Who are We Empowering and in What Way?

In class, we began to discuss some of the issues with cheap solutions when it comes to international development.  While donor nations and organizations may claim to be in the field of development or foreign aid to alleviate poverty, we all know this is not always or usually the case.  In IDEV320, we read “Does Foreign Aid Really Work?” in which Roger C. Riddell illuminates some of these issues with wealthy nations’ foreign policies on development and their real motivation.  As with tied aid, all social entrepreneurs make some type of profit whether they are in a non-profit businesses or not.  Every person who works for the organization or company makes a salary.  This may not be considered profit in the legal definition, but in a way it is when at least one person is making money from whatever the endeavor.  Additionally, the problem must continue to exist in order for the company, organization, what have you to run.  If the problems were fixed, many people working for that organization would be out of a job, and the entrepreneurs would stop making money.  These are issues which are never discussed or considered, but are imperative in understanding development.

Social entrepreneurship is a new, upcoming field which prides itself on the success of people like Blake Mycoskie, founder of Tom’s Shoes and Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America.  These are only two social entrepreneurs who have become financially and socially successful from endeavors which have remained unaccountable to the communities they serve.

Tom’s Shoes (which I brought up in class) thrives on the one-for-one philosophy whereby for every pair of shoes purchased, a free pair is given to some child in a developing nation.  Besides the fact that the child will certainly outgrow the shoes, are shoes the most important need that these children have?  More often than not, the answer is no.  Instead of wasting the cost to make that pair of shoes (which we will get to next), would it not make more sense to invest that money in another way to ensure that child an education or access to healthcare, clean water, the gamut!  Second, we always forget about the costs.  As economists know well, there are no free-lunch programs.  Someone has to make those shoes and get a salary for them.  If a company decided they want to sell a product very cheaply, they must find a place where it will be manufactured cheaply meaning the workers will be paid next to nothing.  This is where China comes in, and it is the nation in which Tom’s Shoes are made.  If Blake Mycoskie thinks he is empowering people, he first does not understand the definition of empowerment and second does not consider the people he is harming along with their children he is disempowering.

Teach for America is a program that is rarely criticized, but how many wealthy parents would allow young people fresh out of college to teach their children only after having been trained for four to six weeks?  Real teacher certification programs, which many argue is not enough in terms of preparing teachers, can take up to five years to complete!  Privileged students across America are allowed to experiment on poor kids, and expected to figure out how to manage a classroom with little to no support.  Besides the difficulty facing the teachers themselves, there are effects on the students who have no other choice but to be taught by the inexperienced teachers “for America” who sometimes are only a few years older than them.  The teachers stay for their two years (if they don’t leave before their time is up), and more often than not,  they leave.  The spots they filled, which could have gone to people who went to college to become teachers and be teachers for life, are taken by people who want to use the time for their resume, and leave.  At the same time, older teachers with more experience and people who live in the communities of the schools are pushed out especially when schools become chartered because of the prestige Teach for America holds.  The problems continue.

Although the women in rural Uganda may seem to be in need of mobile phones, providing them with mobile phones will not even make a mark on the structural problems which persist.  While it may seem as though we must fix the problem now in whatever way necessary, by providing cheap cell phones to poor people in one place, we are hurting poor people in another place.  The companies with awful working conditions should not be supported and allowed to prosper in the name of African women.  Additionally, we forget how colonialism and imperialism is what began the structural issues in Africa to begin with.  Once again, the Westerner sees himself as being superior and the poor African nations being in need of Western technologies.  We see them in need of what we have in order to prosper while our systems are what destroyed the continent in the first place.

All of this being said, when faced with the system we have today, it is always easier to put a band-aid on the issue and try to relieve it as quickly as we can.  I think it is important that these women be helped in whatever way possible, and the cell phones are one way to start, but we cannot keep reverting to only considering these issues on the surface.  I admire Dr. Murphy for her work in trying to alleviate the troubles of these women, and make at least some impact which she commendably has, but I think it is necessary that we start to have these difficult conversations and not just ignore them because it seems too impractical.  If we really want to make peoples’ lives better, we must consider all people when doing so and understand how the dominant Western, white culture has been internalized all over the world as being superior and realize the ramifications of such.

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3 responses to “Who are We Empowering and in What Way?

  • marionrorke

    While I agree with many of the points you make here, I think that you forget the fact that some people are genuinely trying to help in the only ways that they can. Yes, the use of production in China for Toms shoes is surprising to me in relation to the impact they are trying to make, but if you remove that from the equation, the founder is simply trying to bring the resources he has to help in some way. Although they are not the most sturdy shoes, they could still provide a lot of benefits for example, to children who have to walk miles to get to school on rugged terrain. Or, another example would be those who have to walk very far just for water, as was shown in Dr. Murphy’s presentation. The topic of “Teach for America” I find very controversial. There certainly are some people who view it only as a resume builder, but at the same time, a lot of them truly do benefit the community, and frequently are not stealing jobs but rather supporting a community that does not sufficient amounts of staff. Plenty of people really do enjoy what they are doing, and while they may not have the most lengthly training on education, they are doing their best. Additionally, being only slightly older than some of the students may not always be a bad thing. Many students can relate better to someone closer to their age, and even become inspired to do community-building work of their own. While I have many issues with the way that the Western world has molded society globally, not everything that comes from smaller organizations trying to help is a bad thing. Though many people could care less, tons of people are doing what they can with the resources and knowledge that they have to change societal problems. This does not always have to be negative.

  • Scott Hurtgen

    Another controversy that has been brought up about Toms Shoes is the fact that it dilutes the local economy. I have read a few articles about how giving shoes to locals can force local shoe-makers out of business in the town where the program is located because people get free shoes and no longer need to buy them. This issue could also be fixed by Toms Shoes moving its production into the area it serves. It could give the community it gives shoes out to, the job of creating those shoes – that way the community would feel empowered because they will directly reap the reward of their work.

  • paigewolff

    Scott, I think you make a great point. Every time I see those $60 shoes, I can’t help but think how far each $30 could go in the local economies that the company is attempting to support. Beyond that, it would be more environmentally sound than shipping shoes across continents. That said, Marion, I also see where you’re coming from. I, too, am sure that the founder created this company with altruistic intentions. Lauren, are you familiar with the conditions of the workers in the TOMS shoe factories? It seems to me that the quality of TOMS shoes are relatively low and that there are only a few basic materials that go into their production. I certainly don’t see how they could be worth $30 without the consideration of compensation for the assemblers.
    Switching gears, TFA certainly has its flaws but I don’t think you should be so quick to assert that it’s a malignant organization. The reason that TFA was started is that there were not, and to this day ARE not, enough good teachers to meet the demands of the student population. I know you’ve been very active in several local schools & I’m sure you’ve seen that a teaching degree does not MAKE a person a good teacher. There’s a lot to be said for receiving a high-quality education, which many TFA teachers have, but many “traditional” teachers working in underserved schools have not. Beyond that, I’m not sure how familiar you are with the TFA program but all of the cohort members are required to earn a teaching degree within the 2 years of their participation in the program. Furthermore, TFA has partnerships with several graduate schools that enable alumni to get a M.Ed for a free or reduced cost; not all of the alum filter out of the world of education.

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