Update: Shoes vs. Dignity Day

I noted earlier that today there would be a battle between a high-profile charitable organization, TOMS Shoes, which (sort of) donates shoes to poor people around the world and a gang of cranky development experts, aid workers and others who think TOMS’ shoe donation scheme is worse than ineffective.

Today is One Day Without Shoes day (okay, that’s redundant) as proclaimed by TOMS Shoes with help from celebrities and bigshots like Ariana Huffington, the Jonas Brothers, some guy who runs AOL and others.

The CEO of TOMS, Blake Mycoskie, estimates something like 250,000 people will go barefoot today at 1,600 events around the world. Here’s his promotional video:

“A single idea can change the world” says Mycoskie.

It can also be wrong and make things worse, says a gang of development experts and aid workers.

Saundra Schimmelpfennig of Good Intentions Are Not Enough has been leading the charge against this barefoot event, and its message, by hosting a contravening Day Without Dignity.

The problem many have with TOMS Shoes is that donating goods is widely regarded today as at best an inferior form of development assistance and, at worst, an external commercial force (whether well-intended or not) that works to undermine local businesses and economies in poor communities.

In defense of TOMS, lack of shoes is a problem worldwide. Here’s a post I wrote a while ago about a little-known, disfiguring condition known as podonociosis that is little-known because it afflicts millions of the poorest of the poor. Mycoskie has helped draw attention to this surprisingly large problem.

That may be so, say the critics, but TOMS’ approach is not the solution. The real solution is not to give people shoes but to help them make their own shoes. Here are some of the critics, most of whom are also posted at Good Intentions, and none of whom appear to have celebrities on their side:

Gawker: Put your shoes back on privileged techies!

Stratosphere: TOMS Shoes are So Not Cool

AfriTech: A Day Without Toms

TexasinAfrica: Disguising marketing as social good

TalesfromtheHood: A day without dumbassery

Usalama: The view from Mombasa

Viewfromthecave: A poetic look at shoes

A satirical video:

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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.