Sending Goods Overseas

Is it really a good idea?

In some exceptional circumstances it can be vital to ship goods overseas.

Where disasters and emergencies have devastated local markets and where the scale of need is so large that local markets can’t supply demand, there is simply no alternative.

Most often though, it’s our desire to help people living in poverty, coupled with a need or an idea that we have seen and a solution that comes to us; that leads to the idea of sending goods overseas.

These are noble and truly good intentions, that warrant proper consideration of the best solutions.

We know that the heart is right in these ideas and we try to consider the following in finding the best solutions in each case.

Things to consider

Is this the solution?

Giving people physical goods is often only a solution to the symptoms of poverty.

If you want to resolve the problem that you’ve seen, ask yourself how you can deal with the root causes of the problem.

It can be more complex to do and yet is so much more rewarding for all concerned when we achieve it.

What are our motives?

One real plus to the idea of giving things away is that they are tangible, it’s really easy for us to get others to donate things, to get excited about our cause and feel like we’ve made a positive impact through making a sacrifice.

For us, it’s vital that the benefit we experience from giving something away is not a primary driver in any decision to send goods overseas.

If you’re struggling to let go of an idea because of this please do chat to us, we’d love to help you come up with some ideas that people can get behind that really bring benefit to those we’re trying to serve together.

What’s the business plan?

Be very careful if you are considering subsidising a business or initiative with goods.

Giving goods may actually undermine the sustainability of the social enterprise you’re seeking to support.

What if the flow of goods you are giving stops?

Any business built on donation may no longer be viable if they stop.

Subsidies will give a false impression of success, and so can easily lead to poor efficiency and decision making.

Will the needs change?

Between the time a decision is made to send goods overseas and the time they arrive on the ground, many things can change including the needs you wanted to address.

Because goods are physical assets, they are inherently inflexible.

Needs do change and the result can be goods sitting unused or even being dumped.

Is this a culturally appropriate solution?

We all like familiarity and for many cultural reasons, goods may not be used.

What might seem straightforward in one culture may not fit with another culture.

I’ve seen boxes of electric toothbrushes in an African village! People didn’t know how to use them, and they were battery powered in a place where batteries were expensive. They were good intentions but wasted funds.

David Crooks, Tearfund Country Representative

What about the environment?

Shipping of goods is one of the worlds biggest polluters.

The environmental cost of shipping your goods may be greater than the value added your goods bring, or the savings you thought you were making.

This is perhaps offset by the idea that the donated goods might otherwise end up in landfill but it’s not necessarily an even trade.

Do your research and maximise your impact

Why not sell the goods here and give the money towards some of the work, rather than spending money on shipping and customs fees?

There are often cheaper local alternative products that will do the job just as well and cost much less than the goods you are shipping.

In fact it’s not unknown for the costs of transportation to make the goods more expensive than the local alternative.

Why not get a higher return on your investment, and support the local economy in the process?


Your goods might be great quality or cheaper than local alternatives, but could they break and can people afford to run them?

If there are no parts locally to fix your assets, someone will have to import them at great expense in order to fix the asset when it breaks.

Also, if the products aren’t local, there may be no one skilled to maintain them.

This is on top of the challenge of encouraging people to take ownership of something you have donated; it’s often the case that the things you give is still thought of as yours and so you’re expected to fix it when it breaks.

The local economy

Really think through whether you could harm the local economy.

If you send an influx of goods, local retailers can be affected by market saturation.

This reduces demand and prices, and by unfair competition.

Your donations can be resold at 100% profit, undercutting local retailers.

Sadly it is a common occurrence to see food aid being sold in local markets in disaster zones and elsewhere.

Remember, if you’re not sure about anything, give us a call and ask for our advice.

You could try to put yourselves in our shoes and think - would Tearfund fund this initiative or enterprise?

Can the local church address this issue themselves somehow and ultimately, is this us being the best that we can be?

Did you know…

Goods given are considered a "donation in kind" under charity law.

This means they should be accounted for and monitored by the donor and the recipient.

That’s both you and the people you give them to and it’s something that we as Tearfund are not able to officially oversee.

On balance, if you want to reduce poverty, I’d suggest it’s very rarely a good idea to ship goods overseas.

Tearfund Country Representative