My post today is a reaction to this article, and you would better understand this post if you read that article first. (Go ahead – it’s short. I’ll wait.)
A friend of mine at work sent around a link to a blog post that had been written by his friend in support of the above article. My response is mostly to the original source and is not directed at the friend my coworker pointed us to – mostly because I want to get at the source, not merely someone who supports the source, but also in part because the friend’s blog post did not delve deeply enough into the issue for it to be fair for me to take her to task.
However, one thing she did mention is that people (mostly Americans) only support TOMS shoes because they get something out of it – namely, a cool pair of shoes. And that statement is what led me to read the original article and decide that I needed to sort out my thoughts via a written response. So here we go.
I have mixed feelings on the subject as a whole. I don’t think the desire for a cool pair of shoes is the driving force behind the TOMS consumers, but I could be wrong – after all, $50-60 for a pair of shoes is the only reason I don’t have any.
I definitely see where the Day Without Dignity campaign is coming from, and I agree that the issues being addressed won’t be solved until the systems are attacked. I think that is common knowledge.
But where the Day Without Dignity campaign fails is inclusiveness, and that is where campaigns like TOMS succeed. Companies that promote in-kind donations may not be fixing systemic problems or overthrowing the cycles that perpetuate these issues, but what they are doing is helping people learn to become globally aware. And while, for some, this might be a one-time, distant, “I did my part and I’m done” thing, for others it changes their lives and teaches them to live outside themselves, rather than just step outside themselves once in a while (in the form of donating food or money).
Campaigns like A Day Without Dignity do the opposite. They say, “change the local government;” “find a way to purify their water;” “clean up their soil.” Well, frankly, these are not things that just any ol’ Joe can do. These are things that will only be accomplished over someone’s lifetime of working for them because it’s not that easy. (If it were, there’d be clean water and soil and more stable local governments all over the world by now.)
And working for change like that involves it being a career – a lifestyle – and it’s not going to be everyone’s lifestyle. Not everybody is going to be a social justice lawyer or public defender or global diplomat or politician or whatever it takes to get to the root of a system and change it. So people who want to help but do not have the education, background, intelligence, finances, or whatever else to be a part of huge, systemic changes turn to campaigns like TOMS, where at least they can continue to cultivate that outside-themselves mindset rather than do absolutely nothing.
A couple of other terms this article throws around (or maybe some of the articles associated with it – I’ve clicked so many links by this point that I can’t remember) are “good aid” and “bad aid,” and these terms rub me the wrong way. I don’t think I agree that there should be a distinction made between the two, especially because it vilifies the spirit with which the aid is given (not to mention the person giving it). Aid is aid. After all, if one child’s life is changed because a pair of shoes was given, how can that be called a bad thing? If one family is able to keep its electricity and water running for another month because a sack of groceries was donated, how can that be a bad thing?
It seems to me that instead of working against each other, these campaigns (and others) could work in tandem and accomplish a lot more. (After all, how many different clean-water campaigns are there? What if they all joined forces and worked together?) I appreciate the purpose behind the Day Without Dignity campaign, but I am having trouble appreciating the attacking/mocking spirit with which I feel it has been led.
That article also has a four-minute video on the subject. The video spends the first two minutes talking about how donations strip these people of their dignity and hurt the local market because handouts are competition for local economy. Okay, I get that. That’s a great piece of information to have, and what truly compassionate human being would be okay with continuing an action that has such negative impact (assuming these claims are true)? But then I started to get irritated because my thought was, Okay, so what’s next? What’s the solution? How can I help in a positive way?
I felt hopeful when the video transitioned then and seemed to be about to tell me how I could help. But then I got frustrated again when it didn’t. It provided vague, general answers like the ones I already mentioned above (government, water, soil) – the kind of broad, big-picture answers that limit my ability to be helpful (and even my desire). The video says to educate myself on what the locals need. “Ask a local” is one of their suggestions. Really? Ask a local? I live in Kansas City. For many reasons, I cannot just choose a random phone number from the World Phone Book – one from Cote d’Ivoire or Ethiopia, for instance – call it up, and say, “Hey. What do you need besides shoes? How can I help?”
Another solution suggested was to read blogs or books authored by locals. And again, I ask, really? First of all, if they are in need of help, who of the locals is taking time (and money) to write a book about the kind of help they need? This seems more like something a concerned investigative journalist would be doing, so why would I not look there first? Second, finding a blog written by a local isn’t as easy as it sounds. (I promise – I just spent half an hour trying.)
The last solution the video provides is for me to stimulate my own local economy. Now, I know that stimulating local economy is trendy and cool right now. And for a good reason. But as a solution to how we can help a global problem, I fail to see the correlation. How does me helping to line the pockets of a Kansas City entrepreneur help a small country in Africa get a more stable government? Or cleaner water? Or better schools? I’m not being mocking here – I’m honestly asking because I don’t know, and if this is such an obvious solution, then clearly there’s something I don’t know about the business world.
Except for Chai Shai, a local restaurant I support because the food is delicious and because I can walk there from my house, I am not aware of how local KC businesses are helping fight international problems. (Chai Shai has a tip jar that clearly states that all tips/donations made will go to help Pakistan flood victims and refugees.) But unless other businesses make it obvious to their consumers that they are doing something like that, I kind of thought that all their proceeds went either in their pockets or right back into their own businesses. Which is fine – but remember, my point is that I fail to see how that (i.e., stimulation of local economy) helps solve a majority-world problem.
Since my coworker sent the email and link originally to our entire department at work, I replied all and sent most of these thoughts back as a response that I hoped would stimulate intelligent discussion amongst the group of us. Unfortunately, not one person (even the person who’d sent the original email!) replied to my response, and none of them even acknowledged that I had responded.
I really wanted some discussion on this topic. So then I shared my thoughts and the link on Facebook with a friend of mine with whom I’d discussed a thread of this subject very recently. He also did not respond. Thus, I am putting my thoughts a third time to a larger audience to see what happens.
And by the way, I am going to take one suggestion from the video to heart. I’m going to research something I’m interested in and see if I can find a reasonable way to help: education and specifically illiteracy. I hope to report back in a post later on about my progress, but I learned a long time ago not to make promises or guesses about the kinds of blog posts I will feel like writing in the future. But just know – I’m going to make an attempt.
So how about you? What are your thoughts on this topic? Or, if you’ve found a solution that works for you, what is it?