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Buying TOMS shoes is a terrible way to help poor people

Did you buy TOMS shoes because you want to make the world a better place? If so, you should be a little mad.

TOMS, of course, is an accessory company that markets itself like a charity: When you buy TOMS products, the company makes an in-kind donation to a person in need. When someone buys a pair of TOMS shoes in the US, for instance, the company donates a pair of shoes to a child in a poor country like Haiti.

I want to be very clear here: A desire to help people in need is a good thing. Paying a little more for a pair of shoes or a messenger bag because you want your purchase to help people is commendable. If that’s you, well done!

But TOMS and the many other companies like it are the charitable equivalents of yes men. They’re telling you what they think you want to hear in order to get what they want (for you to purchase trendy, pricey accessories), not what you need to hear in order to do what you want (to have your purchase to do as much good in the world as it can).

TOMS tells you that you that making the world a better place is all about you: that you know best how to help poor people, and that you are so powerful that it will take barely any effort on your part to make a huge difference in the world.

This is hardly a message that’s limited to TOMS. There are numerous products that promise to save the world through a buy one, give one model for everything from underwear to eyewear. And there are many other awareness campaigns that rely on the same kind of yes-man messaging that emphasizes the importance of the person doing the helping over the person being helped.

But the truth is that while that kind of messaging is evidently a great way to sell trendy shoes, or to otherwise raise money, it’s not a very good way to do charity. At best, it’s inefficient: It focuses on programs that waste your hard-earned cash by failing to do the most good per dollar. At worst, it promotes a view of the world's poor as helpless, ineffective people passively waiting for trinkets from shoe-buying Americans. While the shoes themselves probably won't lead to any kind of disaster, that worldview can lead to bad policies and real, serious harm.

The TOMS value proposition: Play the fairy godmother for pennies on the dollar

Mycoskie TOMS SXSQ

TOMS "founder and chief shoe giver" Blake Mycoskie speaks about the future of the one-for-one movement at the 2014 SXSW festival. (Shapley/Getty Images for SXSW)

TOMS has a compelling origin story. When founder Blake Mycoskie was traveling in Argentina in 2006, he "witnessed the hardships faced by children growing up without shoes." According to TOMS corporate lore, Mycoskie decided that there was a simple solution to that problem: Give them shoes. More specifically, create a for-profit company that funds free shoes for poor children without relying on donations.

On the surface, this idea makes sense. Shoes seem important! They protect your feet and are a basic requirement for participation in a lot of public life. Not having them sure sounds like a big problem. Getting free shoes sure sounds like a great solution.

So great, in fact, that it has spawned a slew of imitators. For instance, a new line of underwear called THINX has been spamming my inbox for weeks to let me know that every time someone purchases their "period-proof" panties, THINX donates menstrual pads to girls in Uganda. The company heavily implies that this will improve educational outcomes — its website notes that "94% of girls in Uganda report having problems at school due to menstruation and many drop out of school entirely."

It's easy to see why that's a really appealing idea. If the lack of minor consumer goods is causing big problems for people in the developing world, then that's easy to fix by just buying the items in question and handing them out.

And if they're relatively inexpensive items, like shoes that cost just a few dollars or menstrual pads that cost only pennies, then the story gets even better: We, as Western consumers, are so rich that the price of changing a poor person's life is just a rounding error on our fashionable accessories. Improving a poor child's well-being or clearing a young woman's path to education can be offered as a free gift with purchase, a sort of altruistic version of a McDonald's happy meal toy.

And that's pretty exciting for the people doing the buying. They get to play the fairy godmother, telling poor children that they shall go to the ball after all. An ordinary shoe-buying experience gets transformed into a magical fairy tale.

Products like TOMS shoes solve the wrong problem, and they don't really solve it

TOMS shoes wall

A wall of special-edition TOMS shoes. (John M. Heller/Getty Images)

It might be easy to miss, but there are two really big logical leaps in the story that products like TOMS tell you: that the hardships the poor kids were facing were due to their lack of shoes, and that giving them shoes was therefore the best way to address those problems. Neither of these, unfortunately, is correct.

When TOMS worked with an outside research team to evaluate the impact of its shoe donations, the researchers were unable to find a way in which the shoes had much of a substantive impact on poor kids' lives. The kids liked the shoes, and used them to play outside a little more often. But there was no significant improvement in their school attendance or self-esteem.

In fact, the data suggested that receiving the shoes caused the children to spend a bit less time on homework. (Perhaps because they were too busy playing outside?) It also made the children slightly more likely to feel dependent on outside aid — a learned dependency that can be damaging.

Similarly, when researchers ran a study in Nepal that handed out free period supplies to poor girls, that didn't improve their school attendance.

The hard truth is that people's problems are almost always a lot more complicated than just the lack of an inexpensive consumer item. Poor girls do often miss school during their periods, for example, but that doesn't mean their problem necessarily comes down to a lack of hygiene supplies. They might be staying home because they're in pain, or because their schools lack private bathrooms, or because their communities believe that women should stay in seclusion while they're menstruating.

Problems like girls' lack of access to education or the cycle of poverty just tend to be complex. So trying to solve these problems with consumer goods often does not actually solve the real problem.

And worse, it perpetuates a stereotype of poor people as helpless and passive — after all, if an inexpensive item can transform their lives but they're just waiting for a charity to provide it, then how much agency could they have? That attitude is a problem, not just because it's incorrect and insulting — though it is — but also because it can fuel programs and policies that are much more harmful than just handing out some shoes or menstrual pads.

You’re pretty smart, but poor people know more about their needs than you do

There’s a different approach. Instead of giving shoes, why not give poor people cash? If shoes are really what the recipients need, then they can go ahead and buy them. But if not, their options are wide open: They can put the money toward medicine or a crop loan or school fees. Or they can use it to invest in some kind of income-generating venture, such as livestock or a small business.

If you’re like most people, you’re probably feeling some discomfort with that idea. If you give shoes to a kid, then at least you know the kid has shoes. But if you give money, what’s to stop it from being wasted?

The message of TOMS-style giving is that it’s fine for you to make the decision about what the recipient needs, because you (and by extension, TOMS) are smart and know what’s best. That’s an appealing message, because it carries all kinds of really flattering implications about how clever and responsible you are, and it puts you in control. But research very strongly suggests that in addition to being condescending, it’s a bad way to run an aid program.

Take, for instance, a recent study by Columbia political science professor Chris Blattman. He and his team ran an experiment that gave poor women in northern Uganda cash to start small businesses. One group got cash plus expert advice on starting a business, but a comparison group got cash alone. After a year, both groups were doing better.

Part of the point of the experiment was to see if the benefits of the expert advice outweighed the costs of bringing them on. It did not: Over the period that the study measured, the program would have achieved a greater impact if it had skipped the experts and handed out the extra cash to recipients. Likewise, the charity GiveDirectly has seen very positive — and efficient — results from its programs of directly sending cash.

TOMS hasn’t run a similar study comparing its own programs with cash. But there’s at least some evidence that recipients of TOMS shoes really want money instead: the many anecdotal reports of TOMS turning up in markets in the countries where they’re donated. Those TOMS recipients are turning the shoe-donation program into a cash-donation program on their own — just a really inefficient one, in which the costs of developing and delivering the shoes are essentially wasted.

The lesson here isn’t that cash is necessarily always best: Research on this issue is still in pretty early stages, and it’s possible that there are some programs where it really does make more sense to hand out a specific good or service than to hand out cash. It seems plausible, for instance, that things like vaccinations or anti-malarial bednets should be provided directly because they carry benefits to the whole community if enough people use them.

But at the very least, every charity that’s trying to reduce poverty should ask itself if it could achieve more by distributing cash than by distributing goods or services. And every person who is considering how to donate money should ask hard questions about any charity that’s telling a seductive story about being smart enough to know exactly how to change a stranger’s life for the better.

In the meantime: Your TOMS shoes look great with that outfit. But they're not going to save the world.

VIDEO: There's an easy way to solve poverty

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