Donating shoes and other aid fads
Posted on September 28, 2009 at 9:46 am
Just like everything else, aid goes through fads. One of the current fads is donating shoes to people in developing countries. Everywhere I look there’s a shoe program. Bins for donated shoes are placed just inside the door of shoe stores, there’s a phone commercial featuring a shoe company that gives away a pair of shoes for every pair they sell (I’d be interested to know if they donate their own product or if they purchase shoes locally to donate, it makes a difference), and just this week someone taped plastic bags onto all the the porches in my neighborhood with a note asking for donated shoes to send to Africa.
Now I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure they sell shoes in Africa. In fact, I would challenge my well traveled readers to name a country they’ve visited that didn’t have shoes for sell. Just because you visited a village where people weren’t wearing shoes doesn’t mean that the solution is to take up a collection of shoes to donate. In fact it’s often one of the worst solutions to the problem, but it’s common because it’s a fad that pleases donors, and therefore gets resources and funding.
Is the reason people are not wearing shoes clearly understood?
There could be numerous reasons why people aren’t wearing shoes. To understand the best solution to a problem, there’s needs to be a clear understanding of the problem itself. Some possible reasons why people don’t wear shoes could include:
- In that culture children traditionally do not wear shoes except to school and church
- Shoes are not a priority. In fact they’ve received donated shoes in the past but have sold them almost immediately to buy what they consider to be more important.
- They do not own shoes because of their scarcity, there are no local shoe manufactures and they have to be shipped in from far away – perhaps the solution is to train local people in shoemaking.
- The people do not wear shoes because they cannot afford to buy them, however they would wear shoes if they had them – perhaps the solution is to help them purchase shoes in the local market place.
These are different root causes each with a different solution. Once the problem is clearly understood then it is time to explore – with significant input from the aid recipients – the various solutions to the problem. These solutions should take into account the impact that the aid project could have on the local economy, culture, health, environment, etc…
Potential impacts of donated shoes on the local economy
Whenever you ship goods into a country you are essentially undercutting the local market by giving away something that local people are producing and selling. This might not seem significant because the aid recipients cannot afford to buy shoes anyway, but there are impacts.
If, instead of shipping in shoes, the organization were to purchase shoes from the local market then the program would not only be giving away shoes that are appropriate to the climate and culture, but also putting money into the local economy which benefits many more people than just those receiving the shoes.
Also the donations could hurt local merchants if the shoe recipients decide that they need the money more than the shoes. The aid recipients may then sell their shoes for far less then the local merchant can because they got them for free whereas the local merchant has to charge enough to cover his costs.
Does the aid agency address the economic issues of importing donated shoes and is there evidence that the local people have been consulted and showed a preference to receiving shoes shipped in from abroad versus those purchased locally?
Potential impacts of donated shoes on the health of the recipients
Again this may seem silly to consider because one of the large arguments supporting the need for donated shoes are the diseases contracted by walking around barefoot. However, the donated shoes may have their own health issues.
For instance in Thailand toenails are cut as deep as possible on the sides to reduce problems caused by fungal infections in the tropical climate. Would sending over lace up or leather shoes increase the possibility of fungal infections. Think of all the teenagers that struggle with athlete’s foot in developed countries, and that’s with a plentiful supply of clean socks to change into. Imagine wearing leather shoes through the rainy season, with no other shoes to change into, no heating source to dry your shoes and no extra pairs of socks to change into. Although these fungal infections may be less severe then the worms that can be picked up by walking barefoot, it would be far better to purchase shoes locally to ensure they are appropriate for the local climate.
Has the aid agency addressed any health concerns that may arise from donated shoes, and have they consulted the aid recipients as to whether it would be better to ship in shoes donated from abroad or purchased shoes locally.
Potential impacts of donated shoes on the culture of the recipients
If children traditionally run around without shoes then the donated shoes will not have an impact unless they are accompanied with a program aimed at behavior change. Behavior change is not easy (see Mosquito nets, condoms and recycling) and often requires a cultural change to be successful. Without this you can donate all the shoes you want and the children still won’t wear them.
Has the needs assessment ascertained how much of going barefoot is based on a lack of shoes and how much is based on tradition. If going barefoot is common even when shoes are available, is the aid agency willing and able to provide the time, effort, and staffing needed to change the culture of the village or do they just want to pop in and out and call the project a success?
Other potential impacts of donated shoes
Has the project taken into account some other impacts of handing out donated shoes. For instance:
- Are the fancy foreign shoes so highly prized that they are only worn on special occasions?
- Is there the possibility that the donated shoes will lead to shoe recipients being beaten up for their shoes or have the shoes stolen in other ways?
- Will the aid recipients take the shoes to the second hand clothing market and sell them shortly after the donor leaves for money to purchase other goods?
Although some of these impacts may not have been anticipated at the beginning of the program, the aid agency should be conducting project evaluations – that include far more than just chatting with the people that received the shoes – to determine the real impact of the program and to make changes as needed. Has that program shipping shoes overseas done that or do they just send happy pictures of people receiving donated shoes?
Other aid fads
In general, shipping donated goods overseas is considered poor aid practice for all of the reasons listed above. If you look closely at the aid agencies collecting shoes they tend to be new agencies riding on the coattails of the latest fad. They are able to do this so successfully because of two other current aid fads:
- Little or no administration costs – this favors activities such as shoe distribution because everything can be donated. Unfortunately low administration costs does not mean the aid project is useful or even needed, and in fact often leads to poorly planned and implemented aid projects. (see Charity ratings based on administration costs often do more harm than good)
- Voluntourism - where the people donating get to go into the field to work with the aid recipients. This fad has led to “hug vacations” where people volunteer at orphanages even though standards call for stable and long term relationships with caregivers; construction projects where unskilled volunteers pay to help out rather than taking the cost of the plane ticket to hire skilled local people that are likely desperate for paid work; and most recently volunteer shoe fitters that pay a fee to travel to the developing country to help properly fit shoes on aid recipients – which would not be needed if shoes were bought locally (see Disaster tourism, When is it appropriate for a donor to visit an aid recipient, and Guideline #1 for volunteering overseas).
Become an informed donor
We owe it to the people we’re trying to help to provide the best aid possible, and not just jump to support the latest fad. Before donating ensure that the organization you are donating to is professional enough to work with aid recipient communities to conduct a thorough needs assessment, develop a project plan to address the core needs, and regularly conducts in-depth project evaluations. Unfortunately, going with your gut feelings can often lead to poor aid projects, because all too often what feels good to the donor is not what is best for the people they are trying to help.
6 questions you should ask before donating goods overseas
The worst in-kind donations
When is it appropriate for a donor to visit an aid recipient
Best practices often lose out to quick and cheap projects the please donors
Why do we so often give aid in ways that do not support the local economy?
Guideline #1 for volunteering overseas