I must confess. I have a pair of Tom’s Shoes.
But, like millions of other college-aged students, I didn’t quite understand the implications of the “One-For-One” model that Tom’s Shoes so eloquently markets when I purchased the shoes. When I was in college, with big plans to change the world, the “One-For-One” was so easy to get involved with. I could buy a pair of shoes, and a child in a developing country would be granted with a pair; something that I can’t imagine living without. Their new shoes would allow them to scamper around their homes and schools without fear of catching a disease and getting sick, it would allow them to attend school in full uniform, and it would allow them to live a life free of cuts and scrapes on their feet. As a person who mostly HATES to be without shoes, it was a “win-win” situation; I could get a sweet, new pair of shoes, and I could help someone in need.
Then, I became older, landed in a development position, and my personal mission shifted from “a one woman circus, trying to save the world,” to a movement of “locals helping locals.” I quickly realized that what once seemed like a selfless, powerful, and simple idea was far more complicated than I had expected.
I think what many Tom’s consumers don’t realize, including my college-age self, is that the idea, while well intended, isn’t as effective as it could be in lifting children, or their families and communities, out of poverty. Not having shoes does not cause poverty. Not having shoes is merely a symptom of poverty, and while having new shoes is exciting for the children, they aren’t effective in eliminating poverty’s root causes.
These types of handouts can sometimes undermine the communities they wish to help. The shoes are made in China, and in doing so, have the potential to take away jobs that someone at a local level could be doing. Production in a local community, with locals at the helm, can not only provide stylish shoes, but provide them with an income and a way of improving their livelihood, and give them a chance of overcoming poverty.
Most often, the handouts are sent to communities with fragile, unstable economic systems, where local shop owners are trying to sell goods to make a living. The handouts take away the desire to buy shoes, so when a family actually needs new shoes, the shop owners don’t benefit from the sale, and instead the family relies on the free shoes.
This can all be a bit disheartening, considering Tom’s Shoes and others like them, are very well intended in improving the lives of those who need it most. The idea does make the lives of children better (because new shoes are awesome), but they miss the mark on effective anti-poverty measures. That being said, I am not an expert in what anyone other than myself needs to be successful in life, so I will stick to doing my best to affect positive change in the way that I choose.
What do I think works? Empowering locals to develop locally tailored initiatives to lift their communities out of poverty. By giving communities the tools and education to help themselves and help their communities, poverty actually becomes a thing of the past.
The International Institute of Rural Reconstruction (Disclaimer: I work here) has field offices in South Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, and the Philippines. These offices are staffed by local employees who understand the local languages, even the most obscure, and they understand local customs that can have a profound impact on development initiatives. What you won’t find in our field offices are a bunch of ex-pats who may know a lot about development, but nothing about the local communities.
We are one of the few international development organizations with our headquarters located in the Global South, and it is strategically placed there to facilitate south-south learning, and to develop practical, innovative, and long-lasting solutions to poverty. In fact, we believe in our mission so much, that our Credo, which begins, “Go to the People, live among them, learn from them, plan with them, work with them,” is woven throughout every single one of our projects.
We do a lot of great things at IIRR, but perhaps the initiative that best exemplifies locally led development initiatives and local action to address local needs is our Pastoralist Education Program. Normally marginalized communities, Pastoralists typically don’t have access to quality education because of their nomadic lifestyle. Because of this, it is more important for a child to spend their days tending to the flocks instead of going to school. Through this program, IIRR works with community members to understand the importance of education programs as a way to improve livelihoods. We work with the community to inspire them to create an education system for their children and future generations.
Once there is a desire for a school system, IIRR leaves it to the local communities to do the major leg-work. This allows community members to become more active in the process of picking a location for the school, recruiting suitable teachers, and figuring out the logistics of building the school. IIRR supports members in the capacity building by helping local groups organize themselves into an effective education-based coalition. When the initial logistics are straightened out, IIRR helps in the building of schools and uses local supplies and labor to offset costs. When the school is completed, children can enroll in school, parents can become involved with school associations, and other adults can volunteer to be teachers or work with after-school programs.
The community plays an active role in local initiatives, and takes pride in something that they created. If this program doesn’t exemplify locals helping locals, then I’m not really sure what does.
I know that Tom’s Shoes is dedicated to improving the lives of children, but it can be frustrating, coming from a development standpoint, when their mode of operation is not as effective as it should be. Instead, I will stick with supporting organizations that put the power in the hands of the local people who know what is best for their community.
I still have my pair of Tom’s Shoes. I won’t be buying any new pairs, and my lone pair will serve as a reminder that we must question the good and bad intentions in aid and development, and that empowering locals to help themselves is the best way to alleviate poverty.
And, do kindly keep in mind, that while I think my organization is awesome (well, because it is), the views on Tom’s Shoes, or any organization like Tom’s, presented in this article are mine, and mine alone, and do not reflect the views of IIRR or other IIRR staff.