By Lauren Bishop

There has been a lot written about the TOMS Shoes buy-one-give-one (BOGO) model and its shortcomings, but what about other companies that boast BOGO? Take Warby-Parker, for example, the purveyor of hip eyeglasses that advertises “Buy a Pair, Give a Pair” at the top of their website. Must we now criticize Warby-Parker for their poor aid practices, too?

Despite their tagline, what the company actually does is donate money and glasses to partner organizations like the non-profit VisionSpring, which turns around and sells those glasses to people living on less than $4 dollars a day in Bangladesh, India, El Salvador, and South Africa.

VisionSpring does this by training their workers in basic business skills and eye exams, then sending them out into their communities to conduct free vision screenings and sell the glasses donated by Warby Parker. According to VisionSpring, it costs a rural customer between $6 and $11 to visit a doctor, purchase glasses, and pay for transportation, while VisionSpring customers get free exams in their own villages and can buy a pair of glasses for $2 – $4.

Both TOMS Shoes and VisionSpring take on the effects of poverty by distributing goods in low income countries. But VisionSpring also gives people jobs and an opportunity to improve their lot in a way which seeks to address the causes of poverty. As we’ve discussed before, TOMS can actually hurt local businesses that produce or sell shoes by flooding the market with free footwear.

Unlike rampant shoelessness, widespread lack of eye care is actually a major problem in the developing world. A study (pdf) in Sub-Saharan Africa found that over 80 percent of people between the ages of 5 and 93 who need glasses have never had an eye examination. An impact assessment (pdf) conducted by VisionSpring and the University of Michigan found that reading glasses improved wearers’ productivity and income. In general, having glasses allows adults to continue working despite deteriorating sight and helps vision impaired children succeed in school.

Shoes, on the other hand, are available even in the poorest corners of the world. In fact, many TOMS pictures and videos show children removing their own shoes to try on a TOMS pair. Giving away free shoes where footwear is sold locally may or may not improve school attendance, as TOMS claims it does, but it’s certainly not supporting independent business owners.


TOMS Shoes


Step 1

TOMS sells to US customers

Warby-Parker sells to US

Step 2

TOMS gives shoes to people in poor communities

Warby-Parker donates to VisionSpring

Step 3

Some local businesses suffer when shoes are given away for free

VisionSpring trains local entrepreneurs

Step 4

Kids grow out of their shoes, and TOMS returns to give more shoes

New businesses serve the local community

VisionSpring works to alleviate poverty by providing necessary employment. TOMS works to alleviate poverty by providing unnecessary shoes.

Lauren Bishop is Online Projects Assistant at DRI and an NYU MA student in International Relations.

By John Schellhase

Maurice Lim Miller’s innovative idea was that he didn’t know how to end poverty.

He had worked for years for non-profits in San Francisco. One night the mayor called him at home and invited Miller to his office to pitch whichever program he thought would help most. As he prepared for the meeting, Miller grew anxious. Whatever he and others had been doing wasn’t working: “The very first kids I had trained back in the early 80s,” Miller told NPR about his job skills program for at-risk teenagers, “I saw their kids now showing up for programs.”

Miller thought of his mother, a poor immigrant from Mexico who had found her own way out of poverty. He realized he wanted to put poor people in charge of the money usually spent on anti-poverty professionals.

(photo from New America Foundation)

The resulting Family Independence Initiative has no program. Self-organized groups of families set their own agendas, ranging from debt reduction to improved grades for kids to weight loss to home ownership. Families receive a laptop, a $160/month stipend, and additional funding from FII for every success they can demonstrate based on their own targets.

Though still in its early stages, FII’s outcomes look promising. According to reporting by the families themselves with a follow-up audit by FII, in two years the families earned on average 23 percent more, saved 240 percent more, and increased their home ownership by 17 percent.

This apparent success comes from a hands-off approach from FII’s staff. FII did not organize the groups, lead meetings, or give any direction about what to prioritize. Miller believed that outside direction was likely to undermine true innovation. Staff who couldn’t help themselves from offering advice were actually fired.

As Miller has written, “Trusting low-income families with money and connections, thus giving them control and choice in their lives, is what led to their success.”

What would happen if aid agencies and international NGOs extended the same trust to the families they work with in developing nations? Often, the arrogant assumption in development is that the poor can’t be trusted to know what’s best for themselves and their families. The last half-century of failed development projects, however, suggest that it is truly the rich outsiders who don’t know.

Further reading about FII and their approach:
Get Feedback (pdf)
The Uphill Battle to Scale an Innovative Antipoverty Approach (pdf)

John Schellhase is a Program Assistant at DRI and pursuing an MS in Global Affairs at NYU.

The World Bank has also had its own scandal featured on the front page of the New York Times. The charge was that they financed a project in Uganda in which poor people had their homes, cattle, and crops destroyed as the project forced them off their own land.  The World Bank promised an investigation, which inspired us to post a clock beginning at the time of the promise.*

The clock is now at 294 days, 17 hours, and 54 minutes. The investigation has been repeatedly stonewalled.  Unlike Penn State, no World Bank executives faced any consequences. Unlike Penn State, the victims have not been compensated. Unlike Penn State, no institutional reforms have taken place to make it less likely to happen again.

Why the different outcomes? I speculate the most single powerful difference is the state of public opinion as it affects the respective organizations’ reputations. The level of public outrage at Penn State was uber-many times greater than outrage at the World Bank for the respective transgressions. The offenses were different of course, but that alone does not explain the difference in outrage.

It is great that there are more people in rich countries than ever before that care about poor Ugandans. But the level of caring is still way too faint to force the World Bank to be held accountable when it does wrong to poor Ugandans.

*Relevant updates, which were mostly no news, were posted at this site.

Africa is a Country gives a hard time to a 2012 Failed States Index.

Here at the Development Research Institute, we are always glad when we can recycle an old “Failure of State Failure” post making the same point 2.5 years ago as something today. The basic problem is that “failed states” is either (1) a less well-defined way to express other more well-defined concepts like “civil war” or “lousy institutions” or (2) just has no coherent definition.

Maybe we can get unstuck by being more creative about the definition. How about “states that someone might like to invade?”