But I *like* going barefoot!

Vivek Nemana over at Aid Watch has a great post today talking about his emotional response to the One Day without Shoes campaign but detailing the analytical reasons why we should be skeptical of such efforts. He’s right – the video is really compelling,  but this campaign is going to be a lot more successful at selling TOMS shoes than at solving problems that are important to those it’s trying to help.

Nemana is right that One Day without Shoes makes the mistake of taking a solution and looking for a problem to solve. But they fail on a more basic level: did they talk to anyone who ran around barefoot as a kid, to ask why and how they felt about it? With that in mind I watched the video and had the following reactions:

  • As a child of the tropics, I basically never wore shoes until my teachers started forcing me in junior high school. When I did, they were almost uniformly slippers and not covered shoes (what the uninitiated call flip-flops). Going barefoot near the equator has very different effects from what you’d experience doing it in, say, Ann Arbor.
  • They highlight podoconiosis as a major issue for people without shoes in the developing world. It’s surprisingly hard to find information about it, particularly its prevalence – this article says that 5% of people have it in Wolaitta, Southern Ethiopia. In this interview Blake Mycoskie asserts that we know podoconiosis is preventable because it doesn’t occur in Hawaii, where the volcanic soil contains the same silicone as it does in Ethiopia. But kids in Hawaii spend tons of time running around barefoot in that volcanic soil, to the point that the calluses on the soles of our feet get stained red by it. Whatever the reason for the lack of podoconiosis in Hawaii, it’s certainly not because kids aren’t exposed to the dirt.

All of the dirt in Hawaii looks like this

  • The video claims that many children cannot attend school without shoes. I’ve never seen this rule enforced in any tropical area. The Tanzanian kids I taught HIV prevention to had to have uniforms but not shoes. Even my rich private school in Hawaii didn’t make us wear anything at all on our feet until the seventh grade. I don’t know how to assess how common shoe requirements are but I’d guess that in warm places the answer is “not very”.
  • Finally, I like going barefoot when possible, and most kids in Hawaii will fight like the dickens to avoid wearing shoes. Even if shoes are a good idea, I suspect you’ll have a hell of a time getting your target population to actually use them.

About Jason Kerwin

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5 Responses to But I *like* going barefoot!

  1. schwartz1983 says:

    I’m not too invested in this one, but there are a bunch of wormy parasites you can get from going barefoot in under-developed areas. Whether sandals really prevent these is not entirely clear, as your feet can still be exposed to quite a bit of soil.

  2. Jason Kerwin says:

    An excellent point (I remember Mendoza was afraid of catching something like that at the beach in Belize). This is also how hookworm is spread. There are clearly public health initiatives that can work to prevent that sort if thing.

    To clarify podoconiosis is apparently caused directly by the silicone in volcanic dirt. I’m guessing that regular medical checkups must suffice to prevent it, since it appears to be rare in places with well-developed medical infrastructure.

  3. morealtitude says:

    Right there with you. I started my perambulatory life in New Zealand and wore shoes as infrequently as humanly possible. When my family moved to Europe I drew stares showing up in shopping malls barefoot. I got told off at University in the UK for wandering the streets without shoes, and now, back in the antipodes, I still go barefoot to the office (gotta love working for an NGO and its flexible corporate culture). Fact is, barefoot is great- though I do acknowledge that it’s different when you have a choice whether or not to wear shoes.

  4. Excellent Jason. I have much to say about TOMS, but I will refrain from saying it here. Nevertheless, you are absolutely right: the ODWS campaign is better at selling shoes than solving problems – it is brilliant marketing. The Primalfoot Alliance is holding it’s own campaign on June 11; a day to go barefoot to promote… going barefoot.

  5. own2feet says:

    Great column, Jason.

    I prefer walking barefoot, but I also think that with all the shoes in this world (some 11 billion pairs manufactured each year), people should have a choice whether they want them or not. The problem is that introducing shoes into a barefoot culture where those shoes might be worn out or outgrown within a few months means that the feet will be bare again soon enough, and weakened by their time in shoes.

    You can click on the “own2feet” to see a column I wrote about Tom’s efforts last year.

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