Cool Aid: Shoes versus Sanitation

Written by Valerie Lopez

In a recent editorial in The Seattle Times, Marla Smith-Nilson, executive director of Seattle-based Water 1st International, praised Melinda Gates and her approach in solving sanitation-based mortality in developing countries:

“Congratulations to Melinda for being smarter than Bill. I agree with her that diarrhea in children is best prevented by increased access to safe water and toilets and not vaccines… many people including myself, have been critical of the foundation’s emphasis on technology and innovation as primary criteria for funding water and sanitation projects.”

Bill and Melinda Gates, two incredibly influential philanthropists, demonstrate the different approaches in solving the one of the developing world’s crises: mortalities arising from sanitation related diseases, such as diarrhea. On one hand, Bill Gates, a technological emissary, embarks on a scientifically advanced approach of inventing a vaccine. Conversely, Melinda’s approach is more rudimentary; focusing on water, sanitation and hygiene which she believes would be more productive than inventing and disseminating expensive vaccines.

Photo Credit: Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

Then, on July 19, 2011, The Seattle Times headlines read: “Gates money, best minds put to work by ‘reinventing’ toilet: Bill Gates is turning his penchant for cutting-edge invention on the most unglamorous of devices: the toilet.”

Admittedly, vaccines do have more of a cool factor than the toilet, especially for the scientifically-inclined. But when it comes to foreign aid, are glitzy gadgets sufficient to solve the many-pronged crises plaguing developing nations? Or are they at worst, obfuscating the real issues at hand and overlook constructive solutions?

Let this question be a springboard for a different, yet related set of conundrums. It is unquestionable that Seattlites ooze coolness—it is hip and trendy to be seen traipsing around the city, sunshine or not, clad in shoes du jour: TOMS.

Purporting to combine consumption habits with social responsibility, TOMS will provide a pair of shoes to a needy individual halfway across the world with your simple purchase of its own stylish pair. And with a video this compelling, how could anyone pass up the opportunity to be a socially conscious consumer?

Blake Mycoskie’s intentions no doubt come from a good place. But what he says in the beginning of the video is particularly striking: “As long as I continue selling shoes, these kids will have shoes for the rest of their lives.” Cynical or ingenious? He has aligned his business model with the welfare of the shoe-needy.

Is TOMS another example of a “cool aid?” Is it another form of aid that obfuscates real issues and overlooks more productive and sustainable solutions?

Mycoskie’s company’s primary motivations for creating a shoe company based on this charitable business model isn’t actually that far from the sanitation issues Melinda and Bill are interested in solving. According to the TOMS website, “a leading cause of disease in developing countries is soil-transmitted diseases, which can penetrate the skin through bare feet. Wearing shoes can help prevent these diseases, and the long-term physical and cognitive harm they cause.”

The shoes supplied by TOMS protect children from soil-borne diseases in addition to functioning as part of their mandatory uniforms for attending school.

However, pressing the issues further can reveal more substantive, underlying problems at hand. Why are there soil-borne diseases? Why are the families unable to provide school uniforms for their children?

Can “cool aid” address these issues? Yes, shoes protect feet. Yes, shoes let children go to school. But the fact of the matter is sanitation problems will still exist. Socio-economic problems that dissuade poor families from buying school materials will still persist.

Members of the development community argue that the TOMS model of donating materials rather than creating opportunities is not sustainable, undermines local economies, and obscures the real issues plaguing the communities it claims to help.

Foreign aid has been controversial from time immemorial. Some critics, such as Peter Bauer, author of “Development Aid: End It Or Mend It,” even rail against the word “aid,” because it “promotes unquestioning attitude. It disarms criticism, obscures realities, and prejudges results. Who could be against aid to the less fortunate? The term has enabled aid supporters to claim a monopoly of compassion and to dismiss critics as lacking in understanding and sympathy.” Historically, failed aid has plenty of examples but what they all have in common is that they come in forms of materials or cash. Communities receiving this aid might not have the available social infrastructure to properly and equitably disseminate these goods. Or, they simply run out.

Marla Smith-Nilson advances a different and now  popular approach in development aid. It moves away from donating material goods which are not sustainable, can promote dependency, and at worst skates around real solutions.

Marla Smith-Nilson, Director of Water 1st International

She acknowledges that constructive solutions are ones that empower local community members to build self-sustaining opportunities for themselves, letting them take charge of their own existential destinies.

Speaking to the successes of Water 1st,  Smith-Nilson explains that “because of our comprehensive project monitoring, we know that all systems we have funded are still in operation. They are successful because they are independently owned and operated by community members themselves, place women in key leadership roles, and involve solutions adapted to local priorities and conditions.”

TOMS does seem to be involved in creating partnerships that emphasize community development projects but its business/charity model is the issue at hand. While there are no silver bullets, panacea, or utopian blue prints that can address the socio-economic and health related issues plaguing developing countries, easy or “cool aid” should be subject to a constructive dialogue, especially involving the beneficiaries of such aid.

It can be very powerful to combine consumptive habits and charitable giving. After all, our choices as consumers have ripple effects across the globe, especially since we live in such a globalized age. However, it is still necessary to make educated approaches towards development aid. Cool aid such as vaccines, fancy filtrating straws, and shoes can sometimes obfuscate more productive solutions, however unglamorous they may be.

In response to TOM’s Day without Shoes, Good Intentions Is Not Enough released the following video.

Feel free to share your comments about this topic below. We’d love to hear your opinion.

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