Did you hear? For every pair of TOMS shoes a western customer buys, they give away a pair in a developing country. To children. Very very cute children. Like these.
Toms’ one-for-one is a really nice idea – but only as long as you don’t spend any time thinking about it at all.
If you do, you grasp why One-for-One has already carved out a cherished place for itself in the Annals of Bad Aid. A perfect synthesis of Bad Corporate Social Responsibility and Development Mission Creep, One-for-One destroys local livelihoods, drives cobblers out of business, in a quest to burnish a fancy brand’s image. (At least it did as originally designed, some say the most recent incarnation isn’t quite as bad.)
None of which is to say giving a poor child nice shoes for free isn’t nice. Of course it is.
But the real question all these stuff-for-free programmes need to answer is simple: if you calculated the dollar amount it costs you to make and distribute these shoes and just gave it to your beneficiaries as cash, how many of them would turn around and use that cash to buy those shoes?
The answer, of course, is “a vanishingly small number”. Which is just another way of saying that very poor people value other things they could buy with that money more than they value a nice pair of shoes. And yet, you’re not giving them that choice.You’re telling them, in effect:
I have decided which, out of all the millions of things that $20 might buy in this world, is the one thing that costs $20 that you’re going to have. You’re welcome.
Of course, TOMS only runs this programme in very poor countries. It wouldn’t make any sense to run it in richer countries, because in those places people have the incomes it takes to buy the shoes their kids need.
Wild thought, isn’t it? People having incomes reliable enough to buy the things they need. It’s a crazy pipe-dream, no doubt.