Best practice: shipping goods to Malawi
Before sending goods to Malawi, there are a number of really important issues to consider, not least the unintended negative economic and environmental implications which such donations might have.
The SMP has provided best practice advice and support to its members in this area since 2007 and, to ensure we ‘do not harm’ (one of our 11 Partnership Principles), since 2014 we have asked all members to ensure they go through the ten-point checklist on this page before sending items to Malawi.
While there is often great material need in Malawi, it’s important the SMP is clear that sending physical items is time consuming, challenging and often not the best way to assist.
We recognise that 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. We encourage members to develop genuinely sustainable partnerships with Malawi.
Listening to our friends in Malawi, it’s clear that there are 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 already locally available and 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 ask members to ask themselves these ten quick questions when thinking of sending goods to Malawi:
(1) 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 to throw them away isn’t a good enough reason for sending them to Malawi.
The key to answering this first question is to have a really strong relationship with your partner in Malawi and, through open, honest and sustained dialogue, to really understand the problem you’re looking to, together, address. Too often there’s an assumption in Scotland that sending second-hand goods is the best option (because it must be better than throwing it away), and an assumption in Malawi that anything sent from Scotland will be useful (if they have so little at present). These assumptions need to be challenged by really digging into the issue and fully exploring all the different options as to how the problem could be addressed.
(2) 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? Does the item require consumables to run – if so, are these readily available in Malawi and is there budget for these?
(3) 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 by sourcing locally. Through this dialogue you may discover, for example, that for the price of sending one “free” second-hand hospital bed, local Malawian carpenters could be employed to produce many more beds locally.
(4) Is it sustainable?
Have you considered the environmental impact of getting the goods to Malawi? Malawi is already feeling the effects of climate change; this will only worsen in years to come. It will be the most vulnerable in the global south who will pay the highest price for unsustainable actions. This is an issue of climate justice. In this context, we must always assess the environmental implications of our work.
Crucially, its important to discuss what the realistic lifespan is for the item and what will happen when it reaches this. Waste management is a huge problem across much of Africa and it is hard to appropriately dispose of some items. It’s important that, to be sustainable, you have a really clear plan as to what will happen when the item is no longer usable.
(5) 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.
We have seen many instances of well-meaning groups assuming that because an item is a charitable donation that it will not be charged taxes. There are very clear and non-negotiable tax systems in Malawi, as in the UK, and it’s not something that can easily be bypassed when goods arrive. There needs to be clear written agreements, with all appropriate processes followed, before goods leave Scotland. Without this, groups should expect the full import duties will be charged.
(6) 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. However little is paid in Malawi, it is important that someone owns the items donated and hence can really direct what is most useful.
(7) What is already in Malawi?
In recent years some of the most impactful Scotland-Malawi projects haven’t sent goods to Malawi but instead have helped undertake stocktakes of unused equipment already in Malawi, assessed why these goods aren’t in use and looked at what is required to make them operational. If you really understand what’s already in Malawi you might be able to source the specific spare parts, adapters, or instructions needed to get this equipment working. For example, our 2021 Emergency Oxygen Supply Appeal, which used £45,000 to support volunteer Malawian engineers to fix over half a million dollars of broken oxygen concentrators already in Malawi. Having a strong, open and honest relationship with your partner in Malawi is key, as there is often embarrassment at equipment not working already in Malawi, with both sides choosing to gloss over this and take the easy route of just sending in new equipment with the assumption that this will fix an issue.
(8) Can the goods be sourced locally?
This is perhaps the most important question to ask yourself. 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. Or, to put it the other way, think what happens to the local Malawian business selling goods when an international partner starts giving these goods away on their doorstep? This happens all too often: well-meaning but misdirected aid can undermine a sustainable economy. You can still help but you just need to think about the ripple effect of the decisions you make.
(9) 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 particular community to benefit? What impact will this have on other nearby communities? How will you identify individuals and assess need?
(10) 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? Be aware that, for entirely understandable reasons, there may be reluctance to say if the item isn’t appropriate or hasn’t worked, so think about what questions you’re asking and try to have a really open discussion in which you’re clear it’s okay to give more challenging feedback or to identify issues.
No one sends goods to Malawi for anything other than the best of intentions. The SMP does not look to be critical of any Scotland-Malawi engagements: this is not what we’re about as a charity. But we’re keen to help everyone ask themselves the right questions at the right time to ensure, together, we live up to the Partnership Principles we hold ourselves accountable to.
We are always here to discuss with members some of these important questions and help signpost to others that can help. We know it’s not always easy.
If members wish to send goods to Malawi and are satisfied that they have answered all the above ten questions, please get in contact (firstname.lastname@example.org) and we’ll be happy to pass on further information about recommended ways of sending goods to Malawi.
Finally, we’re keen to flag these excellent resources and information sources, specific to the donation of medical equipment:
- ‘Medical Equipment Donations’ by THET
- ‘Making it Work- A Toolkit for Medical Equipment Donations’ by THET
- ‘Medical equipment donation in low-resource settings: a review of the literature and guidelines for surgery and anaesthesia in low-income and middle-income countries’ in the British Medical Journal