Wednesday, September 17, 2014

what we can learn from the TOMS flop

In case we haven’t all noticed yet, charitable buying has become quite fashionable. American companies are popping up all over that have a charitable giving component. You can buy shirts that save whales and jewelry that supports widows. But the most famous of all the charitable corporations is probably TOMS. Oh Toms, your pink sparkly shoes had me at hello, though I also like the earth tones and plaids. I see these shoes everywhere I look, and everything about TOMS aggressive marketing makes my current earthy birkies feel so 2005. But sadly, I can never in good conscience buy a pair of TOMS. Here’s why:

When I first heard about TOMS' concept of the one-for-one, I pictured a very specific scenario. I pictured myself standing at the cash register, pictured my card swipe through, pictured some sad looking child being fitted with a beautiful pair of TOMS and pictured those shoes changing the course of his life. (Oh, you too?)

My first wake up call happened a few years ago when the Home Based Care group we work with received a shipment of TOMS from Africare. Africare dropped off a few boxes, left instructions to give the shoes to orphans in the community and left. The caregivers went into thank you baby Jesus its Christmas morning mode and immediately divvied them up. Out of two hundred pairs of shoes, I don’t think a single pair ended up on the feet of an orphaned child. The caregivers first kept a portion for themselves and the rest went to the neighbors and friends of the caregivers according to whomever they wanted to make happy. When I questioned the “distribution methodology” I got the why you messin’ face so I backed off. In the caregivers minds, everyone in Fimpulu is equally poor, so why does it matter if we help an orphan in a poor family or a two-parent-child in a poor family? According to local culture, its an arbitrary distinction.

I get it. But there seemed to be another problem. All of the shoes were the same size and obviously not all two hundred children (and adults) would have the same size feet. The solution for this was apparently to give the shoes to the adults, granting them permission to do whatever they wanted with them. The families were directed to put the shoes on the feet of whomever, or, if they did not fit anyone, they were advised to go ahead and sell the shoes.

I snagged these pics at Mansa’s local market though I’ve seen them elsewhere. Please note the NOT FOR RESALE markings on the inside of the shoe. I may be stating the obvious here, but, the shoe that is clearly marked not for sale is indeed, for sale... as in, not on the feet of the ones for whom they were originally intended. Something tells me that TOMS’ magical plan has veered a wee bit off course.

uniform, black TOMS, all one size (and a photobomb by some white girl's hand)

The misappropriation begs the question, does TOMS know? If so, does TOMS care? The shoes are being sold because, presumably, ill fitting footwear is not the kind of assistance that the poor communities actually need. If the shoes are being sold for $4 a pair, why not give that $4 directly to the community? Why not put it directly into the kind of orphan care that actually cares for orphans? School fees? Clean water? Certainly I’m not the only one with a ready list of viable solutions!

I keel over at the resource waste that comes about as a result of the hierarchical, trickle down effect. The positive potential of big aid suffers mightily as international NGO’s select project countries, who then must coordinate with national offices, who communicate with the regional offices managing the local offices who designate field officers to hold meetings with community groups who will then distribute the materials to NOT the target population. Painful.

It's identifiably crummy development practice to tell an entire region that it needs size 4 shoes when anyone could guestimate that less than one percent of the target population has size 4 feet. But then again, maybe its not TOMS fault, maybe its Africare’s US office. Or maybe their Zambia country office. Or maybe their Mansa office. Or…

How many hands did the project have to sift through before it stopped being any good at all? My guess is not that many. Still, this is the expected flow of policy and programming and service delivery starting necessarily at point A and not arriving until somewhere around point X.

I’ve bought quite a few orphans shoes this year. Mulenga and I went traipsing through down UB market to find hard soled, shiny but not too shiny, wide-toe box, handsome looking black school shoes. I left gushing to my husband that shopping with boys is so much fun and we should try to have six sons. I did the same for Kabange... and Chabu... and Stephen. 

Mulenga: let's go find shoes for those growing feet you're propping up ON MY WALL.
These kids live a stones throw from my front door and I know pretty much everything about the trueness of their need. No one will take their shoes and sell them to buy something lame, like beer. I’ll hunt them down if I don’t see them jog past my house on their way to school each morning. I’ll have many an opportunity to make them feel loved by telling them they are smart and capable and good looking. And I’ll do this because I can. Because these names are not ones on a spreadsheet on a remote desktop – actually, they are playing checkers on my front porch. The directive to care for them is not coming from sixteen office levels above me – it is coming from obvious overflow of love thy neighbor.

This is the luxury of being small, a luxury not afforded by the big, impressive, our website makes us sound super effective NGOs. It’s a luxury I certainly don’t take for granted and would encourage the generous first world to value a little bit more. So wear TOMS if you like - they are a perfect accompaniment to skinny jeans, this is true. But let's be real about their impact, and challenge the corporate charities we're buying from to do the same.

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