Every year many tonnes of charitable items are sent out to Malawi from countries such as Scotland. We get lots of enquires from members and the public about how they can send unwanted items to Malawi.
For some projects and partnerships there are a handful of essential items which simply cannot be sourced in Malawi and must be specifically imported for this purpose. However, we strongly encourage all members to think critically about what they plan to send and how they plan to send it.
Listening to our friends in Malawi it's clear that there are a great many inappropriate donations arriving in the country, whether it be electrical equipment that doesn't work or isn't fit for purpose, technical items which can't be maintained, educational items which don't compliment the curriculum, or items which are otherwise available locally available whose donation can undermine local economies. Sadly, much of the equipment sent to Malawi never makes it to the intended recipient because of poor planning, and an underestimation of the costs, complexities and difficulties of importing goods into a small land-locked country like Malawi.
We encourage members to ask themselves ten quick questions when thinking of sending goods to Malawi:
- Is it needed? Have the items you wish to send been specifically requested in Malawi? What is your primary motivation - that (for example) you have some second-hand items which you are loathed to throw away and would prefer others to use, or that the goods have been specifically requested? We always say that collecting donations in Scotland is the easy bit, sending them effectively, sustainably and responsibly is much, much harder. Simply having goods and not wanting them isn't a good enough reason for sending them to Malawi.
- Is it appropriate? Are you confident that what you propose to send will really work well in Malawi? Is it robust, water, heat and termite resistant? Is there the power, connectivity and expertise available locally to run and maintain these items? Are they culturally appropriate? Will they survive the journey and storage, or are they perishable?
- Is it cost effective? How much will it cost to send the container to Malawi, adding in all the costs along the way (including in Malawi), and factoring in import duties? We recommend members then divide this total cost up by item, so you have a sense of how much it is costing for each donated item. We recommend that members then go back to their Malawian partners, telling them frankly and honestly what the costs are and asking whether these goods are worth this much to them, or if they could achieve the same ends more effectively if the funds were available locally. Our friends in Malawi are endlessly resourceful and can achieve incredible ends with often with limited resource: for example, for the price of sending one 'free' second-hand hospital bed, local Malawian carpenters could be employed to produce 20 more basic beds locally.
- Is it sustainable? Have you considered the environmental impact of getting the goods to Malawi? Malawians are already feeling the effects of climate change, this will only worsen in years to come. It will be the most vulnerable in the developing world who will pay the price for unsustainable actions of those in the developed world. This is an issue of climate justice. In this context, we must always assess the environmental implications of our work.
- Will it get there? Sadly, lots of containers never make it to their intended final recipients, often because they don't clear port or require greater taxation than expected. In almost every case it is essential to have someone on the ground who knows the systems and can ensure the shipment gets through. This is not an easy job. Local knowledge is everything.
- Who 'owns' the donation? This may sound funny but it's a hugely important question. If it's a donation which no one owns, it's unlikely to reach the intended beneficiaries and is far more vulnerable to getting stuck in bureaucracies, or 'disappearing' after it arrives. Often the best systems involve the Malawian partner identifying the goods they require, these items being costed up (including all transport and taxation costs) and the Malawian partner then actually paying a proportion of these costs, per item. This may seem strange, even uncomfortable, but it ensures the goods sent are really what is most required, it ensures there's someone to receive the goods locally, and it ensures the goods appear on official budgets and inventories from the very beginning. Someone owns them.
- What is already in Malawi? In recent years some of the best Scotland-Malawi projects haven't sent goods to Malawi but instead have helped undertake stock-takes of unused equipment already in Malawi, assessed why these goods aren't in use and looked at what is required to make them operational. This has sometimes involved specific spare parts be sourced, adapters found, instructions emailed, or expertise found to instruct on usage and maintenance.
- Can the goods be sourced locally? Local goods might seem expensive or sub-standard at first but have you considered all the costs and risks involved in shipping from Scotland? Have you considered that buying locally helps not just the communities you're working with but also all those Malawians involved in the supply chain, as your funds cycle around the Malawian economy creating a multiplier effect.
- How will the goods be distributed? It is extremely hard to design and implement an effective local distribution system from 6,000 miles away. There are a huge number of practical but also cultural and political considerations. Why have you selected that community to benefit? What impact will this have on other nearby communities? How will you identify individuals and assess need?
- How do you know if you've got it right? What feedback do you get from the communities you have worked with? How do you know the items you sent arrived at the right place and are being used by the intended beneficiaries? Do you know that everything was received, that it met expectation, and how long it lasted for?
If members are able to answer all of these questions and are still confident that sending goods is the best next step, we invite them to read the Partnership's Practical Guide to Sending Goods to Malawi for more advice on what to do, how to do it and who to best connect with.