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A Day Without Dignity

April 5, 2011

Today, April 5th, is A Day Without Dignity. Let me explain:

TOMS, a shoes store (please don’t mistake them for an aid organization), has come up with a brilliant marketing campaign that plays ever so gently on the heartstrings of do-gooding neoliberals around the world: buy one pair of our shoes and we will donate one pair to “a child in need”. In support of their do-gooding, they have layered another level of superb marketing on top of this: A Day Without Shoes, accompanied by a slick video. A Day Without Shoes calls on people to go without shoes for a day, which will lead to conversations, which will lead to change.

It sounds like such a good idea but beyond the appeal there are many problems which limit the initiative to simply creative marketing and hoodwinking. Please don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to denigrate do-gooding here; rather, challenging the do-gooders to examine what it is they are doing, why they are doing it, who it actually benefits and how we can do-good better.

1) What does it mean to “get your feet dirty”? What does it accomplish? A number of academics in my field have looked at how, in dominant White society, there is the need for ‘frontier’ experiences, to intentionally experience what it is like on the margins (the poverty, the filth, the danger) and be able to come back unscathed (a sense of accomplishment) and to tell the stories (“I remember the time I came down with Yellow Fever…). This is one of those experiences. In this is the refusal to examine the power relationships, locations, forces, etc… that allow dominant bodies to go without shoes (Would you go without shoes in Calcutta? Why can you put shoes on after a day without them?). A Day without Shoes is essentially a Day on the Wild Side, experience the thrills of poverty (which only the wealthy think are thrilling) and then come back to a closet full of shoes.

2.) This sort of ‘border crossing’ (poor for a day and then back) or ‘frontier’ experience places the focus on us, which is not where it should be. Look at all the people who CHOSE to go without shoes! As a great post over on Project Diaspora also points out, this focus on us creates an artificial divide (us with shoes, them without shoes) which objectifies the other. It plays into the images that we are bombarded with daily – that the so called ‘developing world’ is just that: undeveloped, poverty stricken, disease fraught, war torn, breeding ground of dictators, in need of shoes, etc… while we, the so called ‘developed’ world are technologically advanced, leaders in human rights, wealthy, democratic, freedom loving, love giving shoes, etc.. All of this is somehow justified by increased advocacy.

3.) But what does advocacy do? Does proclaiming your bra color on Facebook change how people suffer through breast cancer? Does going without shoes for a day change anything? The argument flows thus: lack of shoes will lead to talking about lack of shoes which will lead to more people to buying TOMS shoes giving shoes to poor children. Does it work?

4.) It creates dependency. Texas in Africa has a great post on how partnership, local connections, and relationships are a more beneficial model.  As the old saying goes, “Give a man a fish – feed him for a day. Teach a man how to fish – feed him forever.” Simplistic saying but it gets across the point – donating gifts-in-kind (such as shoes) is a terribly unsustainable method of giving.

5.) Finally, beyond that and as I have discussed before with the World Vision NFL shirts program, GIK’s both promote consumerism (which is the whole goal of TOMS shoes – “Buy our shoes to help others”) and wasteful spending and also are not usually what the local economy needs. ‘Developing countries’ are full of shoe stores, Chinese knock-offs, second-hand shoes, etc… (see some great pictures) Why bring more in? More so, in most of these countries even the poorest have footwear.

So that is why today is a Day Without Dignity – a speaking out against the consumer driven objectification of TOMS ad campaign which deprives people of their dignity. It is the counter-campaign to TOMS. Go to Good Intentions Are Not Enough to read through all the posts, see the less slick video, and see the pictures of all the shoes – not the children without shoes. Promote dignity, sustainability, critical engagement, social justice beyond celebrity and corporate driven events, and aid that attacks the roots and frameworks of oppression and poverty. This is what A Day Without Dignity is about.

In closing is this call from Tales in the Hood:

I want my fellow citizens to act brighter than they currently do. Going a day without shoes is an intellectually bankrupt distraction which creates the illusion of “caring” and “doing something” while simultaneously accomplishing precisely zero except to further entrench a dangerous misperception about what will “help” “the poor” .. oh, and it also doesn’t hurt the bottom line of a for-profit company whose entire schtick is the cultivated appearance of social consciousness.

This picture was taken when we were living in Ethiopia.

These are the street boys from the country side, looking for some sort of work.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. April 5, 2011 12:16

    This post is incredibly cynical. If you don’t have faith in TOMS, that’s fine, but you need to have more faith in the intentions of people.

    Good day.

    • April 5, 2011 12:46


      I appreciate your response. In reply, I wonder if good intentions are enough? What do they accomplish? I fully believe that many of the people who participate in TOMS Day Without Shoes believe they are helping in some way but, as my post argues, what they are hoping to accomplish is not happening. So, again, are good intentions enough?

      I believe history is littered with examples where good intentions led to a myriad of oppressions. Men truly believed they were sheltering women by not allowing them to vote (women were, after all, not capable of handling such difficult decisions). Many believed the colonization of Africa was in their best interests, bringing civilization, religion and technology to people who had none.

      My intention is not to be cynical but to be critical, to challenge those with good intentions to look deeper. I hope it was successful.

  2. April 5, 2011 14:52

    I certainly didn’t mean to insult, and I appreciate your response as well. It’s just frustrating for someone like me who really doesn’t have much of a capability to reach out. If I had spare income, I would be traveling to these places and investigating what the situations are really like. Perhaps we are blinded by what’s really going on, and yes, it does feel good to be a part of a “movement” of sorts (the feel good aspect might be the selfish part), but all I know is that I’ve seen children (worldwide, not just third world), suffering from infectious diseases by not having something to cover their feet. As I sit here barefoot, I realize that I might not be making much of a statement, or bringing “awareness,” and maybe TOMS is really in this for the marketing and promotional aspect of it, but if the least I can do is explain to someone, somewhere, that I DO care, then I’ll take it.

    Your post, although I did call it “cynical” (upon reflection, might have been harsh), it certainly was thought-provoking. I’ve never really read the other side of this all before, so thanks for keeping me open-minded.

    • April 5, 2011 19:05

      I hope you get your chance to explain to someone. Thanks for staying open-minded.

  3. April 6, 2011 10:10

    For Valerie and any others interested, I thought this was interesting addendum to my post and her reply, from Aidwatch (Prof. Easterly’s blog, found on my sidebar):

    “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.”


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