Immediately after the Haiti earthquake, a teacher in my daughter’s school created a shoe drive in order to give kids a tangible way to help the despaired children we were seeing in the media. I cringed as my own child asked me if she could toss in a few pairs of worn sneakers. (I said no.) What would these poor Haitian children do with a bunch of Seattle-proof leather shoes and thick canvas sneakers?
I found out that night. Watching the evening news reporting on earthquake victims, the camera panned across a group of Haitian children around ten years of age. One of them was wearing the hugest pair of Air Jordan high tops I have ever seen. I have lived in the tropics. I can’t imagine that high tops are comfortable in the heat and humidity.
This instinct to give our stuff to people without stuff is so pervasive. I worked for the last six years with impoverished African-Brazilian girls living in the shantytowns of Salvador, Brazil, and I received countless emails from well-intentioned individuals asking if they could donate school supplies or hand-me-down clothing. Due to the volume, I created a templated email that explained the importance of supporting local economies as much as we support education or health programs. The only way to end poverty permanently is to support a shift in the environment that allows this poverty to persist. That means helping local economies to grow.
I bring all of this up because today is “A Day Without Dignity,” a counter-campaign to Tom’s Shoes “A Day Without Shoes.” Tom’s Shoes believes that it is a travesty that so many children are shoeless, and so they launched their campaign to raise awareness, encouraging people to go without shoes for a day. Of course Tom’s Shoes is known for giving a pair of shoes to a poor child for every pair purchased—a great marketing plan for all of those people wanting shoes and wanting to help. A win-win situation for all, right?
Not quite. One of the most thoughtful advocates of “smart aid,” Saundra Schimmelpfennig of Good Intentions Are Not Enough, has launched a counter-campaign to raise awareness of the impact of such shoe drops on the dignity of poor people and their communities around the world. The impact is complex. First, imagine a poor community where some children walk around in new, foreign-looking shoes. One reason why my Brazilian colleagues didn’t want gifts from abroad is that it targets children. Nothing shouts out to the community, “Hey, this kid is tied to foreign money,” than a fancy Rotary backpack or nice pair of exotic shoes. Our good intentions might result in a child’s kidnapping, bullying, or jealousy between children that destroys the community-building local leaders are working so hard to create.
Then of course there is the economic impact of undermining local industry. Donating school supplies to my colleague’s project in Brazil meant that she would not buy these same supplies from small, family-businesses down the street from the school. On a bigger scale, whole industries can be undermined by well-intentioned donations from abroad. We wonder why Africans don’t take care of themselves while we engage in activities that directly undermine their ability to take care of themselves.
I so appreciate Schimmelpfennig’s counter-campaign because it highlights the core element in a human’s existence that gives him or her honor, self-respect, and a reason to work for a better tomorrow. Lost all too often in the shuffle of providing aid to the poor is a recognition of a person’s dignity, sometimes the only possession they have left. All of us who have lived in poor places around the world have seen tremendous resilience to patently unfair circumstances. We have seen individuals so proud of their countries, just as we are proud of ours. Where we might see despair, they see hope. The local leaders I know addressing their societies most pressing problems all have one thing in common: a sense of dignity that gives them self-respect and a place of honor within their communities.
A few years ago, I was speaking to Washington State high school students participating in Model United Nations, and I asked them to kick off their shoes and try on their neighbor’s. I remember the kids’ enjoyment in trying to walk around in shoes that may be a little big or a little small, but mostly different from what they arrived in (much like one’s cultural perspective).
I think of “A Day Without Dignity” as a campaign to encourage people to walk in someone else’s shoes and think about what it would be like to have foreign-looking shoes dropped uninvited into your community. Prance around in those espadrilles for a while and think about how it would feel to see local shelves bare of locally-made shoes because the companies just couldn’t compete. Step into those high tops and imagine wandering around a tropical town for a day. Consider a parent’s humiliation in realizing that they could never provide something so fancy for their beloved child. Then put your own shoes back on and look for solutions that honor the dignity of local people in their journey towards a society with less poverty and more hope.