STORY BY MADELINE GOEBEL AND MCKENZIE LEIER
On Jan. 19, four Drake students launched an ambitious startup business called Make Your Mark.
The company was featured in the Times-Delphic, and has gained substantial publicity within the Drake community.
The project surely has good intentions, but as many international development experts have noted, good intentions don’t always matter.
Make Your Mark is similar to the one-for-one model, in which purchasing a backpack will theoretically “guarantee the education of a child in a developing nation.”
A child gets an education, and you get to feel great about yourself and your new backpack.
Clearly it’s a win-win for everyone, right?
Not quite. The complications of traditional aid can be illustrated by numerous organizations, but TOMS shoes perhaps has the most parallels to Make Your Mark.
While TOMS was also started with very noble intentions, their business model does not address the disparate root causes of poverty in the various developing nations they operate in.
Rather, TOMS needs poor children without shoes in order to keep selling shoes.
TOMS has since adjusted their model. They sell eyewear, serve as a marketplace place for non-governmental organizations’s to sell local products and they recently built a manufacturing site in Haiti.
Regardless, TOMS’ initial ill-educated impact resulted from a lack of deep, local knowledge and a critical understanding of development.
When a child or person is simply handed a good or service, it takes away from the demand of that product or service.
Oftentimes, this takes a job away from a community member.
TOMS came to this realization, and has since started manufacturing shoes in countries where they distribute, starting with Haiti. This investment has boosted Haiti’s economy and empowered communities.
What’s the important lesson here? Outside intervention, especially from the Western world, can sometimes do more harm than good. Development projects cannot succeed without local understanding, partnerships and empowerment.
We fear this is exactly where Make Your Mark may be making a similar mistake.
The organization repeatedly reports on their media sites that it wishes to work in Africa, and has singled out Zimbabwe, Burkina Faso and Uganda simply for their low literacy rates.
Despite any solidified plans to operate on the continent, MYM contributes to the all-too-common white savior complex by stating its wishes to “save” Africa, thus perpetuating the stereotype that Africa needs to be saved.
While aspiring to improve our world and achieve educational equality is an admirable goal, it establishes a problematic power dynamic between those offering help and those receiving help.
It also fails to acknowledge global, political and economic systems that sustain inequality.
We do not intend to demean or discourage our fellow students from philanthropic or humanitarian efforts. Rather, we challenge you to seek understanding before you seek to help.
We challenge you to learn before making promises such as the eradication of poverty and the guarantee of an education.
We challenge you to think critically about the way you are representing Africa, Belize and the other communities you wish to work in.
We challenge you to approach global educational inequality from a position of solidarity and human dignity, not charity.
Some critics, such as Dambisa Moyo, author of “Dead Aid,” believe that traditional aid should be cut out entirely.
Moyo’s belief comes from the idea that governments should seek money from financial markets, and banks and companies should invest in these developing communities, not always simply give them handouts.
Organizations such as Kiva, Acumen and the Grameen Bank are pursuing poverty alleviation with similar ideologies and models.
While others believe in the educated dispersal of cold hard cash, the dispersal must be through the collaboration of local understanding.
The model set up by Drake’s very own Make Your Mark reflects a similar misunderstanding where so many have gone wrong.
MYM aims to allow for their partners to dictate where the money needs to be spent, rather than the imperialistic path that has been so popular in the past.
As Joy Sun spells out in her October 2014 TED talk, cash can often be the most effective form of aid.
Local people themselves know how best to use resources.
While the world of development is fraught with complications, one thing is for certain: Western solutions do not work for non-Western problems.
Next time you think of jumping on the charity bandwagon, we urge you to not just buy, but to understand.
We ask you to consider thinking about where your dollars and shoes are really going. Understand the implications of your actions.
Realize that you are a contributor to the world, big or small.
As college students and global citizens, we have a responsibility to the world.
We are the next generation. Allow yourselves to use your education for good.
Take the beautiful opportunity you were given in the form of a higher education and make a positive mark on the world.