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That donating used stuff as GIK for disaster response or long-term community development work in other countries is a bad idea seems so obvious to me, that I occasionally have to reconstruct in my own head the cultural logic which drives it.
It’s rooted in two different but closely related ideas in American culture. First, that used stuff is still valuable. And second, that used things are still valuable because they can be used for something other than their original purpose.
This is the behavioral artifact of a time when people didn’t have very much. This idea, the valuing and curating of stuff in American culture goes back as far the landing at Plymouth Rock, but really became codified in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, including “The Great Depression” when all but a few wealthy elite in American society literally scraped by. It was a time when people had to get as much life as possible out of whatever things they had, whether those things were clothing, shoes, books, household items like furniture or dishes. Shoes and clothing were passed on to younger siblings; furniture, dishes and other household items were passed on to other generations as heirlooms.
It is possible to find stories of great inter-community generosity during this period – stories of the very poor who were helped by their incrementally less poor neighbors through donations – often anonymous – of used clothing for children, a cooking pot, or what have you. And it was during this period that America saw the emergence of the community and church-based charities, one of the most famous of which is now Goodwill Industries International. Over and above any genuine or not-genuine altruism on the part of the donor was the notion that used stuff was still useful.
In later decades, after the grinding poverty of The Great Depression, donating used stuff to charity gave way somewhat to another great American tradition: the garage sale. The concept is simple. You have stuff that you no longer need or want. Sell it from your garage. And to Americans, the garage sale is one of those win-wins in life. The seller gets something back on their original investment; the buyer gets something they want, often at the fraction of the cost of buying it new in the store.
Although online market places like Craigslist are starting to take over some of their market share, garage sales remain a force in suburban American culture. And whether you’re bidding for it on eBay or haggling for it in someone’s front yard on a summer afternoon, the driving assumptions are the same: used stuff is still useful.
The related idea that used stuff – okay, junk – can be reused as something else lives on in American culture as well. The facts that you can now purchase online painted used circular saw blades; that there are not only collectors, but also collector clubs and events for collector clubs of… glass & porcelain insulators; that someone’s online business is taking custom orders for lamps made from old musical instruments; and that there are so many awesome uses for used whiskey barrels I think all speak in different ways to the idea that used stuff is still useful.
Either way, every time we plunk a broken appliance or stained garment into the receiving bin at our local thrift store rather than simply throwing it away, we affirm that cultural logic. Used stuff is still useful, we like to tell ourselves. Surely someone can use it. And this has repercussions for how Americans in general understand humanitarian aid.
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I’d be disingenuous if I didn’t admit that I also participate in this dusty little corner of American culture to some extent: Throughout my early teenage years I wore a steady supply of hand-me-down clothing (including the occasional pair of shoes) from a kid, a couple of years older than me, who’s family attended the same church. In some cases, my mom passed those exact same clothes on to another kid, also at that church, a couple of years younger than me. And even as recently as last week, my wife was quite pleased when our neighbor across the street and down a few houses brought over a bag of lightly used clothing outgrown by her 13-year-old daughter, for passing on to our daughter. And we’re in no way unique: many of my friends and neighborhood acquaintances practice the same ritual.
My grandmother – bless her – passed away a few years ago at 90-something, her basement literally packed full of junk, much of which she purchased for under $2.00 per item at garage sales. She spent her last days convinced she might one day have a use for those random salt shakers or read those “Reader’s Digest Condensed Classics.” (I once won, hands down, a gag gift Christmas party with a pair of ugly-ass ceramic yard gnomes that I snagged from Gramma’s basement…). My own mother looks longingly out the car window as we drive past those shops full of stuff made from other stuff: lampshades made out of seashells or a toilet paper dispenser that looks like a standing bear, carved by chainsaw from an old piece of driftwood.
It’s hard to think one’s way past the idea that used stuff is still useful. Last year I made a special trip to Michigan, the sole purpose of which was to forcibly remove from my parent’s house a computer that they purchased new in year 2000, and then set them up with new ones. Their old computer took 30 minutes to boot up, and a solid hour to upload a 400kb file via dial-up… and even so, as I unceremoniously piled the components in the “recycle” pile, they wondered aloud: “It still looks good… maybe we could donate it to the local grade-school?” They’d carefully cleaned the screen and dusted the keyboard for ten years. Surely it must still be useful… (Don’t worry – I didn’t let them donate it.)
There’s irony here, if you think about it. For all of the waste that Americans produce and/or participate in, we can’t seem to shake the idea that our used stuff still has some life in it, that “Africans” would be able to find some use for our old T-shirts. And by the way, it’s not only Americans: some of the best of the best in #SWEDOW came from non-American sources. But I think that this notion that used stuff is still useful is part of a particularly American charity complex, right along with our desire to be the hero and with our de facto assumption that it is our right to help.
The idea that stuff can be used for something other than what it was originally intended for is similarly powerful. In my opinion, this – along with a common misperception that for those who have nothing anything is helpful – is what drives the belief that sending sea containers full of used stuff or even surplus new stuff is somehow a good idea. Surely they can do something with it… And to go even further, I think this is also basically what drives both skilled and unskilled volunteer programs. It’s what’s behind those youth pastors trying to take highschool kids to Haiti, or what drives completely inexperienced amateurs to show up and offer to “help.” Surely this stuff can be used for something… or, surely they can do something to help…
In the context of international aid and development, when the talking points coming out of NGOs and the media coverage of big disasters is, “these people have lost everything”, or, “these people are terribly poor and a little bit will make a big difference”, the initial reaction by many Americans is approximately: they have nothing. We have stuff. Let’s give them some. Whether it’s a bin full of used shoes, or a container full of new feminine products, or a van-load of high-school students on spring break, the automatic assumption is, this can all be used for something. And in those contexts it can be incredibly difficult to hear the message that, yes, they’re incredibly poor but they don’t really need what you have to offer.
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None of this is in any way meant to excuse packing up loads of used stuff, whether it’s shoes or clothing or high-tech medical equipment, and carting it off to the third world because doing so is in our culture and we mean well. Nor is it meant to excuse the youth pastors or amateur do-gooders because they’re really trying to help. It is meant, instead, to point out the fallacy in inherent in our own American cultural logic. Our depression-era values of frugality and reusing everything and passing our stuff on to others served us well… during The Great Depression.
But here’s another irony: the world has changed, and while we might use the most up-to-date gadgets, at a cultural level where local charity has become our paradigm for international aid, we have not changed with it. For as progressive as we see ourselves in some areas, when it comes to how we as a general culture think about international aid, we’re stuck in about 1932.