Stuff: What is it good for?

I do not normally jump on the SWEDOW bandwagon. It seems the most salient arguments are made again and again, and frankly, it’s often too easy of a criticism.

But whenever the latest blogosphere or Twitter uproar occurs (see Nick Kristof’s latest appeal for old prom or bridesmaid dresses or this bra donation scheme), there is always one nagging, unanswered question for me…

“Why in the &$%# do people think “stuff” is the answer?”

Earthquake? Let’s send shoes. Orphanage? Let’s send underwear. Tsunami? Let’s send dolls and coloring books. All I can do is picture ship containers full of “stuff”—new and used, begged, borrowed and hopefully not stolen on behalf of poor people—being sailed across our oceans every day.

What is it about us in the developed world that elevates “stuff” to this level, to becoming a solution to poverty or disaster? I know people here in the U.S. that spend an awful, awful lot of their time and energy accumulating, managing, and maintaining their “stuff,” and presumably rarely enjoying it. Not hoarders, but average people, fulfilling every capitalist’s dream.

It leaves me wondering what these possessions, these things, mean to them, and to the rest of us living at similar socio-economic levels?

Does our “stuff” give us a sense of security? Have our emotional and social lives become so vacuous that “stuff” fills these gaps? Does “stuff” provide a sense of worthiness or power? Does “stuff” allow us to live superficially, preventing us from going deeper?

I suspect that our relationship to the “stuff” in our own lives may be directly correlated to how much “stuff” we believe to be necessary to send to “those in need.”

What do you think?

Full Disclosure: I have been living without my own “stuff” for the past nine months. Though I feign the role of vagabond, the other day in the drug store, I almost broke down as I spotted a tin of Burt’s Bees Hand Salve, just like one of the many “treasures” of mine currently laying in wait in a San Jose storage unit.


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  1. Joe

    I think the issue is that when we see people in need we feel an element of guilt and the ‘need’ within us to do something. So we cling onto anything we’re given that appears to lessen the problem, and therefore reduce our own guilt – even if we’re usually logical people. Somehow, this seems to bypass the thinking parts of our brains and link together the ‘problem’ with a simple solution.

    There are a bunch of orphans not getting Christmas presents. Gee, I’ve got a load of stuff I’m not using that is just sitting around, I’ll collect it in a nice box with Christmas paper and get a warm glow from imagining the little kid opening the only Christmas present they’ve had in years – and it’ll be from me.

    And this is is such an emotional attachment to us that it is hard to think our way out of the mindset. It is hard for Kristoff and friends to listen to the story of a woman and then not respond in the way they have learned to respond in these situations. They have spare clothing… the right thing to do is to send it to the woman that needs it. And pointing out that the costs of sending said garments would outweigh the potential benefits has no effect.

  2. Hum. I see your point. I do. But isn’t it easier to disregard “stuff” when you know you could have it if you wanted it?

    Every two weeks I make a pile of old toys and clothes that don’t fit my girls. I’m thrilled to get rid of them. When my house cleaner sees the pile, she is beside herself with joy. Her daughter can’t buy those things, so getting them from me makes a big difference.

    I’m not saying that giving away old, unneeded stuff is something to aspire to or be proud of (except from an environmental point of view). I am saying that stuff does sometimes matter. The stuff doesn’t have to be a TV or car — it can be a candle or a small doll or a flower — something to treasure remind us of the beauty in the world.

  3. J.

    I think Joe’s basically right, although lately I’ve come to seriously question the central role of Western/developed world *guilt* in the calculus. I think we’re just addicted to stuff. We love it. We love to have it. We love to shop for it. We love talking about it, even when we’re talking about how simply we live (yeah, I do that, too), how “stuff-free”. We assume that everyone else is the same. We assume that they want our stuff, just like we assume that they want our way of life (some do), or our wide open spaces, or our help…

    We can’t imagine a life without our stuff. For us, having no stuff is a life of true deprivation. And maybe – as illogical as it seems and is – our insatiable desire to share our stuff with those who have none is our sincerest expression of true empathy?

    … thinking out loud…

  4. Aid functionaries (if I can call us that) are trained to think about things in terms of technical rationality. In these terms, we think of food as nutrition, housing as shelter, stuff in terms of its instrumental value, and value in terms of cost-benefit analysis.

    On the other hand, in the day to day life of human beings, stuff has many more meanings than just one. A car is more than a vehicle, a house more than shelter, a marriage is more than a mate, and life more than optimized cost-benefit. And this is as true of the Azande and the Hutu and the Hmong, as it is of the Nacerima.**

    The examples you give are good ones: the Bees Hand Salves, the wedding garb…

    For a fine fictional account of the meaning(s) of a thing, I recommend Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit.”

    And before we are too quick to assume that technical rationality is a superior (rather than context-specific) form of reason, we should consider whether there is any technical-rational reasoning which would lead us to engage in development assistance anyway? Rather, I think development assistance is based on more extensive cultural traditions about what life means, without which we would most likely just stay home.

    Technical rationality is but a small (but significant) corner of the totality of different ways (also significant) in which we think about things. So perhaps when we next see someone like Kristof engage in the “crazy” idea of sending wedding garb to the poor in another country, we should at the same time think that without that kind of “crazy” thinking, we wouldn’t be doing any kind of development aid at all.

    **A reference to this article, which if you’ve never read it, is a must:

  5. Joe you always raise very tough debates I like that! and move us to rethink about essential matters that are typically the traditional way of thinking no matter what the situation behind .We need to rethink about the strategies of aid and how it works. The contexts are different so should the strategies. Sometimes the situation results from a long process; Somalia is a good example; shipping of the stuff is not the only and good solution! in addition stuff is sometimes available locally no need to more costs of logistics and the like.

  6. Joe

    David – but it isn’t just illogical (in the general way that even trying to do anything is illogical), it is a contradiction in terms – even if you accept that ‘stuff’ is needed, it is clearly less efficient to send stuff than to buy in bulk or in the recipient country.

    J – I’m not sure that totally explains the phenomena. The readers are concerned that the woman in Kristof’s article is unable to pay for healthcare and schooling, which are needs we recognise outwith of stuff. The problem is that the only ways we can compute to try to help people when we read these kinds of stories revolve around sending stuff, as if that is the only useful thing we have to contribute.

  7. Jon

    I think society has ingrained in us that material possessions determine whether or not we are poor, ie, the more stuff you have the better off you are. It is the whole “keeping up with the Jones’ mentality.” This creates many problems when we see the rest of the world through the same lens. If I see a family in the developing world that doesn’t have shoes, t-shirts, and other “essentials” my lens says that if I provide them with that, they will be much better off and no longer poor.

    We see all poverty as material poverty (lack of things) and not as any other type of poverty (lack of knowledge, oppression by others, etc). I think it is a simplistic view of poverty based on my viewing others through my lens and determining what I have that they do not, and thus need, and then me determining to send them these things to “help them.”

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  9. We give useless gifts within our own culture too. Think about the candle that you bought your aunt for Christmas, or the candy-covered almonds you got as a wedding favor. In some way, the act of giving is showing respect and honoring the relationship, even when the stuff isn’t wanted.
    Within my own family, as well as with my acquaintances around the world, I am seeking the balance of meaningful gifts and finding things that people really want. Sometimes the gift isn’t a “thing” at all, but money instead, if that’s what they want.

  10. I think we lost sight of the issues when we get up in arms about #SWEDOW such as t-shirts, bras and wedding gowns. As you say Jennifer, it is easy criticism, and perhaps we ourselves feel guilty on behalf of those people donating, who are already feeling guilty themselves (?)

    I think we need to refocus our attention, our advocacy efforts on #SWEDOW that is extremely harmful, both to the environment and to those who interact with it. For example, e-waste. ( Let’s focus on the entire life-cycle of products, not just where they end up. On how they are manufactured, on the people and companies who manufacture, on the materials used and disposed of, how consumers then use and interact with the products, and then how we dispose/recycle of such. There is a lot of funding going towards China for such programmes, supported by the EU and channelled through such institutions as the World Bank and UNIDO. An important, but often overlooked, area of development.

  11. I must admit to cringing a bit when I have heard of people sending these kinds of things in the wake of a disaster since I doubt how useful they will be or even when they will survive the trip and reach someone in need intact. That said, I wonder if anyone has ever studied this in a rigorous way, or even cobbled together a bunch of anecdotes objectively. Maybe people simply appreciate getting something from the outside world, which signifies that they are not alone, so even an object that is not inherently helpful to them symbolically is quite important. And I am sure in some (perhaps rare) cases this kind of stuff arrives and is useful in some practical way…

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