Critiquing The Critics Of Toms Shoes and Other International Aid Initiatives

I originally wrote the following on my blog AlokAppadurai.com in response to an article forwarded by a friend titled “7 worst international aid ideas”. The author Richard Stupart effectively tears apart Jason Stadler's idea to give 1,000,000 t-shirts to Africa, Toms Shoes, and 5 other initiatives.

Firstly, I do agree with Stupart that Jason Sadler’s t-shirt-freebies for Africans probably was good-hearted but lacked understanding of the potential ramifications of a million shirt invasion into African economies. But then, Stupart goes on to rail Toms Shoes, which gives a free pair of shoes to a child in need every time someone buys a pair of their canvas loafers. I have heard many such critiques of Toms, such as people potentially actually not needing shoes in many parts of the world and frankly, I don’t buy that. I have personally traveled to 30+ countries and in EVERY ONE I saw people in desparate need of shoes, to the point of wearing one shoe even if they didn’t have a matching pair. And the argument that Tom’s Shoes doesn’t address the poverty that created the lack of shoes in the first place could be countered by the idea that kids may be more likely to go to school or get a job if their feet are protected enough to effectively get to such places. And we could go on and on debating the merits and limitations of Toms as a project.

But at the end of the day, my position is three key points: 

  1. I am not a Toms cheerleader and am sophisticated just enough to know they don't produce domestically, don't use sustainable fabrics, amid other problems BUT Toms has blazed a trail for folks like me who were born with a certain skill set and have tried since childhood to channel those skills for more good than evil. Those are laymen's terms for saying while not perfect, Toms showed us our projects could have legs too.
  2. There are vastly more destructive businesses than Tom’s Shoes that deserve hell-bent criticism. Exxon Mobil, BHP Biliton, or the financial companies that destroy local and national economies for private profits jump to mind. But journalists instead often pick easy targets to tear apart like the guy who wanted to give t-shirts. I find this to be petty journalism. Stupart certainly illuminates some of the myriad pitfalls and problems that plague the global aid universe but this brings me to point #3:
  3. I would rather see such writers actually sit down and come up with a good idea to create change themselves. Instead, they pride themselves on evaluating (and usually destroying) the premises behind an idea but rarely are they out on the front lines trying to fix things.

Bottom line: such critics are rarely the ones actually trying to implement ideas. As founder of Fed By Threads and a life-long social entrepreneur myself with a background in education and clean energy, I have a soft spot for Tom’s Shoes, even though I don't own a pair myself. While I certainly am not so blind as to think some such projects may be misguided or even band-wagon jumpers, at the end of the day, I commend the hearts and initiatives founders of projects who set out to do something differently, to go against the norms. Such leaders could have simply sold out and become part of the exploitative class of business-people. Instead, many social entrepreneurs are trading in potentially-lucrative careers in finance and other industries to go out on a limb and do something that involves significant risk of failure and exposes us to the invasive eyes of journalists who lack the gall to fry bigger fish or even better, launch a project of their own. It's far easier to have a career teaching how to do thing than actually do them; even easier still is sit back and critique such do-ers, thinking you are brilliant in your ability to judge, trash, and dismantle. I challenge you instead to take a leap, build a plan, pull together a team, raise funding, collaborate with stake-holders, and execute a mission statement.  

-Alok Appadurai is a vegetarian, environmentalist, project builder, birth partner coach, new father, and a believer in empathy. Learn more about him at AlokAppadurai.com or contact him at ALOK@fedbythreads.com




Alok Appadurai
Alok Appadurai

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2 Responses

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Carrie Kargel
Carrie Kargel

February 19, 2013

I am not a fan of Tom’s, but I have never gone so far as to say they are terrible people. They have great intentions and they reach a certain societal group that might never have cared if it were not for Tom’s. I can appreciate that.

I do agree that some people desperately wish they had shoes, but one argument I have heard is that many people have lived for centuries without shoes and don’t actually want them unless they are told that they should.

Yes, having shoes could help young children get to school easier, but there are many other options that could help the children even more than being given a pair of shoes.

“Give a man a fish and he can eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he can eat for a lifetime.” Tom’s creates dependence. Children grow and need new sizes. Shoes wear out. Tom’s is creating a cycle of dependence.

Tom’s uses foreign factories to make their shoes, with non-organic materials, and pays the workers as much as any other standard foreign factory workers. The people in the local areas they are giving shoes to could use jobs. In fact, people who make shoes in these local areas are losing business.

I hate the idea that some people are “arm-chair activists”. Reporters can tear apart an organization like Tom’s and never actually do anything better – just like you said. But there ARE organizations out there who are doing things differently. If we invest in products that are made by locals, supporting locals, and helping to stop cycles of dependency we are making more of a difference.

Tom’s aren’t inexpensive. There are alternatives ways to spend your money that do more:

Sole Rebels
http://www.oliberte.com/story/
http://ssekodesigns.com/
http://www.nisoloshoes.com/about-us/meet-our-shoe/

I could list many, many other organizations more worthy of our support, but as I said in the beginning, I can’t say that I “hate” Tom’s. It was started with good intentions, some good has been done, and a lot of awareness has been raised.

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