Keep Your Shoes (and Your Dignity): “A Day Without Dignity” 2012 Speaks Out Against SWEDOW, GIK, and Whites in Shining Armor

TOMS Shoes are very popular among yogis, hipsters, and socially conscious urbanites. So as you might imagine, I see a lot of people wearing them here in Austin (a bastion of progressive thought and non-traditional lifestyles in the heart of the thoroughly conservative Texas). Some friends of mine attended a wedding here where the newlyweds requested that their guests wear a pair of TOMS shoes in lieu of bringing a wedding gift. There is always at least one pair of TOMS on the shoe rack of my yoga studio; DJ Dave of Fog and Smog (the group that broke out with “Whole Foods Parking Lot”) acknowledges that they are ubiquitous among the “yoga girls” of LA, at least.

This, unfortunately, means that I sigh internally every time I go to yoga class – not because I oppose the intention, but because the average consumer has no idea that the TOMS Shoes model, and GIK (gifts-in-kind) programs in general, don’t usually help – and can sometimes do more harm than good.

Aid bloggers, development snarks, and other pundits have been crusading against these kinds of programs for years and have even coined a term for it – SWEDOW (an oh-so-clever acronym for “stuff we don’t want”). It’s easy to use this to rant and rave about random useless crap that gets sent to humanitarian projects and aid relief missions, such as sending used yoga mats to Haiti, expired medicines to Indonesia, or used tea bags to medical clinics in India (true story: this happened when my father-in-law was working in medical missions in a clinic there). But some things are less intuitive, like donating baby formula to Darfur, or World Vision’s program of sending t-shirts with the losing Super Bowl team to Africa, or – as we will discuss today – TOMS shoes.

The TOMS one-for-one donation model seems, at first, to be an innocent and well-intentioned enough idea. The socially-conscious Western shopper buys a pair of trendy shoes, and TOMS donates a free pair to a poor child in a developing country. This, of course, operates under the assumption that there is an absolute dearth of shoes in the developing world where millions of children need them. While shoes are important to protect people from parasites and other soil-transmitted infections, there are several things wrong with building a business on this assumption: first, that people in poor countries do not have access to shoes; second, that what people in poor countries need most are shoes; and third, that giving out free shoes to people in poor countries will be all that helpful.

To address the first point: yes, there are shoes in poor countries. There are lots of them, in fact. It is extremely common to see local vendors selling clothes and shoes on the street or in open-air markets in pretty much any underdeveloped country you can think of. My husband saw them all the time when his family went to the local markets in Zimbabwe, where he lived as a kid; Paul Theroux buys them to wear while writing his travel novels.

Not only are shoes available in most of the places where TOMS does its “shoe drops,” but shoes are not exactly on the very top of the priorities list of most communities. If you think about this from the perspective of struggling communities in the U.S., it might make more sense: during the recession, certain areas had extraordinarily high unemployment rates and, as a result, missed mortgage and rent payments, lost their homes, experienced food insecurity, and could not afford their medical bills. Now imagine the response you would get if you went into, say, a trailer park in Detroit with a bunch of TOMS shoes and tried to distribute them to people as charity handouts. Somehow it does not paint such a rosy picture.

Finally – and most importantly – injecting huge amounts of free clothes and shoes into these markets has the potential to undermine local textile manufacturing and shoe repair businesses and put the above-mentioned vendors out of business, or significantly damage their livelihoods. While on the surface it seems like needy children are still getting shoes, shoes wear out eventually – and economies, which sustain communities, are not so easily repaired.

I thought of a yoga analogy, since the yoga studio I attend just celebrated its one-year anniversary and TOMS shoes are so popular among DJ Dave’s beloved “yoga girls.” Yoga is extremely popular in Austin, and there are dozens of independent, teacher-run yoga studios all over town, each with its own unique atmosphere and clientele. While yoga often has a spiritual aspect, the reality is that teachers and instructors have to charge for the classes to make a living. But let’s say that a yoga conglomerate based in New York City decides to “serve the Austin yoga community” by opening up a chain of absolutely free yoga studios – for every membership purchased by a New Yorker, they will give one free one to an Austinite. Do we need a chain of free yoga studios here? Absolutely not, but the yoga conglomerate never asked – they just showed up. Naturally, some Austin yogis will stick with their studios out of a sense of loyalty or because they like their teachers, but the average consumer will probably switch to the free studio – and anyone who decides to start practicing will probably sign up there as well. If most of their customer base leaves for free yoga, the aforementioned studios will lose revenue and eventually have to close up shop. All the yoga teachers will be out of work. Then, a year later, the NYC chain leaves. Now Austin has no yoga studios, and no yoga.

This is admittedly a highly frivolous example, but it still makes the point – it is foolish to provide free goods without asking if they are needed and assessing whether the donations will do more harm than good. Not to mention the fact that the money spent on TOMS Shoes could be put to much more sustainable solutions. Last year, Saundra Schimmelpfennig launched “A Day Without Dignity” as a counter-campaign to the TOMS “A Day Without Shoes” to raise awareness about the damage that GIK programs can do to local economies in developing nations:

This year, A Day Without Dignity 2012 is focusing on Local Champions – the antithesis to “Whites in Shining Armor.”

Journalist Amy Costello takes a closer look at TOMS Shoes in her podcast Tiny Spark, including examining the giving partners through which TOMS operates (and questioning whether those partners really serve the children most in need of shoes) and the true motivations of its founder, Blake Mycoskie. You can see the mixed reactions in the comments thread below: some are grateful for being more informed, some give props for calling attention to what they see as a problem, and some are outraged that Costello would question TOMS’ altruistic motives. Unfortunately, this is the difficult part of calling out these kinds of programs: people want to feel good while doing good, and they feel insulted when their good intentions are scrutinized. But ultimately we need to understand that aid should be about those being helped, and not about us and whether or not we feel gratified when buying a pair of shoes.

Admitting Failure: Trendy, but (at least for NGOs) not Prudent

This blog post is in response to the Second Aid Blog Forum: Admitting Failure, a topic forum proposed by anonymous blogger J at Tales From the Hood.

Admitting failure is apparently trendy these days.  As nonprofits and NGOs spend countless hours polishing their annual reports and filling them with rosy success stories to placate donors and stakeholders, a growing chorus of bloggers and development pundits are calling on aid organizations to be up-front and honest about their failures so that others can learn from them.  The idea took off when Engineers Without Borders Canada built a website where development groups could share failures and exchange lessons.  A “Fail Faire” was even held in DC last week to “celebrate” failure. 

While all of this openness and honesty is heartwarming, would I, if I were running an NGO, admit to (that is, publicize) a failed project or program?  To me, that answer is simple: Hell no.

Is there value to sharing failures that could be lessons for your own organization or others?  Absolutely.  But how much good does it do the average layperson to hear about a failed project?  And, once they get a hold of the story, what are the chances that it will come back to bite your organization in the ass?

Take, for example, the field day that the AP had with the results of an audit of grants at the Global Fund.  The Fund, which maintains a policy of “full transparency and zero tolerance of corruption,” published the results of an ongoing audit last year that discovered that several million dollars of grants (representing a very small portion of total funds disbursed) had been lost to fraud and corruption in four countries.  It then began to pursue legal action to recover the funds and prosecute the individuals responsible.  Sounds great, right?  Did the press or anyone else respond with gratitude or acknowledge the up-front and open nature of the Fund in publishing its findings?  If only.  It became a runaway news “scandal,” with the AP painting the “celebrity-backed” Fund as being “plagued by fraud.”  The result: Sweden, Germany, Denmark, and the European Commission froze their disbursements

While it is true that the Global Fund is a uniquely high-profile organization that deals in numbers with many zeros, I think the general tendency of people to react poorly to failure holds true across the board.  Particularly in the current atmosphere of fiscal austerity, the last thing people want to see is their tax dollars or donations being “wasted” on failed projects that were not originally designed to help them in the first place.  While most Americans support foreign aid, I imagine that a lot of them would change their tune if they thought that it did not work.  People have (reasonable, IMHO) objections to their tax dollars being used for “trial and error” projects.

There is, however, true value to learning from failed projects – this is part of the reason that researchers publish (albeit reluctantly) the results of unsuccessful experiments in professional journals and share them at conferences.  But that is precisely the point – the failures are shared with an audience that can appreciate them and the lessons they bring.  The aid community would benefit from creating supportive forums through which they can exchange lessons about failure, whether that be conferences like “Fail Faires” or practice-based journals in which such stories can be published.

Many organizations could stand to make their annual reports, particularly the finance portion, more transparent in order to give donors a better idea of their operations.  Saundra Schimmelpfennig has a great summary of resources that describe good standards and best practices.  But NGOs shy away from laying bare individual project failures, and for good reason.  Unless an individual has background knowledge on how aid and development works, it is difficult to put these stories into context.  It is a whole lot easier to simply decide to hold your donation (or call your Congressman) than it is to have faith in a charity’s ability to learn from its mistakes, especially when stories of ill-conceived projects abound.

There is No Silver Bullet

There is no silver bullet and frankly you probably don’t need one. It is far more important to be able to find the right kind of gun, be able to load the gun, be able to aim the gun, and perhaps most importantly, be able to figure out where the werewolf is.Matthew Oliphant

Vampire Selene uses bullets with silver nitrate to fight off werewolves in "Underworld." Unfortunately, we do not have "silver nitrate bullets" for global health problems.

I always scratch my head a bit when the global health community is dismayed at the revelation that one of its previously hailed “silver bullets” is revealed to not be the miracle cure it was thought to be. The latest disappointment making its way across the blogosphere right now is microfinance: after shady lending practices and harassment of borrowers (driving some to suicide) were uncovered on the part of commercial microlenders in India, the development community began wringing its hands at the unfolding political scandal. The forced retirement of Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank, Nobel laureate, and pioneer of the microfinance institution, looks like the proverbial nail in the coffin of microfinance’s status as the one-stop solution for ending poverty. Now experts are holding panel discussions to debate whether or not microfinance “works.”

This is not the first time we have found ourselves crestfallen at the failure of a silver bullet. When evaluating the results of his “Grand Challenges in Global Health,” Bill Gates admitted that the organization had been “naïve” in its expectations of breakthroughs in vaccine development. He underestimated the time it takes to move new products from the lab through clinical trials and manufacturing. “I thought some would be saving lives by now,” he said, “and it’ll be more like in 10 years from now.” Tell me about it: I worked for a biotechnology start-up in college, and the time it took to get approval for phase I clinical trials allowed bad management to completely unravel the company – it took less than five years. By the time we got the green light from the FDA, the company was being bought out, and we never got to test the product.

Many are also astounded at the current descent from grace of Greg Mortenson, of Three Cups of Tea fame. Details of his inspiring Quixote-esque story of building schools for girls in rural Pakistan and Afghanistan are now being questioned, and donors are appalled at reports of mismanaged funds and schools being used as storage sheds. But don’t we already know that graft happens, and rookies make (sometimes colossal) mistakes? How reasonable was it to expect the Central Asia Institute, Mortenson’s charity, to “fix” Afghanistan by building schools? On the other hand, why are countries and large-scale donors pulling funding and creating a fuss over the graft that the Global Fund revealed through its own investigations?

Why are we continually disillusioned when the simple solutions to the complex problems of global health and poverty turn out to not be so simple? Part of the problem is marketing. Saundra Schimmelpfennig, who has made it her mission to point out and tackle issues surrounding charity (mis)representation and shady fundraising practices, points out that

Whether it’s TOMS A Day Without Shoes or CAI’s Pennies for Peace, schools and teachers are using what are essentially commercials for a charitable product to teach children about the larger world and philanthropy. As is the case with most commercials, these “awareness raising activities” often distort or over-simplify the problems faced in ways that benefit their own organization.

This is extremely worrying as the children brought up on these myths and misconceptions are going to turn into businessmen, philanthropists, and lawmakers. How will the decisions they make be impacted by a distorted view of what the world is like and how to really help?

Another part seems to be that despite each revelation, we are constantly drawn to the prospect that we will somehow still find that magic “something,” that the next innovation or big idea will be the much-sought-after silver bullet. Despite coming to terms with his naiveté, Gates is now saying that energy innovation is the key to beating climate change. Programmers are busily developing cell phone apps in the hope that cell phones can help end poverty.

The problems that we devote our careers to tackling are nowhere near simple, and it is unreasonable to expect to find simple solutions to them. Heck, we don’t even adequately fund the silver bullets we already have. As professionals more knowledgeable than me continually point out, our best bet is to strengthen health systems, focus on measurable improvements, admit and learn from failure, and – perhaps most importantly – have a little patience.