“Australian students donate shoes to Haiti” read the headline. I shuddered.
Shoes aren’t cheap in Australia, and it would cost a fortune to ship them all the way to Haiti, where to be honest, they could be bought much cheaper. So why, I wondered, would a group of Australian TAFE (community college) students donate 42,000 pairs of shoes to Haiti?
I was gearing up for a rant about how this was bad aid, following in the footsteps of the million T-shirts fiasco earlier this year. But, as I did research on where the idea came from, I was reminded that whether aid is good or bad is all about how things are done.
I’ll leave it to you to decide if these shoes are good or bad aid, but here’s what I found out…
The man behind the idea is Vulker Elver, a student who stumbled across the idea last year while trekking in the Himalayas. He met people walking across treacherous terrain with no or inadequate shoes at an altitude upwards of 4000 metres, and working for a sport shop back in Australia, he thought he could help by collecting and sending shoes.
He’d found something that he could see would make a difference and was really tangible. But, for aid to be good, we need to get beyond good intentions, and make sure we think through our ideas to get good outcomes. I was worried that he might not have thought through the cost-benefit and logistics of sending shoes, so asked him more about how it works.
Vulker explained that, “Shoes are expensive in Asia. A lot of people don’t have shoes and can’t afford to buy them. To buy as many shoes as we donated would have required at least a million dollars in donations.” Although not entirely true, as shoes cost a lot less in developing countries, that’s still several hundred thousand dollars worth of shoes, which is a phenomenal effort.
Vulker said that he’s been overwhelmed with the response – they’re up to 54,000 pairs now. At such a scale, he explained that it couldn’t have been possible without the support of Soles4Souls, a US charity that specialises in sending shoes to the developing world. They’ve given away over 10 million pairs of new and gently worn shoes to 126 countries, including Haiti, Kenya, Nepal and the United States.
Soles4Souls work on a big scale, so they know what they’re doing. But, I was skeptical on visiting their website, as they had no information on why sending shoes was a good idea, nor what the potential risks were, and they had a few photos that got close to poverty porn. What I really wanted to know was whether they promoted good aid – the sort the promoted long-term sustainability and enabled communities to stand on their own two feet in the future.
I sent them an email asking a few questions, and they got back to me quickly with thorough responses, the complete version of which you can read here.
In terms of keeping shipping costs down, they’re doing an amazing job, and are sensibly teaming up with local partners to deliver shoes as part of a larger aid package. “It typically costs about $1 for every pair that we donate, because of the volume we ship with our partners. We must be clear: it's not our intent to donate shoes by themselves. We send our footwear as part of comprehensive relief packages with 912 current international and US partners.”
I asked why you wouldn’t buy shoes locally, and Soles4Souls responded that:
“We collect shoes in First World Countries because we each have so many pairs of perfectly good shoes we don't wear. Very often they are retired after one or two outings because of a variety of reasons (too large/small, a small scuff, color doesn't look the same as it did in the store, a present from a relative, etc). In the U.S., it's estimated that over 1.5 BILLION pairs of shoes sit idle in closets, attics, cupboards and garages. It's ridiculous and when we issue a call for people to clean out their homes of excess shoes, we always get thousands of perfectly great shoes that someone in need will treasure for many years to come.”
That makes good sense, builds on our desire to avoid waste, and enables shoes to have a second life. Added to that, Soles4Souls source about a third of their shoes as direct donations from corporates, and Vulker secured 9,000 pairs from Adidas and Evans shoes. At that scale, big corporate donations of new shoes seem like a good idea.
One question remained though – how do you make sure you don’t undercut local shoe retailers and increase a community’s dependence on charity and aid?
Soles4Souls “take special care not to harm nascent industries with the donations we make to people living in their area. We support shoe merchants (retail shops and shoe repair shops) wherever we distribute shoes by providing a very affordable micro-enterprise program.”
Here’s where I’m not so convinced. I would have thought the very practice of giving away shoes undercuts these local shoe retailers and deprives them of an income. It would make more sense to sell the shoes to these merchants at a knock-down price, and work with them to increase the number of people in a local community who can buy shoes.
Which brings me back to Vulker and his amazing grassroots efforts to get shoes. He told us that when collecting shoes, it’s a good idea to ask for a donation of $3 to $5 to cover duty and shipping expenses for each pair of shoes. The more shoes you collect, the less these costs will be – which is how Souls4Soles have gotten costs down to around $1. The thing is, at $5 a pair, you might as well just send cash so people can buy shoes locally.
In this case, Vulker and Soles4Soles are to be applauded for having really thought through giving shoes, and are doing at a scale that makes it cost-efficient. Personally, I’m not sold on the principle – I’d prefer to focus on building up local companies, sourcing shoes locally (either locally produced or bought from local vendors), but that’s a matter of personal choice.
What matters for us, though, is understanding what makes giving goods such a tricky business, and how it can be done right. The difference between good and bad aid comes down to thinking things through properly, and making a decision based on the evidence. If you’re thinking of giving goods, ask yourself the following questions:
- Would it be quicker or easier to buy the goods locally?
- Would it be more cost effective to buy the goods locally?
- Who will distribute your donations?
- How will you make sure that goods are relevant and useful in the local context?
- How would your donation promote long-term sustainability in the community?
- What impact would your donation have on local businesses?