"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


too many shoes

I've never really understood why buying ugly, overpriced shoes is supposed to be a good way to help poor people in other countries. Yeah, I suppose I could pay $44 for a pair of shoes for myself to TOMS, which will then send a pair to a child. But in my mind, it's always made more sense to just donate all $44 to a reputable charity with a longstanding presence in the region who will respond to the myriad of problems that materially poor children face in a culturally-appropriate manner and that perhaps even pump much-needed cash into local economies by buying shoes from local suppliers and merchants to give to those children rather than simply giving them a pair of shoes that, quite frankly, aren't made to stand up to the unpaved terrain, raw sewage, or cold weather on, through, and during which those children generally have to walk.

But perhaps it's just me.

Anyway, tomorrow, the TOMS Shoes people would like you to not wear shoes for awhile so that you will sympathize with people who don't have any and maybe buy some of their shoes to send to those poor children. They are calling it "One Day without Shoes," and you can buy a t-shirt, pledge to not wear shoes, and get together with other barefoot people to marvel at the miracle of a thin strip of rubber topped by canvas.

I'm so tired of these nonsense "awareness-raising" exercises by American hipster do-gooders that I'm not even going to bother. Plus this reminds me that I need to get a pedicure. Add your own snide remarks in the comments. Here are some categories to get you started:
  1. Advocate-centered advocacy
  2. Opportunity costs
  3. Clueless celebrities
  4. Stunts that don't help anybody
  5. Shoe-related charity efforts



Blogger Rachel said...

When I was walking through the MONUC air terminal yesterday in Goma, waiting to board my flight, my flip-flop broke! Like, totally snapped and broke. So "Oh well", I thought, and took off both shoes and kept walking. A Congolese woman working there saw me, chased after me, and gave me her pretty white loafers. Just gave them up, not asking for anything in return. (By luck, she did have an extra pair with her at work that day.)

All this is to say that despite the horrific shoe drought that all these organizations tell me there is here, a stranger was kind enough to give me one of what must be (according to all I read) one of the few remaining pairs of shoes in this whole entire country.

(a) It was such a lovely kindness
(b) This donate-shoes trend is ridiculous

Wednesday, April 07, 2010 8:07:00 AM

Blogger Chris Waluk said...

I certainly don't want to stomp on your fire, nor do I think my comment will change your opinion any way, but I kind of enjoy living in a country that promotes badvocacy.

Obviously I enjoy reading your blog, but I almost consider it the Hollywood equivalent of TMZ, a kind of guilty pleasure for people interested in global advocacy. For some reason I enjoy reading this stuff, but it leaves me feeling guilty at times.

It's becoming necessity for new companies to incorporate environmental and social responsibilities within their business plans. You can certainly argue that most of these plans don't really benefit the environment or society, but I thinks it's better than when these issues were of no real concern for private businesses. Regardless of how effective these efforts are, I think it's better to promote philanthropy rather than poke fun at it. Like I said, I like living in a country where businesses are being built around advocacy, even if it is mostly badvocacy. In my opinion, the good from badvocacy usually outweighs the bad, and maybe that's where we disagree.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010 11:50:00 AM

Blogger texasinafrica said...


I think you're right that that's where we disagree. For me, it comes down to a matter of opportunity costs, as in the $44 example in the post. I don't want to argue that the corporate responsibility movement is a bad thing; quite the contrary.

The problem, though, is that there's so much stuff that happens in the name of good intentions that is actually harmful rather than "responsible." Money gets wasted on silly projects that don't help anyone rather than being used in effective, proven development efforts that are backed by solid research and experience. If a corporation wastes $1 million dollars on an advocacy effort that doesn't help anyone, that's $1 million that wasn't spent on creating access to clean water, small business development, or agricultural initiatives.

Is it better for a corporation to waste those funds on badvocacy or to instead spend them on employee bonuses? I tend to think the latter, because there's less hypocrisy (intentional or otherwise) involved in the latter choice.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010 12:25:00 PM

Blogger betsie said...

I can't speak about every developing country, but I can say with confidence that there is not a shoe drought in West Africa. Anyone who has been to a market there knows that you can easily find all variety of cheap shoes, including:
- rubber flip flops (which are better suited to warm weather than canvas shoes)
- mountains of second-hand shoes from the U.S. and Europe
- totally awesome Nigerian and Chinese knock-offs (which makes me wonder if they have caught onto the TOMS trend and are now selling "COMS")

Wednesday, April 07, 2010 1:54:00 PM

Blogger lu said...

i also like living in a country where we have the 'luxury' of promoting badvocacy. in the sense that most of us in canada do not need to worry about how we will put shoes on our kids' feet to go to school and that is nice to have to worry about, among many other things. but i certainly do not like the badvocacy itself.

all these initiatives to raise consciousness or awareness or whatever we are now calling it, it's done for self serving reasons with little impact on the actual 'issue' itself. this is likely nothing new to anyone who will be reading this.

i heard it said last october, which is 'breast cancer awareness month' here, that we don't need any more awareness, we need effective action.

i tend to agree.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010 6:09:00 PM

Blogger lu said...

nice NOT to have to worry about!

geez, should've proofread that.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010 6:10:00 PM

Blogger Tate said...

I completely agree. Wish the shoe dropping and "RED-washing" would cease and desist.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010 6:37:00 PM

Blogger Shannon said...

I was watching TV at home here in Australia yesterday, and flicked past a several month old episode of Dr Phil from just after the Haiti quake (we get our TV a few months/years behind the US), and Dr Phil had sent his two sons to Haiti with a team of volunteer doctors (cos of all their emergency response experience I presume).. The following was my conversation with the TV screen

Dr Phil: So, what can the folks back here at home do for the people in Haiti, what can we send them?
Me: Don't say shoes, don't say shoes...
Doctor guy (via satellite): Really, its just the most simple, basic necessities...
Me: Don't say shoes, don't say shoes...
Doctor guy: ...things as simple as shoes...
Me: Noooooooooooooooooooooo! (changes channel in disgust)

Wednesday, April 07, 2010 7:55:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love this post because I went through the same thought process at half speed while looking at the TOMS website for the first time.

Legitimacy comes into view for the general public when an organization like TOMS announces the number of shoes donated, which is the only measure needed for most. Talk to botanists about playing Mozart for your plants and you'll probably get the same reaction as when talking to a development professional about going shoe-less for a day.

Thanks for all your thoughtful content. The blog is a regular stop for me.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010 8:28:00 PM

Anonymous Andy said...

dear cris,

no offence, but you need to do some research before you post your lethargic opinion.
These "ugly shoes" look the way they do because they are made out of durable low cost material intended to be used in Africa.the shoes aren't made to be worn here in america,but in poverty stricken Africa.
in addition, the shoes are $44 because you are buying two pairs, one for Africa and one for you. take in account shipping and there you go $44. if you don't like the shoes buy the pair and donate that one as well instead of complaining about it.
if you actually would do some research you would see just why shoes are sooo important. How about "The leading cause of disease in developing countries is soil-transmitted parasites that penetrate the skin through open sores caused by walking barefoot(www.sheknows.com)." Cris, shoes, although seemingly unpractical, do pose a great help to developing countries and it is very important that you understand that.
so, instead of being ignorant with what you say, why not do some research and actually not try to tear down an organization who is doing good. I see that you are helping africa as well, then why on God's green earth would you be bashing an organization doing the same thing!!? I am a Christian man myself and i beleive that God is working in this organization, as he is in yours. so then i say who are you to try to stop Gods work?

Cris, just be more careful with what you post, you make an impact through this blog, i would hope and pray you use it for the better.

Thursday, April 08, 2010 5:43:00 PM

Anonymous andy said...

My comment was intended for texes in africa not cris... sorry cris

Thursday, April 08, 2010 5:54:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Andy, I read your post and then visited the font of feminine knowledge you mention to learn that Beyonce might be pregnant, one of the best things about having a bird for a pet is holding it on your hand, and that I can create my own dance floor at home. That's pretty cool research. Thanks.


Thursday, April 08, 2010 9:16:00 PM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Andy, as someone else pointed out, the sort of shoe that TOMS produces is actually not very good for a tropical climate. Plastic shoes that can easily be cleaned and that don't harbor fungi are much more practical in high-humidity environments.

As for the use of $44, you can buy a pair of much more appropriate shoes for about 1/4 of the cost in just about every developing country I've ever seen (and I've lived in and traveled to some of the most difficult, disease-ridden, and war torn places in the world). By shipping in shoes from outside, resources are wasted. By spending more money than is necessary on shoes, resources are wasted. By shipping in shoes from outside, local shoe sellers' businesses are undermined, thus further harming economic development in communities in which unemployment is sky-high. When you donate shoes to an organization like TOMS, you take away jobs from Africans, and Latin Americans, and Asians.

You can accuse me of many things of which I am probably guilty. But being uninformed or uncaring and failing to do research on these issues are not among them.

Thursday, April 08, 2010 10:04:00 PM

Anonymous Elizabeth said...

Thank you thank you thank you for this conversation. I've been concerned about the vagaries of TOMS targeting practices for shoe recipients ever since I learned (i.e. caught wind of the overhype) of the company and their mission.

I have yet to either a) receive a reply (that is not a form letter) to my personal queries on this matter from their "Giving" department, or b) see them make any other kind of public statements regarding the specifics of how they "work on a very local level to understand specific needs of the communities" where they donate shoes. (Thanks to Tate for bringing up this issue on Short Sentences last month.)

Friday, April 09, 2010 12:23:00 PM

Anonymous Jen said...

I am late on this but wanted to chime in. As someone who runs an non-profit in Kenya and finds it a struggle to get support from the masses with a lack of cutesy campaigns (such as those run by TOMS), I completely agree with you. At the same time, I think that its highly unlikely that most of the people buying TOMS were ever going to take the time to do the research involved in finding legitimate (or more cost-effective) organizations to donate to. They're also less likely to donate to groups that don't provide "look-at-me-I-donated" shoes to show to all of their friends.

Making a $44 donation to, for example, the organizations that you link to on your blog, is great for those of us that know better. But its also less glamorous and less fun. I'm certainly not advocating for donating to TOMS over making a non-glamorous donation to an organization that would take the $44 and buy 4-5 pairs of useful shoes. And I think the people that know better do the latter.

I just think that organizations such as TOMS get a lot of people that wouldn't otherwise care at all to at least do something. I've noticed that a lot of their target audience seem to be high school kids, for example. So I guess getting these kids to at least spend their money on buying overpriced shoes that help a kid in Africa is better than other ways they might have spent it (eg overpriced shoes that don't help a kid in Africa). I don't actually think that the $44 comes at a cost to other organizations because the people buying TOMS likely don't know better and wouldn't have donated elsewhere anyway. And it might provide a jump off point in getting involved in other causes because its so much fun to help out.

So perhaps getting people involved in these essentially dumbed down for the masses organizations is better than the alternative (ie something is better than nothing?) Just a thought.

Side note, I have noticed TOMS advertisements EVERYWHERE on the internet lately and that IS actually pretty frustrating.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010 11:08:00 AM

Anonymous Jen said...

Upon further reading, I've noticed that you have had similar discussions in previous blog posts. Sorry if I'm beating a dead horse.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010 11:56:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Read this post a few months back and just got the urge to check back to see how people responded. Good conversation going on here that inspires alot of thought. I do however want to speak first hand toward the business model of TOMS Shoes, as I was forever their biggest critic. As many social advocacy business models that are out there, TOMS has put in the extra effort to do it right.
You can say what you like about the product itself, although it has proven to be very popular and therefore... kudos to TOMS. But what happens after the transaction is truly remarkable. TOMS is creating organizations and mobilizing people all over the world to research and identify the people groups of the world that DO need shoes and searching for disease stricken areas of the world that can benefit from foot protection. They identify good and knowledgable partners to work with. And most importantly, when available, they ALWAYS purchase the matched pair of shoes from the local economy and request shoes that are adequate for local terrain. The only place that the actual TOMS shoe equivalent is given is in Argentina, because it is in fact an Argentine shoe to begin with. That is the whole reason for the design in the first place. The company is very legit and has thought way ahead of the average social activist. They are writing the book on the social business model, so yes they will make mistakes, but I think they are doing an incredible job.
Agreed, that there are many that do more harm than good and it is our job to question the model so maybe one day we, the world, can get it right.

Thursday, June 10, 2010 11:09:00 AM


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