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Barefoot on Broadway (Warning: gross feet pics)

Vivek Nemana is an NYU graduate student and a student worker at DRI.

I’ve been working at DRI long enough to recognize bad aid, and yet my skin still tingles when I watch the TOMS Shoes’ One Day without Shoes video. I know, I KNOW…but I just can’t help being swept away by montages of beautiful young people “taking action” set to a backdrop of a dramatic Matisyahu song. So I bared my feet for the cause:

Raising awareness on the dirty subway platform


Raising awareness next to a discarded beer can


Raising awareness on the sidewalk with cigarette butts

Sure, this whole event really just helps TOMS sell more shoes, and sure, it was cold and raining in New York, and sure, I solicited bewildered stares, watched mothers shield their daughters from me, and possibly contracted hepatitis, but wasn’t I raising awareness about the real, complex challenges facing developing countries? Because wouldn’t African people hate to be shoeless on a rainy day in the Village, too? Also, do you think I could be a foot model?

TOMS, a for-profit shoe company, likes to use highfalutin’ NGO buzzwords like “accountability,” “awareness” and “change” in its marketing. It just published its first “giving report.” Which is fantastic…except that the campaign reinforces the stereotype that Africans are so pathetically destitute that they need anything we can give them, while allowing us to ignore both the condescending implication that the only hope for the poor is our charity, and the negative impacts of gifts-in-kind on local economies.

I also attended a One Day Without Shoes event held by the TOMS Shoes club at NYU. When I prodded my fellow students a bit about why they supported TOMS, the main message I came away with (and here please note my sample size n=2) was that people should buy the shoes because, with little time and disposable income to spare, it’s an easy way to be charitable with the things we do already.

In a way the attitude itself makes sense – it’s a fundamental economic principle — but it manifests itself in a giving model (and this goes for BOGO and gifts-in-kind in general) that runs backwards. Instead of taking a fundamental problem that people face – say, unsafe conditions for children – and thinking of what they need to help solve it, this model takes a solution – shoes – and staples it to some problem that people have. And by attempting to view the whole spectrum of issues through this single-dimensional proto-solution, it’s easy to forget about all the unintended consequences.

It’s obvious that the TOMS aid-vertising works, that it can successfully generate a huge grassroots-style movement of well-intentioned people by not only playing into their sense of justice but also providing them with a way to “do something.” But, as I ended my own half-hearted participation in One Day Without Shoes, I remained unconvinced that easy aid could ever be good aid.

What I am certain of, however, is that nobody should EVER have to walk around barefoot in Greenwich Village.

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  1. Blaire wrote:

    Agreed – targeting the solution is never as effective or as productive as targeting the cause. And yes, well to do 20 somethings going barefoot really makes no difference to anyone anywhere, except by causing a sanitary issue for the barefoot. But I don’t think the TOMS model in general is entirely disposable IF (and it’s a big if) it is working in conjunction with, or at least hopefully aware of, programs that are more cause oriented. Band-aid solutions are quick and dirty (in this case literally), while development initiatives are slow and difficult to implement – I personally don’t see a problem with children wearing shoes while they wait for infrastructure to be built.

    Posted April 6, 2011 at 9:19 am | Permalink
  2. theconsumeristo wrote:

    First, thanks for linking to the TOMS “Giving” Report. Here are the two primary criticisms I’ve heard of TOMS: 1) the company destroys local markets and 2) children outgrow shoes, so TOMS shoes are harming them. However, the TOMS report *directly* addresses both of these. Page 6 says “[we] rely on local experts to identify communities that will benefit most from shoes…where local business will not be affected.” It continues to say, “We don’t give once and leave…we strive to set up partnerships that allow us to give repeatedly as children grow.”

    Wow! Problem solved. Concerns from the international development blogosphere addressed. Or are they? Here’s the key: are those two quotes true statements? If the “Day Without Dignity” campaign was really trying, organizers would push for answers on these two points. There would be some statistical research proving that TOMS is irresponsible and has hurt the local economies they claim to be helping. There would be exposé stories of times when TOMS distributed shoes to a village and then abandoned everyone. Because otherwise, the criticisms being leveled against TOMS don’t hold any weight. We can argue all day about perpetuating stereotypes of Africa and not being the most effective aid, but focus for a moment simply on the company and the giving practices. Is this particular company harming economies? Are they abandoning people? Because TOMS is directly asserting that they are not. So if we really want to make a splash…prove TOMS wrong. Show some evidence. Otherwise, this “Day Without Dignity” campaign is as useless at raising awareness as the “Day Without Shoes” campaign.

    Posted April 6, 2011 at 11:38 am | Permalink
  3. Charlotte wrote:

    I rarely wear shoes and my feet look way funkier, Vivek.

    I met this guy who was a friend-of-a-friend and we were hanging out in his northern Virginia home with his two [very badly behaved] children. I was barefoot and one of the kids suddenly locked eyes with my [apparently] horribly deformed feet. The boy’s eyes got HUGE and he said “Hey! What happened to your FEET?”

    The father laughed nervously and I said “I lived someplace for a while where I didn’t wear shoes for a whole year.”

    The father said “Oh, come on. That’s not true. You must have worn them SOMETIMES,” at which I thought carefully and then said “um, nope. Nope, I didn’t. I put rags on them to help polish the floor once.”

    To this day, I think Dad still thinks I am a great big liar, and the kid thinks that I am a crazy lady.

    Thanks for this article, passing it on to my students writing about TOMS.

    Posted April 6, 2011 at 12:10 pm | Permalink
  4. Daniel wrote:

    @theconsumeristo – I have friends in Uganda that were on the receiving end of TOMS. They are neither children, in need of shoes or have ever been visited more than once by the “professionals” TOMS works with. There are a few things wrong with TOMS 1) they exploit well-intended idealists (naive, but motivated individuals that want to change the world – good intended people), 2) they exploit everyone “poor” person around the world to make money (they are a for-profit brilliant marketing company) and further our misperception of how to “help” the poor 3) they are not creating any sustainable long-term change, but are rather a “dirty band-aid” as you’ve stated that makes the consumer and shoe givers feel great (aka it’s more about the giver than the receiver – false perception of changing the world) & 4) false advertisement – they are not giving shoes to children in need (example: my adult friends in Uganda that are both employed/don’t need to be given shoes) and they don’t work with professionals in every country they drop shoes. Pretty much, TOMS Shoes is lying to well-intended people and getting away with it, while making a lot of money. Shame on them.

    Posted April 6, 2011 at 12:15 pm | Permalink
  5. Blaire wrote:

    A couple of additional comments…

    Regarding my initial comment on infrastructure – I did not mean that as literal as it sounded – I was attempting to imply that while long-term initiatives are being developed and instituted, band-aid solutions can and do have a (limited) place.

    @Daniel – obviously TOMS is not holding up their part of the deal here – false advertising at its worst. But regarding your 3rd point that it’s more about the giver than the receiver – how do you take this and apply it to sustainable development. We all know that quick fixes are simply that, but that is what has proven to gain sympathy and support. Is there a feasible way (through a for-profit solution or not) to encourage public support of long-term development initiatives?

    Posted April 6, 2011 at 12:28 pm | Permalink
  6. Daniel wrote:

    @Blair I agree that “band-aid” solutions do have a place in helping the developing world. However, this would be in the form of emergency relief and “shoelessness” in not a world-over emergency. There are individuals in different locations around the world that suffer from foot diseases, but it’s not a global emergency. It’s more isolated and could be combatted if TOMS spent their time and energy addressing those specific problems…while having shoes produced in those areas (hiring local shoe makers).

    In regards to your other question, there are great organizations that appeal to the same “sympathy”, but put it into real sustainable improvements by simply asking the receiver “what do you need?” and backing it up with research. In my opinion, the best way to help is to support social enterprises that are educating, empowering and employing people in developing countries – the same people we’re saying that have barefooted children. It’s not an issue of shoes, but jobs.

    Here are a few great organizations (for-profits & non-profits) doing sustainable work:,,,,,,, and many more…

    Posted April 6, 2011 at 12:46 pm | Permalink
  7. Victoria wrote:

    Vivek, I’m so encouraged to see you posing the same questions that I have! I own a pair of TOMS and I love their one-for-one model (as well as the shoes!). But I also work for Oxfam and am entrenched in aid and sustainable development on a daily basis, and therefore I can see where TOMS falters. Giving shoes isn’t really enough. It’s putting a band-aid on a much deeper problem. Their campaigns and their big Day Without Shoes are super creative and interesting, but the ultimate goal to increase their brand recognition, sell shoes, and the money goes right into the pockets of the employees. I would love if TOMS started a non-profit arm of their company, or at least gave a portion of their profits to an NPO who can accurately address the root-causes of why these children don’t have shoes. It might put TOMS out of business in the long-run, but wouldn’t that be the best outcome? If you want, check out the post I wrote for Oxfam’s blog here:

    Posted April 6, 2011 at 12:50 pm | Permalink
  8. Victoria wrote:
    Posted April 6, 2011 at 12:51 pm | Permalink
  9. Daniel wrote:

    @Victoria: I think you have a great idea. TOMS could fund its non-profit by shifting the cost of making another pair of shoes to the non-profit rather than sending a pair of shoes. Or better yet, take a percentage of the company’s profits to fund the non-profit — those shoes can’t be too expensive to make by the look and feel of them. /snark

    Posted April 6, 2011 at 1:29 pm | Permalink
  10. Jonathan wrote:

    Did someone just mention Invisible Children? Uh-oh…

    Posted April 6, 2011 at 2:26 pm | Permalink
  11. Daniel wrote:

    Would like to note that the recent “Daniel” post was not submitted by me.

    Posted April 6, 2011 at 2:27 pm | Permalink
  12. Daniel wrote:

    @Jonathan would love to know what “Uh-oh” means.

    Posted April 6, 2011 at 2:29 pm | Permalink
  13. Maria wrote:

    well again, this goes back to the age-old question of “what can I [easily] do to make a difference?”

    let me tell you – my parents grew up without shoes and I’m happy that people would recognize that hardship (bc it is hard to walk on cold rubble, even when used to it) – but they would NEVER want me walking around some dirty city without shoes on – especially my mom – she would find that disgusting.

    once again, the cultural chasm that exists between the practical have-nots and the dreamy haves…..

    Posted April 6, 2011 at 2:53 pm | Permalink
  14. George wrote:

    I would rather trust a for profit who is making a real effort to do something good, rather than a non profit who gets rich off of donor funds. Too many non profits fundraise like crazy and yet only a small percentage reaches the intended recipients.

    Many non profits have shown that they far more likely than an company like TOMS to “exploit well-intended idealists (naive, but motivated individuals that want to change the world”. After all get a pair of shoes and give a pair is pretty simple. Donate money and hopefully some will get there and not all get used by “administrative fees” or used for something entirely different than what the fundraiser pledged to is kinda messy. Kudos to TOMS for doing what others should be and shame on YOU for trying to tarnish their image.

    Guess I’m off to buy a pair of shoes or two

    Posted April 6, 2011 at 4:25 pm | Permalink
  15. LaGitane wrote:

    I think you hit the nail on the head talking about how campaigns like this reinforce the aid-in-kind stereotype.

    I mean, an agricultural agency wants to give food and we are ready to rip them to shreds… But a shoe company gives shoes and we think it’s sweet? IMHO, it would be far better if they donated the equivalent cost to a not-for-profit venture instead of bouncing it back to their core business.

    Although I do like the potential for a new development paradigm around ‘shoelessness’. Root causes of shoelessness? Key shoelessness indicators? A rapid sholessness response assessment? The possibilities are endless!

    Posted April 6, 2011 at 4:51 pm | Permalink
  16. slw wrote:

    I’m one for order and for picking a side but with TOMS I see both the pros and the cons. So pro they are bringing attention to Africa and providing shoes for their children. Con, it does make Africa look more like our charity case and are new shoes going to help further their future development? One final pro for TOMS, its getting average people to think about Africa’s current standings.

    Posted April 7, 2011 at 12:34 am | Permalink
  17. Daniel wrote:

    @George, there are definitely a few organizations here and there that are “guilty” of what you’re saying, but it’s not the majority. If you researched you’d find that there a hundreds and possible thousands of organizations that are doing really good work and spending less than 15% on admin costs.

    It seems we most likely need to agree to disagree on who exploits people more, for-profits or non-profits. But I will say that most non-profits are actually trying to solve the root-problems in developing countries and not just throw free shoes at the “poor”. In fact it’s not even about “alleviating poverty” but about an increase to “access of wealth”. If you spend enough time researching the affects of hand-outs and aid-dependency (includes free shoes) you’ll be shocked to find that giving shoes to the “poor” in developing countries could actually be doing more harm than good. If you really want to know what giving shoes away does you might find yourself falling down the rabbit-hole and losing your grasp on what you thought is reality.

    Posted April 7, 2011 at 12:40 am | Permalink
  18. Daniel wrote:

    @slw – They are definitely brining attention to Africa (and other continents (like South America, etc.), but the problem is that they’re creating a mirage, a false reality of how to view Africa and respond to the problems. Average people are believing what TOMS is telling them and what TOMS is saying is not what they need to hear. They need to know why the problem exists and how best we can serve and support Africa (and other countries) in their efforts to overcome them. Not put shoes on their feet.

    Profits from TOMS could go to much better use. I think this is what most constructive critics of TOMS would agree on. Improve the way they portray Africa’s problems and give a % of the profits to education and/or microfinance initiatives.

    TOMS has great potential and they are “trying” to do good. They have good intentions, but what critics are saying (including myself) is that they could be a power-house for-profit that combats the real problems in the developing world.

    Posted April 7, 2011 at 12:47 am | Permalink
  19. Daniel wrote:

    A great way to make a difference.

    Buy from countries for countries. Creates jobs for the “poor” and provides an increase of access to wealth in “poor” countries.

    Shoes: (Shoes for Africa from Africa).

    An educated consumer can make a big difference in the world. It’s better to give than to receive, but what if you can do both at the same time without creating aid-dependency, but rather create jobs where people have the opportunity to earn.

    Posted April 7, 2011 at 12:55 am | Permalink
  20. Anthony wrote:

    A consumer of Toms can only hope that a portion of the money they spend on these shoes actually is being seen by the people they are trying to help. I do not believe that individually a person walking around without shoes is raising any awareness at all. It takes a large group with basically a sign that tells people why they do not have shoes on to inform others of this. With so little “awareness” and “change” that the TOMS brand is aiming for, it seems that the most “change” comes from the increase in TOMS sold for that day. This undoubtedly raises some skepticism in the intentions of TOMS promoting this day. I feel that if TOMS really wanted to make a difference they could find a different fundraiser that would make more of an impact than this one. Recently this day has become more of a fad then it has actually been a sincere attempt at making difference.

    Posted April 7, 2011 at 5:01 pm | Permalink
  21. Pamela wrote:

    Not to mention it’s just a pathetic fundraising idea for most young people…walking around barefoot doesn’t make the “cool” cut. Most young people I know would be embarrassed to participate in anything too sensational.

    Posted April 11, 2011 at 7:21 pm | Permalink
  22. Katy wrote:

    This article is well put and effectively addresses the concerns many studying development have with TOMS. TOMS are incredibly popular amongst the socially aware college kids who have a strong moral and ethical sense of justice. They see it for what it is and think this one for one model is leading to quick and easy answers. TOMS enthusiasts are just playing their noble role in saving the world one pair of shoes at a time. TOMS takes advantage of target group and their eagerness to impact the developing world. But in all reality, TOMS success is a result of a brilliant marketing scheme. It’s a trendy and elitist movement. TOMS put local shoe makers out of business and undermine local markets. And not only does TOMS have a detrimental effect economically, but psychologically as well. TOMS charity demeans the individual receiving a pair of shoes, signifying their incapability in providing for themselves. Maybe TOMS could sale their shoes and then pour that massive revenue into a well-constructed and beneficial development scheme. Also, not too sure what going barefoot does. I can almost assure you, those bottom billion could care less that well-off Americans are going around barefoot to raise awareness for their benefit

    Posted April 13, 2011 at 9:32 pm | Permalink
  23. Jim wrote:

    Here’s an idea. Instead of donating a pair of shoes to a needy African, why not put cash in their hand? I’m sure that TOM’s manufacturing costs are next to nothing (I mean come on, those things are glorified socks). So they could easily donate a small percentage from each sale and still rake in a sizeable profit. They already have the infrastructure necessary for distribution in place. So why not give cash instead of shoes? Of course it’s important that the funds go to individuals and not the government. It would be interesting to see how African economies could benefit by increasing the power of the citizens as actors within it. Perhaps, I’m being niave………….

    Posted April 19, 2011 at 8:35 pm | Permalink

8 Trackbacks

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  5. […] Nemana, writing at AidWatch, decided to join the barefoot minions of TOMS and wander around Greenwich Village on a cold, soggy […]

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  8. […] event’s popularity is growing at a seemingly exponential rate.  People LOVE the idea of walking barefoot for a day to “raise awareness”… and also to look cool, socially conscious and […]

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