Do Donations to Developing Nations Help or Hinder?

shoes on wireTuesday was the second annual “One Day Without Shoes,” an event designed by Toms Shoes to raise awareness of the importance of shoes. Thousands participated by going barefoot, something that children in third-world countries do every day. 

Toms Shoes' claim to fame is the buy-one-give-one model. When you buy a pair of the earth-friendly loafers, the company donates a pair of shoes to a child in a developing nation. Wearing shoes can prevent diseases transmitted through soil, helps prevent cuts and sores on the feet, and may even be a ticket to an education, since many schools require shoes as part of their dress code. No shoes means no school.


But do free shoes really help lift communities and countries out of poverty? It certainly makes a difference to the children that receive the shoes, but are they better off in the long run? Is it possible that donating clothing to impoverished nations actually hurts them rather than helps them?

Time Magazine explains:

Flooding the market with free goods could bankrupt the people who already sell them. Donating clothing is a sensitive topic in Africa because many countries' textile industries collapsed under the weight of secondhand-clothing imports that were introduced in the 1970s and '80s. "First you have destroyed these villages' ability to be industrious and produce cotton products, and then you're saying, 'Can I give you a T-shirt?' and celebrating about it?" says James Shikwati, director of the Nairobi-based Inter Region Economic Network, a think tank. "It's really like offering poison coated with sugar."

Interesting concept. It reminds me of the saying, “Give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day; teach him to fish and he’ll eat for the rest of his life.” Simply giving a pair of shoes to a child will no doubt be immediately beneficial, but what happens when they wear out or are outgrown? The kid will still be living in poverty.

One company that's working to raise the standard of living in Africa is Oliberté Footwear. It uses local materials and employs Africans to stitch high-quality shoes. Founder Tal Dehtiar has been critical of Toms Shoes, claiming that its "charity" undermines local businesses in addition to “reinforcing stereotypes about the developing world.”

People want to help other people, but good intentions might not be enough. While Toms might be doing good work by giving shoes to children that need them, it doesn’t address the bigger issue of why they didn’t have shoes to begin with. Charity can sometimes act as a Band-Aid to the bigger problems of poverty. Real change can happen when we take the time to learn why communities can’t properly clothe their children, and we help them find ways to lift themselves out of destitution.


Image via tobyotter/Flickr

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