10 June 2011

Learning in the Field

In discussing the importance of getting field experience for the international development career path, Helen Lindley offers one of the better explanations of how time spent listening and learning can transform the way that an individual sees poverty and potential interventions.
It is important because it makes you grateful for what you have. Not in an emotional ‘these children don’t have shoes’ sense however, but gradually, thoughtfully, and rationally. When you do the maths and realise what sacrifices your host family has to make to pay for medicine, and how expensive daily life can be for a taxi driver paying off a debt. When you sit next to a local student from a private high school in an exam, and realise that despite his relative privilege, the education system has simply not given him the analytical skills needed to analyse that piece of French text that you have always taken for granted.
This relates a bit to J's post on innovation as it is important to have a stronger understanding of the situation on the ground before introducing the latest 'innovative' solution to a perceived problem, which is something that TOMS claims to have done with the introduction of their new one-for-one product: sunglasses.

With the announcement only yesterday, it is too soon to know exactly how this model will work. Nevertheless, two things strike me with the introduction. First, the $135 sunglasses are essentially Ray-Ban Wayfarer knock-offs. Second, with such a high price it seems far more useful for a perspective customer to make a direct donation to places like the Seva Foundation who are partnering with TOMS. Of course is counter to the model set up by TOMS where they sell products to achieve a double bottom line.

It is an easy argument to be made that this model likely brings in more revenue for organizations like the Seva Foundation by selling a product that people will likely already buy. However, this is still a slick form of cultural capitalism at its best and further muddies the efforts to educate donors. Founder Blake Mycoskie says in the video that the shift is now towards the one-for-one model. If anything, this is the most important part of TOMS announcement. Although the model existed with the shoes, by making it the forerunner of the company, I believe that more start-ups will try to replicate this model for other goods (water bottles, clothing, etc) that can have a significant impact on the development of low and middle income nations.

Hopefully TOMS has really done the work to partner with NGOs and organizations that address some of the systemic needs that contribute to global vision problems. They have not done so well in this respect when it comes to their shoes, so I am not terrible optimistic.

HT Tom Paulson for the TOM video and info