to the TOMS A Day Without Shoes campaign, “A Day Without Dignity“. Click here for a full listing of posts.
Photo: Tuareg sandals in Saharan sand dunes, Niger, Dec 2005.