Spending for Impact, Round 2
Last week, I wrote on the PDT blog that it would be more effective for people to buy a cheaper product and give the rest to an organization that will support local economies rather than buy the latest pair of TOMS shoes, water bottle from Starbucks or t-shirt from (RED). The next day Melissa Kushner, founder and Executive Director of Goods for Good and also a partner with TOMS, published a rebuttal to critics of TOMS in GOOD. I do not take it to be directed to me, but the timing drives me to address some of her points made in GOOD.
Kushner points out that interventions by TOMS and Goods for Goods are paired with existing government interventions in Malawi as a means to strengthen what is being provided.
The Malawian government provides notebooks and de-worming tablets to schoolchildren. While these are both worthwhile interventions, their impact falls short without complementary support. That’s a great scenario when goods donation works. What good is a notebook to a child who cannot write in it because she has no pen? Likewise, how effective is a de-worming tablet to a child who has no shoes to protect him from future hookworm infections?
Goods for Good helps to enhance these initiatives by distributing pens in conjunction with the government’s notebooks and TOMS along with the Ministry of Health’s de-worming program. By coupling interventions, both parties are more effectively meeting the common goal of caring for children in need.
This begs the question; where do the shoes and pens come from? Kushner neglects to mention this, but we know that the shoes are not locally sourced because the only TOMS factory is in Ethopia. This means that the distribution of the shoes, while increasing attendance and decreasing health problems, do nothing to improve the root reason children do not have shoes: their parents cannot afford them. Wouldn’t it be better to provide money so that shoes can be bought locally, jobs can be created and kids can access the same benefits?
If labor opportunities are not created, the following generation will have better educated parents who are still without jobs. However, it appears that Goods for Good is supporting vocational training through its uniform program.
By working with communities, Goods for Good observed that missing uniforms weren’t the only problem of course, the reason children couldn’t afford uniforms was because many parents had no income. Instead of providing finished uniforms directly to the children, we provided raw fabric to the community to fully leverage the good, allowing us to address both problems. Through their own initiative, local tailors organize vocational tailoring courses for guardians of schoolchildren and they create uniforms for younger orphans in the community.
Assuming that the fabric was purchased in Malawi, this is a great way to spur work by providing the opportunity for people to make the uniforms, learn a trade and earn an income. In addition, the materials coming from Malawi means that other businesses are supported in the process. This is what should be done. It is not what TOMS is doing.
All in all, Kushner and Goods for Goods are doing some things right. The defense for TOMS misses the point as it does not address any of the main concerns expressed by critics. Critics of the model, such as myself, do not question that providing shoes can have a positive impact on the immediate lives of the recipients. Health will improve and attendance will rise because of it.
It is the question of whether providing free things is the most effective solution. Buying products locally will always be a better option in trying to reduce poverty. There are times when a product cannot be found locally, but shoes, pens, and fabric are certainly not part of the exception.