Prior to leaving Mapaki Village, Sierra Leone -where I worked as a Peace Corps Volunteer from June 2010 -July 2012 - Toms Shoes, the company with the motto, “One for One,” and the ethos that for every pair of shoes sold, one pair will be given to a person in a developing country, donated shoes to Mapaki. The concept appears to be incredible. How generous? How sincere a company? A capitalist business, to give away merchandise, and not to a potential customer, but to a child or person that will never see a boutique carrying the product, or even a country with a GDP large enough to carry the product.
Sierra Leone was struck by a ten-year civil war that had been brewing in the southern border country of Liberia for ten years prior to that. What the people experienced through those trying years, and even up to the second, post-war elections, was atrocious. Following such a horrific incident is that development agencies: UN, World Bank, Child Fund, etc, provide support, generous support, and that is incredible and necessary. This becomes a problem when the agencies linger a little too long in a country, and begin creating a culture of handouts. It is an often talked about topic, and one that sparks a multitude of heavy discussions.
I had the benefit of living in Sierra Leone for two incredible years, and spent time with amazing, hardworking, and determined Sierra Leoneans. I worked over this parody of Toms Shoes because within the specific village I witnessed, daily, what it meant to develop a culture of handouts, and how they fail to solve the problem. One agency donated several computers, including a Macbook Pro, internet services, and solar power to generate electricity. It was a fantastic effort, but within the 1,000 person village, two people could actively use it: myself and my mentor, from the Ivory Coast. This same agency continued to host workshops and other “quick fixes” without any followthrough.
Throughout the two years, I watched NGOs come and go down the single-track road. Agencies donated incredible resources, and left the people to find uses for them on their own. Donated items often wound up in the wrong hands; World Food Program donations to the primary school to ensure students received at least one meal a day were portioned out to the faculty and chief, with only a portion of the product going to the students. There are countless examples, and alongside them, the people came to expect the objects or materials. Often, I would be asked to help with a project, and I would always begin excited at the person’s or group’s desire to improve their lives. As the projects progressed, interest was lost and I was left to complete the work, while they waited for the benefit. When I saw Toms Shoes com into the village, my heart sank. It was another example of generating a culture of handouts. Of allowing people an excuse to sit on their hands and wait for the Western Savior to come.
I chose to create this piece in a cartoonish manor to highlight it’s level of parody. A plane comes in, it drops the “gifts” to awaiting cries of the needy, and the one lone hand stands up and says, “No. No, this isn’t for us. WE can improve ourself. WE can take the steps. WE can arise. Arise and shine.” I feel strongly about Africa becoming a leading continent of states with private industry, a strong middle class, and the freedoms granted in the West. But, I also believe this has to happen from the inside. Yes, support is necessary and we in the West should provide the guidance and loans to do so, but the tangible aspects are as devastating to that progress as a civil war.
*Also, I would be interested to hear other’s opinions on this matter. And, yes, I have read my share of literature on the subject of International Aid and Development Work.
** Here is some literature on Toms Shoes.