Just when I thought TOMS shoes was heading in the right direction, I received Africare’s newsletter this afternoon. Tucked within the messaging was this little blurb defending the reason Africare was partnering with TOMS Shoes, the most criticized aid project this side of #1MillionShirts.
In their target regions, Africare/Liberia and Africare/Malawi have noticed the negative effects on children of going barefoot, and each country office has begun distributing new TOMS Shoes to the communities they reach through their current health, agriculture, and water and sanitation projects. Many families in these countries consider shoes a luxury they cannot afford, focusing their resources instead on the priorities of food and other basic items of clothing. In addition to the risks of cuts and infections, especially in areas lacking improved sanitation sources like latrines, going barefoot can result in poor self-esteem and often prohibits children from attending school because they don’t fulfill uniform requirements. None of these consequences bode well for the pleasant present or fulfilling future these children deserve.
If there ever was better boiler plate reasoning for any organization starting an ill-advised aid project, it would have to beat the above. Simply painting a known picture of poverty in African country X isn’t sufficient reason to go blind to the unintended consequences before deploying a lazy band-aid solution.
As I’ve said before, shoes are the least of Africa’s problems. It seems that the opposite is also true. The solutions prescribed to Africa’s woes are sometimes worse than our problems.
For the last two years, a Smart Aid collective has criticized TOMS buy one give one (BOGO) model for its various short comings. A full list of the articles is archived here at Saundra Schimmelpfennig’s Good Intentions are Not Enough blog.
What is most disappointing about this partnership is that it goes not only against accepted smart aid practices and plain common sense, it goes against Africare’s own succinctly-stated mission and vision:
Africare works to improve the quality of life of the people in Africa.
Africare is a leading non-governmental organization (NGO) committed to addressing African development and policy issues by working in partnership with African people to build sustainable, healthy and productive communities.
This ill-advised partnership begs to question Africare’s mission. How do you improve the quality of life of a people if all you do come up with ways to keep them as recipients.
How do you square your vision to partner with the African people to build sustainable, healthy, and productive communities with a partnership that robs those supposed communities of their agency, clear job and industry creation that would lead to sustainability? The festering wound to a sustainable Africa is job-creating industries. TOMS shoes and similar initiatives do nothing more than apply tiny bandages and prolong the patient’s suffering.
It is disheartening to see that Africare chose to partner with TOMS shoes instead of partnering with Chid Liberty’s Liberian Women’s Sewing Project. By helping this home-grown job-creating initiative, Africare could have done miles of good to fulfill its mission to support productive communities that can put shoes on their own children’s feet. Is the easy defense here that no one knows about Chid’s initiative, but everyone knows about TOMS Shoes?
For all the good work that Africare has done in agriculture & food security, women’s empowerment, and sanitation – it is baffling that they thought giving away shoes to communities was a sustainable solution to either hygiene or economic development. Bad bandaid projects are excusable for guilt-ridden start up organizations fueled by good intentions, but they are inexcusable for an organization that has been around since the 1970s.
Africare states that 94% of it’s budget is spent on the ground and only 6% is spent on administration. I really wouldn’t be opposed if they upped their budget by just 1% and hired a common sense officer (or five) to vet new partnerships and actually reading your own mission statement.
I should state that I took part in Africare’s very successful, inaugural dialog on Africa’s Literary Identity: Who Defines it? Perhaps a frank conversation on how Africa would like to be helped is in order here.