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I don’t hate TOMS, I promise.

8 Feb

I’ve somehow earned a reputation as a TOMS-hater.  At this point, it’s become a joke among  friends and coworkers, who will gleefully forward along just about any TOMS-related article to try to get a rise out of me. (Which, by the way, stop! I’m not your show-pony, people.)

The truth is, I do not hate TOMS shoes. I don’t dislike people who wear TOMS, or who make TOMS, or who like TOMS. I think the shoes themselves are pretty cute, and if I wasn’t so stuck up about this I would probably own a pair myself. Yet admittedly, I do take issue with TOMS as a model for charity and as a cultural symbol.

Before I go on, here’s another disclaimer: there are much bigger, infinitely nastier problems out there than a business that sells and gives away trendy shoes. I know. I know that there are self-serving and potentially harmful, multi-million dollar development projects taking place the world over. There are much graver cases, ones that are not only not doing as much good as they promise, but are downright wasteful and abusive towards those they pretend to help. So why pick on TOMS, which is at least trying to do something good? Here’s why:

  1. Trying to do good is not synonymous with doing good. Others have discussed this point with more clarity than I could. But basically, the idea that actions borne out of good intentions should be granted immunity from thoughtful criticism drives me completely bonkers.
  2. When someone buys a pair of TOMS shoes, they are buying a second pair to be given to someone else. Shoe giveaways are part of the product. And part of what consumers are buying into is the assumption that shoelessness is a problem, and that by providing a pair of shoes to someone, they are helping improve the shoe recipient’s life. Is this assumption correct? In the same way consumers should examine the claims and quality of the shoes they buy (Will they really make me run faster? Look cooler? Will they fall apart in two weeks? Are they a good value?), the claims and quality of TOMS shoe giveaways can (and in my opinion should) be examined with the critical eye of a consumer who is paying for a product.

Now that that’s cleared up, here’s my problem with TOMS:

TOMS as a charity model (/business model)

TOMS is a business. Let’s be clear about that. But due to its One for One model, it is often touted as charity-business hybrid. TOMS, if looked at as charity model, is a gift-in-kind charity (GIK). The pitfalls of GIK giving have been well documented. Pretty much any large non-profit organization that provides GIK gets flak from the relief and development community (yet the US government still insists on giving a nice big portion of federal development assistance in the form of GIK – yay!). There are a handful of reasons for this, but the one I find most compelling is that gifts-in-kind can harm local business and markets. This is logical – why buy shoes from your local market vendor when you can get them for free?

Kevin from A Personal Diaspora explains the dangers of GIK:

Extensive research concerning local shoe production is not readily available, but a close substitute is apparent and ripe for discussion: clothing donations into specific poor areas. One researcher, Garth Frazer, looked into “Used-Clothing Donations and Apparel Production in Africa”, and found that there is a significant connection between donations and production. Frazer concluded that

“Used-clothing imports are found to have a negative impact on apparel production in Africa, explaining roughly 40% of the decline in production and 50% of the decline in employment over the period 1981–2000.”

50% of the decline in employment? That means that thousands upon thousands of jobs were lost due to the “good deeds” donors thought they were doing, inadvertently preventing thousands of poor Africans from earning a living and being able to provide for themselves. According to The Nation, “between 1992 and 2006, 543,000 textile workers lost their jobs” in Nigeria, as over 150 companies have shut down due to being undercut by outside aid. Those numbers are staggering and hopefully make you think hard for a few moments.

One of the assumptions of GIK is that the goods being delivered are not locally available. I challenge this assumption. There are many important goods not available in many developing countries – medicine, birth control, bed nets, fertilizer, eyeglasses (this is why I STRONGLY support TOMS eyeglass giveaways) – but I am not convinced that shoes are not (often cheaply) available in the places where TOMS gives shoes away.

Besides first needing to be sure that giving away shoes won’t harm local merchants and economies, and aren’t already available, I think it is wise to examine the basic assumption undergirding TOMS shoe giveaways: that not having shoes is a problem, and that providing shoes can have numerous benefits for children, as well as entire communities.

Here is what the TOMS website says about why they are giving away shoes:

    In many developing countries, children must walk barefoot for miles to school, clean water and medical help.
    Hundreds of millions of children are at risk of injury, infection and soil-transmitted diseases that most don’t have access to prevent or treat.
    Children who are healthy are more likely to be successful students, and access to education is a critical determinant of long-term success.
    Healthy, educated children have a better chance of improving the future of their entire community.

From my understanding, the logic is: there are many barefoot children in developing countries –> being barefoot puts children at risk of injury and diseases that are often not easily treated –> if children are given shoes they are less likely to contract disease and are more likely to attend school –> the more children that attend school the better –> the more kids in school the better the future of entire communities.

This is not too difficult to swallow. Less convincing however, is what their equation is essentially saying: shoes = improved future.

TOMS is stating that there is a relationship between shoes and incidences of disease and injury, healthcare, school attendance, success in school, and community-level development. If there’s anything I gained from my pricey graduate education, it was a habit of being wary of claims like this. It sounds nice, but I have seen no evidence that more children wearing shoes is related to a decline in poverty or improved communities.

Could it hurt to have more children wearing shoes? Probably not. But the result of more children wearing shoes, based on what we know, is likely to be… more children are wearing shoes. In some places, children need to wear shoes in order to attend school, so arguably the kids that get shoes could attend school when before they could not. But this does not translate into a “better chance of improving the future” of entire communities. My beef here is pretty much what it is about “The Girl Effect” – that nobody should be promising that inputs as simple as shoes or goats or scholarships, are going to result in community or country-level outputs.

If what we’re interested in is improving health and school attendance, it would make a lot more sense to put money into addressing what is actually hampering health and attendance. Most illness and death among children in developing countries is due to unsafe water and sanitation. The reasons that children don’t attend school are multiple and complex, and include economic, social, and political factors. We know how to improve health among children, but unfortunately it’s not as easy (or as hip) as a pair of TOMS.

Cute kid and his pair of TOMS

Cultural Symbol

So why isn’t TOMS, instead of donating shoes, donating money to health organizations, or towards building latrines, or administering vaccines? Well, would you be as likely to buy a pair of TOMS if instead of a promise to give a similar pair to a child in need, they promised to give to respected nonprofits and charities? Probably you would, but not most people. The One for One model is very compelling, and something about giving something as cool as shoes allows us to dig in our wallets much more freely than say, seeing a photo of a pit latrine. More importantly, TOMS has done an extraordinary job of building an iconic product. To annoyingly and grossly generalize: people who wear TOMS are usually pretty hip. They are people who think about what they wear. Some, maybe a lot, are people who are maybe a little more likely to be aware of, and care about, poor people. And caring, in and of itself, has become a little hip. Wearing a pair of TOMS says that you’re in the loop, you’re a citizen of the world, you care. And this has much more to do with TOMS’ marketing and the kind of person that products like TOMS appeals to, than it has to do with the actual good that TOMS does.

I have nothing against dressing well. I fully support it. I also want people to care about the companies they buy from. But I think TOMS, and similar companies/organizations, may have become the poverty equivalent of green-washing. I’d love to see more socially-conscious companies go mainstream, just as it has been nice to see environmentally friendly products become more widely embraced. However, just as you or I should be wary of a dish soap that claims to end climate change, so should we not buy into the idea that shoes, or crocheted hats, or any other product is going to end poverty in entire communities. Let’s dress well, let’s care, but let’s not pretend that doing either of these things is going to seriously address problems as widespread and complex as poor health and education in poor communities. That work is much more difficult, and much less glamorous, than pulling on a pair of shoes.

Kristen Stewart Wears TOMS, Doesn't End Poverty



6 Aug

photo credit to Medecins Sans Frontiers

From what I’m reading, it’s not possible to overstate the magnitude of the current famine in East Africa, especially in Somalia. I’m going to cheat here and link to other more knowledgeable and educated people in order to provide more information:

Owen Barder on the causes of famine, and how we can help – “Drought is neither necessary nor sufficient for famine”

The Christian Science Monitor on why we should help, even if the ruling elements in Somalia have terrorist ties – “The threat of mass starvation is so great, particularly in parts of central and southern Somalia controlled by the Al Qaeda-affiliated organization Al Shabab, that saving lives must come before following the letter of anti-terrorist regulations…”

The New York Times has a short slideshow of photos from Somalia.

Finally, if you can give money (and I’m pretty sure you can), please consider giving to The IRC or Doctors Without Border (MSF). Both are organizations that I trust and have tremendous respect for.

Gbagbo falls in Côte d’Ivoire

13 Apr

I have been following the situation in Côte d’Ivoire (fairly) closely. I just finished an assignment on the topic, and am a little weary (although, not as weary as millions of Ivoirians), but here is a video of pro-Ouattara forces capturing incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo and his wife this week.

My only real thought: God have mercy.

“The people need reconciliation, not retaliation.” – Desmond Tutu

What do you think of federally-funded foreign assistance?

29 Jan

Times are tough. We were reminded of this yet again during last week’s State of the Union address, with President Obama’s emphasis on the economy. Part and parcel with his discussion of “the economy” came a discussion of our country’s deficit and our need to curtail unnecessary federal spending.

Here is the rub: what is necessary and what is unnecessary? Where can we afford to cut costs, and where can we not afford to? Similarly, where should we cut costs and where shouldn’t we? What sort of criteria do we use to determine what is necessary and what is unnecessary?

When looking at the federal budget, a group of congresspeople have zoned in on the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the main agency responsible for U.S. foreign assistance. The proposal they have drafted, which aims to reduce the national deficit, would essentially eliminate USAID.

This proposal is not completely unexpected, since USAID’s budget has always ebbed and flowed (eh, maybe it has never really flowed) with the tide of politics, both domestic and international. Senator Jesse Helms called for the elimination of USAID ten years ago, when he famously described foreign aid as the equivalent of throwing tax dollars “down a foreign rat hole”.  Naturally, I bristle at this. All of us have our own “special interests”, and this is mine.

I’m not the only one to have bristled. In his response to this latest proposal, the head of USAID, Rajiv Shah,  said that the cuts “would have massive negative implications for our fundamental security”, especially in relation to the strategic role U.S. development aid is playing in Afghanistan and Iraq. The U.S. Department of State, which controls USAID, has employed a lot of rhetoric meant to elevate official development assistance (ODA, the general term used to describe bilateral foreign assistance) as a key element of U.S. foreign policy. This policy is often referred to as “the Three Ds”: defense, diplomacy, and development.

Rajiv Shah, bristling

Now, I know what I think about this. But I’m not going to write about it yet. All of this has me wondering: what do other people think about our country funding development projects in other countries? Before I write a blog about why I think developed countries, especially the U.S., should have development budgets, I would like to pose to you, friends, the following questions:

  1. Do you think the U.S. should provide assistance to developing countries?
  2. Why or why not?

Before I set you free to answer, I would like to equip you with some fun facts:

–       The U.S. government spends about 0.44 percent of its budget on foreign aid.

–       Besides USAID, there are about 25 other federal agencies involved in foreign aid (which are included in the percentage above). USAID is the agency explicitly charged with this, but others do as well.

–       The top five recipients of US ODA are Israel, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, and Jordan.

–       The five poorest countries in the world are Niger, Ethiopia, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Burundi (based on the UN’s Multidimensional Poverty Index).

–       Learn more about USAID here.

I look forward to your responses!

What am I even talking about???

15 Jan

I recently spent two-ish weeks in my hometown in California. This by itself probably could provide me with plenty to reflect on, but the “Small Town Girl Moves to Big City and Then Returns to Small Town and Has Some Thoughts” genre of writing is a little too dramatic for my taste. So I’ll happily abstain. But since I did go home, and since I did think about some things, I will allow this blog to fall under a slightly more nuanced sub-genre: “Student of International Development Tries to Explain What It Is They Study to Family and Friends Back Home”.

There are some phrases and concepts that people who live in Washington D.C. seem to generally understand, even if very superficially. These include phrases like “government contractor”, “networking”, “Ovetchkin”, “Escalefter”, as well as “international development” and “aid”. (By the way: phrases and concepts ill-understood in D.C. seem to include “Mexican food”, “farm”, and “coffee shop”). What this means is that when someone asks you what you do or what you study, you can say “international development” and people will nod and the conversation continues on.

The reaction back home, however, is different. When I tell people I’m studying international development, often the response is, “What’s that?” And then I stumble over my words and say something like, “Oh mmm… addressing poverty in developing countries. I’m focusing on humanitarian assistance and post-conflict development. I mean… haha! Saving babies and stuff. Well! Anyways. How are YOU?”

By now my friend is thoroughly convinced that I really have no clue what I’m studying and am probably just wasting a ton of time in D.C.  Meanwhile I am left feeling like I’ve not only done a disservice to my field, but have also insulted the intelligence of whomever I’m speaking with by boiling down what I study to a few pithy catchphrases. This is something I’d like to work on: being better at explaining what I’ve studied and what I’d like to do with what I’ve learned.

But I’m not the only one with this problem. I recently took a very formal and scientific poll of several classmates, and they agreed that they generally sum up what they do by saying things like “Poverty reduction”, “Foreign aid”, “Have you heard of World Vision? Stuff like that!”

It’s probably fair to also mention that explaining international development work becomes a little easier once you have a full time job in the field. I asked a friend of mine, who works for an organization that improves health services around the world, how she explains her job. She summed it up by saying, “I work on strengthening supply chains for public health commodities like condoms and bed nets. Everything has a supply chain- most things we buy someone had to know we wanted it before we bought it. It’s the same for health commodities, but you’re working in situations where maybe people can’t pay, or the product is donated so it gets a little more complicated. The bottom line is that we procure and distribute these products for the US government to foreign governments.” Huh. Pretty good!

This helps because it is something specific. But this is also one of the dilemmas of defining international development: the term can be used to describe something very specific, like providing certain goods or services, or something more general like increasing access to markets, or something really smooshy like building democracy or improving governance. In fact, this is a good start to a list of things that fall under the umbrella of international development:

– Providing goods: often donated, but also includes increasing people’s market access to goods.

– Providing services: education, healthcare, etc.

– Improving infrastructure: building roads, wells, sanitation systems, clean water, etc.

– Improving governance: decentralizing authority, increasing accountability, improving the rule of law, addressing corruption, building institutions.

– Empowerment: Advocating for the rights of minorities, women, and children, training people on their rights, improving marginalized people’s access to goods, services, government representation, etc.

– Building economies: large-scale private investment, micro-credit, decreasing barriers to free enterprise, improving access to markets (for both consumers and sellers), increasing employment opportunities, creating more equitable economic systems.

– Food security: increasing agricultural productivity, improving terms of trade for exported goods, improved farming techniques, emergency food supplies, etc.

– Peacebuilding: this is not always considered to be “development”, but in places where civil conflict is rife, disarmament, peace talks and negotiations, peace keeping, displacement camps, and reconciliation processes are often considered to be important elements of development.

– Democracy-building: ensuring free and fair elections, securing freedom of press and speech, promoting representational government, etc.

I could really go on. A distinction is also made within the field between relief and development. Relief (also referred to as humanitarian assistance) is the organized response to a natural or human disaster, such as the earthquake in Haiti. Immediate life-saving goods and services, generally supplied by foreign governments and international organizations, are considered relief. Relief, ideally, is provided only as long as it takes for the dust to settle. Organizations that are generally in the field of relief, but not development, include the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Doctors Without Borders, and various UN agencies. Extended humanitarian disasters however, such as the situation in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo or the HIV/AIDs epidemic, often blurr the line between relief and development. But this is a topic for a later blog post.

The relief-development distinction I think is also important when describing what it is that development professionals actually do. I think often the image of an aid worker is one of a swash-buckling doctor, barking orders in a makeshift operating room as he/she prepares to do an emergency c-section in the middle of a war zone. Or perhaps, the more tender image of a sun-leathered woman running an orphanage in Africa. The reality is that most (most) people I know who work “in development” work in offices. Whether in D.C., where they write proposals, review invoices, create programs, haggle with donors, fundraise, research, sit in meetings, attend summits, create monitoring and evaluation mechanisms, and skype with field offices; or whether they are abroad, also sitting in offices, meeting with government officials, reviewing numbers, keeping budgets, signing contracts, doing assessments, asking for more funding, etc, etc – development work is often much less glamorous than the images it can conjure (when it conjures an image at all). There are certainly aid workers who fit the stereotype, and who put themselves at incredible risk by being willing to work in some of the toughest places in the world. But development workers can also be logisticians, lawyers, doctors, public health experts, business people, scientists, IT technicians, and on and on and on. This why I hate myself for telling people (although with tongue-in-cheek) that development is “saving babies”- it’s just really, really not true that most development workers are out there saving babies.

I did not save this baby.


The point here though, is that succinctly summing up “international development” is very difficult. For many, the term has come to mean everything and nothing, and numerous academics have sought to replace it with something else. But regardless of the particular language used, I would argue that international development is a field, both of study and of practice. It is also an industry, and like any other industry people profit and people fail. The fact that it is all these things, however, does not make it any easier for me to answer the questions posed by people outside this line of work.

I should also recognize that this can be the case in many other fields. My brother is a Chemical Engineer for a private contractor and works around the country designing control systems for different companies… I think. He was somehow involved in designing the SunChips solar plant in Modesto, CA, and designing the controls for a bottled water production plant that was switching to bottling tea… I think. Really, what he does is too nuanced and complicated for me to understand as an industry outsider. What I know is that he travels a lot and has to make sure things don’t blow up. And really, I think most of us who are not engineers working in his field are content with not fully understanding what goes into designing a production control system.

The field of international development is similar to this, in that it is often difficult to explain what development professionals do. On the other hand, it is dissimilar to this for two reasons. First of all, development very directly affects people, and therefore implies more immediate ethical and moral judgment. Secondly, there is very, very little agreement on what the end product should look like.

There’s plenty to say about this, but the purpose of this post is to attempt to explain what it is that I mean when I say I study international development. For me, specifically, it means I take classes on management, on writing proposals, on disaster response, on what we might want to think about doing in the case of civil wars, and on and on. It means I will (fingers crossed) get a job where I work in an office, both for the sake of having a job and with the goal of somehow, in some way, making life a little better for poor people, even if not very glamorously. There is a lot of debate within the field on how to actually do this, and you can meet two people who both work in “international development”, but who would also argue tooth and nail that what the other person is doing more harm than good. And both of these people will probably have strong logical and ethical arguments for why their methods and goals are better. And this too, is part of the international development industry.

Are you more confused than ever now? That’s ok. After two years working in a developing country and two years studying development, I’m still a little confused too.

Aid Worker's space.


90 Days with AIDS

28 Nov

The final three weeks of the semester are here. So even if I had the brain power to write a post, it would be irresponsible to write one instead of working on a paper or project that is due in, oh I dunno, three days.

But as we move into the Christmas season, here’s an excellent, albeit depressing video promoting Anti-retro-viral drugs. I saw this clip months ago, and then lost the link. A shout-out to Emma Stewart for finding it for me.  (Note that they received permission from the subject to film her for promotional purposes).

Poverty Professionals

5 Oct

2010 UN MDG Summit Meeting

I could argue that this is not a huge problem for me or my classmates: that we are not yet at a place where we have to live with the tension of being well off off of poverty. I mean, we are grad students – those somewhat silly folks who take out loans to get another degree, scrimp and save (or more honestly, spend any disposable income we have on beer instead of spending it on a mortgage or a vacation or a new car), and dream of the day when we have “real” jobs. I might even sidetrack the entire conversation by talking about relative poverty, by asking what do we even mean by “poverty”? Who’s to say anyone should want what I have anyways?

But that’s a different conversation entirely. Instead, let’s own up to the fact that compared to the people we spend hours studying, researching, and writing about, we’re not doing so poorly. I live a very luxurious life, which does and should sit uncomfortably with the topics I have chosen to study and (fingers crossed!) someday work on . This must be why I keep coming back to this short paper by Ravi Kanbur.

An excerpt:

What is striking about the class of poverty professionals (of whom I am one) is that the good living (granted, not at the billionaire or millionaire level, but pretty good nevertheless) is made through the very process of analyzing, writing, recommending on poverty. To me, at least, this is discomforting and disconcerting. I feel slightly ashamed within myself when I turn up to a poverty conference (perhaps even one where I am the keynote speaker), having flown business class, staying in an expensive hotel and (sometimes) being paid handsomely for attending. I recall many years ago, when I was in my twenties, telling the anthropologist Mary Douglas about how I was starting to do consulting for the World Bank on poverty issues, and how important it was to do this work. “And it’s not too bad for one’s own poverty either, is it?” came her worldly, knowing, reply. The seeds of discomfort sown by that comment have germinated and taken root, and now won’t let go.

I recognize of course the paradoxes of making so much of my discomfort, with the implication that others should feel it too. First, it seems to let off the hook those who make a good living without attempting to help the poor in any way. Surely the moral dilemma of living well in the midst of poverty is one that should apply equally to all, and not particularly and peculiarly to poverty professionals? Why pick on those whose chosen profession is to help the poor, and berate them for doing well out of it? By suggesting that their pay and benefits should not be “too high”, does this not penalize the children of the poverty professionals for their parents’ calling? Secondly, if highly skilled personnel are needed to attack poverty, then what’s wrong with paying the market rate for that skill? Surely the alternative is that these skilled professionals will find equally well paying jobs making widgets, and the attack on poverty will lose its best troops? Surely, the poor deserve the very best talent to address their needs?

And yet my doubts and discomforts remain. Yes, living well amidst poverty should be a dilemma for everyone. But am I wrong in thinking that it should be a problem particularly for those who live well out of attending meetings on poverty? At the very least the moral superiority that they (read I) might claim or feel because they work on poverty has to be tempered by the fact “it’s not too bad for one’s own poverty, is it?”

The point is not to make us all feel guilty about having it good (by our standards). The point is to recognize the tension, instead of explaining it away.

Dogon Meeting Place