The Importance of Understanding Our Contributions

We live in a world that is full of organizations proclaiming that they serve those in need, and provide help to the most impoverished of the world. But how pure are these organizations’ intentions, and how effective are their methods? These are questions that every informed citizen must consider before they volunteer their time and their talents, or donate their money to an organization.

Take for instance TOM’s shoes, whose “One for One Movement” promises to give a pair of shoes to a child in need for every pair purchased.

These shoe donations fail to address more pertinent issues, and actually in some ways even exacerbate the problems facing the areas where TOM’s operates. There are three main fundamental issues with the TOM’s “One for One Movement.”

The first issue comes with the inefficient appropriation of funds from the shoe sales.

TOM’s main goal is to prevent the spread of diseases like hookworm, which can cause brain damage, and are transmitted by fecal matter touching bare feet.

Although the donated TOM’s shoes provide a temporary solution, a cost-benefit analysis shows that the TOM’s project is a poor investment.

Zac Mason, a former Peace Corps member, puts it eloquently in a hypothetical situation he draws up, saying, “If there are 1,000 children at a school in an Ethiopian village, for you to provide TOM’s alpargatas (shoe style) for the entire student body it would cost about $27,000. By handing out 1,000 pairs of free shoes for a total of $27,000, you could theoretically protect 1,000 children from hookworm, ascariasis, podoconiosis and stubbed toes for about 2 years (the estimated time that the cloth shoes would wear out, especially with these children living in rough terrain and doing daily hard labor). Alternatively, if this money was instead donated to a local public health organization, cement latrine facilities could be built nearby for an estimated cost of $2,000. In essence with the same funds ($27,000) one could temporarily postpone hookworm incidents for two years in one community, or eradicate them for decades in 13.” (Mason)

These latrines could help solve the issue of hookworm on a much larger scale, for much longer, and for much less money. But why do we instead choose to buy TOM's shoes instead, when they only provide a temporary solution?

These latrines could help solve the issue of hookworm on a much larger scale, for much longer, and for far less money. So then why do we choose to buy TOM’s shoes instead, when they only provide a temporary solution?

The second and perhaps even more unfortunate effect of TOM’s shoes is the devastation it wreaks on local economies. TOM’s distributes their shoes to over 50 countries, but produces them in just three, (Argentina, China, and Ethiopia) meaning that the so called shoe-drops, completely ruin the market for local shoe-makers, and prevent the opportunity for empowering the local community to take care of themselves.  (Mycoskie) The best aid campaigns work with the local population, not for them.

The last grievance comes with TOM’s religious ties to the Evangelical church, something that in and of itself is not a problem all, but it becomes a serious issue when other religious groups are discriminated against as a result. For example as Mason states, “the missionaries working for one Evangelical giving partner, Bridge 2 Rwanda, distributed some 6,000 shoes to a number of students at schools in that nation. They gave to 50 schools within one Anglican diocese, only delivering TOM’s shoes to one school outside that Christian network.” (Costello)

One of the Bridge 2 Rwanda volunteers outfitting children with TOM’s shoes wearing a “Make Jesus Famous” shirt. Some of the strongly Evangelical TOM’s giving donors have been known to only distribute shoes following Christian church services to encourage attendance

Although one might argue that donating directly to countries in need of aid through established NGOs would be a much more effective means of helping others, even they are not without their fair share of issues. Massive and supposedly credible organizations like the U.N. and Red Cross have been found guilty of atrocious negligence, and even abuse.

Dozens of NGO’s have been identified in the “sex-for-food” scandals documented in the “No One to Turn to” report by Save the Children UK, which revealed that aid workers had been withholding food and medical supplies in exchange for sexual acts. (Save the Children) Reports like these, when coupled with the fact that a great amount of the donations collected for these aid campaigns wind up in the hands of combatants in conflicts, make it difficult to support an argument for these NGO’s being worthy of our volunteer efforts and donations.

Polman describes this issue in her book “The Crisis Caravan” where she says, “No matter how often the Red Cross rules may be trampled underfoot by warlords, generals, rebel leaders, agitators, local chiefs, insurgents, heads of splinter groups, militia commanders, trans-national terrorist leaders, regime bosses, mercenaries, freedom fighters, and national and international governments, the humanitarians persist in brandishing their Red Cross principles and accept no responsibility for the abuse of their aid.” (Polman)

Polman recalls countless cases of heavy taxes being levied on the incoming supplies, the creation of tollbooth style roadblocks that extort money and aid from the workers entering the area, and goods being stolen directly from the supply planes and warehouses. She writes that some INGOs estimated that, “on average militias stole 60 percent of all aid supplies being distributed, partly for their own use, partly to sell back to civilians in camps.” (Polman) With security forces protecting these supplies and convoys proving inadequate, (twenty-five armed private security guards were murdered at a CARE Canada warehouse by a group of Hutu extremists who, “then demanded – and apparently got- regular salaries from CARE.”) much of these donations inadvertently find their way into the hands of genocidaires and common thieves.  (Polman)

How then are we able to identify aid organizations and companies that will ensure that our volunteer efforts and donations are part of the solution and not part of the problem?

The first step must be to avoid “feel good” gimmicks and passing trends. Organizations like TOM’S or the KONY campaign appeal to us by increasing our sense of “achieved status” a sociological idea that essentially means our perceived “social prestige or ranking.” (Brown) The KONY campaign for example, led by Jason Russell, falls victim to all of the trappings of what Teju Cole described as, “The White Savior Industrial Complex” something that Cole believes, “is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.” (Cole) That is precisely what makes KONY such a dangerous campaign – it oversimplifies a very complex, volatile political and cultural landscape, and condenses a conflict (with horrifying war crimes on both sides) into a neat, tidy, feel-good video on YouTube, and a merchandise shop where you can purchase posters and wristbands to show others just how compassionate and worldly you are.

The best way to contribute and aid those around us is to first ask, “What is it that you need?” rather than saying, “I want to give you shoes.” We cannot assume that we know how best to solve the complicated issue of child soldiers being used in Africa just because we’ve seen a video telling us how we should feel about it. We also cannot blindly trust large organizations like the U.N. or the Red Cross to always be able to distribute aid effectively, ethically and responsibly. We must always be wary of these organizations who claim to place others before themselves, and understand the full scope of their effects before we contribute, because we might end up doing more harm than good.

Works Cited:

Cole, Teju. March 21, 2012. July 1, 2013.

Polman, Linda. “The Crisis Caravan: What’s Wrong with Humanitarian Aid?” New York: Metropolitan, 2010. Print.

Costello, Amy. July 1, 2013.

Mason, Zac. “Do You Cause More Harm Than Good By Giving TOMs Shoes to the Poor?” October 4, 2010 July 1, 2013.

Mycoskie, Blake. July 1, 2013.

Save the Children. “No One to Turn To” July 1, 2013.

Brown, David. July 1, 2013.

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