Laura Seay Really Wants To Help Real People

9 May

Laura Seay at Murchison Falls, UgandaLaura Seay doesn’t like TOMS Shoes.

And, Gwenn Mangine is skeptical about the economic value of the one-for-one movement.

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.

But, as Seay argues, the “one-for-one movement” squeezes out local entrepreneurs and misses the whole point even Mangine makes about wearing shoes, to protect people from disease: poor people need infrastructure. Maybe starting with locally-produced shoes, poor people could fund their own solutions to local problems, like sanitation.

Anyway, poor people are not billboards.

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