Friday, February 24, 2012

One for one?

Okay. So I will be the first to admit I am not sure exactly how I feel about what I am about to write. I have lots of mixed feelings.

It all started last week when I was at the Pazapa Karnaval. Well, actually, let me back up. It REALLY all started almost two years ago I was at a conference and I heard Blake Mycoskie, founder of TOMS shoes speaking. He was talking about the "one for one" movement where whenever someone buys a new pair of TOMS, the company will donate a brand new pair of shoes to a child in need.

Sounds like a great idea, right? How could it not be? The rich partnering with the poor; what an easy way to make a difference!

And dude, a lot of people thought it was a great idea. So much so that they were willing to shell out $50 for a pair (er, two pair) of canvas shoes. (Incidentally, not too dissimilar to the kind I used to buy for $2 at Jamesway when I was a preteen.)

TOMS caught on and became this really vibey thing. When I was back in the states a few months ago I *almost* shelled out the bucks in order to brand the TOMS logo on the back of my heels-- because I wanted everyone to know that I supported companies that helped poor kids... kwim? But I got mixed reviews from my friends-- while some said that they were not very supportive, others said they were the most comfortable thing they've ever worn... In the end, yeah, I figured that if I was going to pay $50 for a pair (er, two pair) of shoes, it would be buying a pair of Keens or Chacos on clearance. I like a supportive pair of shoes, and the terrain here sort of dictates it. (That might sound like I am getting old-- but hey, in just over a month I will be 35 years old, which is CLOSER to 40 than 30. But I digress.)

In short, I passed on the TOMS.

Fast forward to last week. I was at Jerry's school Karnaval and I saw one of Jerry's classmates sporting a pair of TOMS. I thought, "Wow, this is the first time I've ever seen a "child in need" wearing a pair of TOMS."
And then the next day I saw Dada (the little girl that lives with Sarah) wearing a pair. And I said to Sarah,"Wow, Dada's pretty trendy. Look at her sporting the TOMS."

And Sarah was like, "Yeah, someone must have just given a huge shipment of them in Jacmel because they are all over the market for 50 gourdes ($1.25 US)."

And today when I was in the market, I saw first hand she was right.

I bought a pair for 4 of my kids, figuring it was the same price as the cheap flip flops they wear out in a week or two... And probably better for playing soccer.

And then I got to thinking about how it was probably illegal or at least somewhat unethical that they were being resold after being donated. Sure enough this was printed inside.

But then I got to thinking some more.

Haiti doesn't really have a shortage of shoes. There are PILES AND PILES AND PILES for sale (new and used) on practically every street and side street around here. I mean, sure, there's a lot of poor people here. A lot of people run around barefoot. (Like me, for example, I am barefoot as I write this, as are 10 of my 12 children... but it's not for lack of shoes.) And true, wearing shoes will help prevent some diseases and keep kids healthier. So, offering them for free... SEEMS like a good idea-- like it couldn't hurt and could only help. But then again-- try googling "Miami rice." Sometimes it's more complex than that.

So then I wondered about the ethical responsibility of the person receiving the donated goods. I don't have ANY idea what kind of arrangement is made between TOMS and the person receiving the shoes. There may be specific guidelines about the distribution of the shoes. In fact, I am sure there must be or it wouldn't be printed that they weren't for re-sale. But SHOULD there be limitations on how the shoes are used?

For example, what if a Haitian family here had 6 kids and so, therefore, received 6 pairs of shoes but all their kids already had shoes and one of them needed medication. Would it be unethical for them to sell the shoes to buy medicine? So then my mind thinks, but yeah, that wasn't the INTENT of the gift. The gift was to provide FREE SHOES. But if free shoes isn't what's needed and the "free shoes" can be turned into medication, or food or what is really needed... isn't that good?

There are times that our depot (storage shed) is busting at the seams with donated goods, more than we could ever possibly use. (Trust me, it's a full depot is a side effect of being a missionary.) There have been times when I've distributed those items to people to use, but in other cases, I've given them to people to sell. If I have the goods that are just going to rot in a depot, wouldn't it make more sense to give it to someone so that they can try to use it to support themselves?

There are probably going to be a few cases where donated shoes are going to be best used as a part of a school uniform that allows kids (who lack only shoes) to be able to get an education. But not many. And there are probably times where donated shoes would be better sold to purchase what is needed for a particular individual or family. But MOST of the cases will fall somewhere in between those two.

And so there's not a cookie cutter, one-size-fits-all answer. A lot of it comes down to case-by-case judgement calls. Which is why I am a big believer in channeling funds to trusted partners in specific communities who are in touch with the needs of the community.

So, while I don't have any particular wisdom to wrap up this post, I will let you know this... Four Mangine kids are sporting new TOMS. I will let you know how they hold up in a third-world environment. ;)

And PS-- no, I won't buy any for you at the market. Not even if you're my family. I have to draw the line somewhere... Go here if you want to buy some.