How can I purchase/donate/ship computers to a Third World school?
July 4, 2012 12:58 AM   Subscribe

How can I go about purchasing computers to donate to a school in a developing country? That is, a _specific_ school -- the woman in my life is in the Peace Corps, and one of her dreams since she's been there has been to find some way to update the ancient computers at the school where she teaches. (This goal is shared by local teachers and administrators at the school.) This sort of targeted giving seems to fall outside the scope of most charities I've looked into, such as OLPC. Are there organizations suited to this kind of project, or which could offer advice on handling this (from the U.S.) as an individual? Is the latter remotely feasible? If so, what should I keep in mind, as far as insurance, taxes, shipping, customs, etc.?

Via a commitment from an outside donor, I have a specific budget lined up, which should allow for the purchase of a number of desktops or inexpensive laptops. That part, I should be able to handle. Shipping, however, seems daunting (given that my last care package, around the size of a shoebox, cost me $50 to mail from the U.S.). Should I look into a consolidated shipping company? Complicating matters is the fact that the school is in a somewhat rural location -- I imagine such services wouldn't go far outside the capital city, leaving the rest up to her (and Peace Corps, hopefully) to arrange.

There are a number of factors to consider here. But mainly, I'm looking for a way to direct a specific amount of money so as to directly benefit this school; new computers have been a stated goal for the school, with no in-country purchase options known to be feasible; and just writing a check seems unwise and potentially graft-prone.
posted by mattstan to Computers & Internet (12 answers total)
As a former practitioner of ICT for development in schools and now a scholar of it...

It is almost always too expensive with customs/taxes.

Moreover, the sustainability - electricity, internet... What's the plan for this? Who/what will fix it when it inevitably breaks?

Sorry to be a bummer.

NO un-country purchasing option in the capital city? Where is she?
posted by k8t at 1:11 AM on July 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

Seconding k8t - where is she? There may well be Mefites with specific local experience.
posted by Hobo at 3:01 AM on July 4, 2012

This seems a kind of backwards way to go about researching your options. You already have a donor, now you just need to figure out shipping, right? So your girlfriend should be approaching entities in the country that are using computers to find out how they got them there; that's going to get you much better solid info on the options available in her country than such generalized questions as the ones you're asking.

She could also be looking to partner with other volunteers who are looking for the same thing; I don't know the details, but I know a group of volunteers here in Burkina Faso worked something out with a local vendor (an RPCV, actually) where they took orders from the entire volunteer population at a set cost per laptop, calculated to include bulk shipping and various import fees (each volunteer to secure their own funding, most of whom either did personally if they were just getting one or two, or via PCPP if they were getting several) then just got the whole order in at once via whatever shipment method that vendor typically used. Distribution to the individual volunteers turned out to be a nightmare, but the Peace Corps resident office was very helpful and eventually everyone got their computers, and at a much better price than buying retail locally.

k8t brings up some very pertinent sustainability questions that hopefully your girlfriend has thought about. And I share her surprise that there are no in-country options.
posted by solotoro at 3:52 AM on July 4, 2012

I know times have changed, but years ago my sister was a flight attendant, and she, along with other attendants, would take supplies down to two specific orphanages in Guatemala. The airline donated the cargo space (we lugged the boxes). I had heard of other airlines doing the same.

My information is probably so 'dated' now that this practice might have gone by the wayside, but maybe try some flight attendant groups?

Also, I am sure you thought of this, but seems like the Peace Corps itself would have this sort of information, and leads, for you.
posted by Vaike at 5:12 AM on July 4, 2012

Vaike - computers have huge tariffs on them. Used clothing = much easier to bring in.
posted by k8t at 5:35 AM on July 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think buying them from a local supplier/retailer is the way to go - many fewer customs & tariff hassles and they get a relationship that might assist with ongoing upkeep.

The machines may be more expensive, but that's to account for tariffs & taxes.
posted by Heart_on_Sleeve at 5:58 AM on July 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

I am with Heart on Sleeve. Better 2 working computers than 15 partially- or non-working computers.
posted by skbw at 6:00 AM on July 4, 2012

Didn't realize about the tariffs. Then I agree that local would really be the way to go for the money and ease.
posted by Vaike at 6:39 AM on July 4, 2012

It really depends on the county and the quantity. We've had computers donated to us to bring to Phnom Penh, Cambodia and we get visiting volunteers to bring them along as check-in luggage, with a letter for customs explaining it's a donated second-hand item so usually there's no tariff. However, we do not take donations of desktop computers - just too heavy to bring in for the shipping cost, and it would be a whole new problem if we got a dozen laptops at once, because we might have to pay for "coffee money" at customs or go through paperwork plus more coffee money, etc. A huge hassle.

We buy most of our computers second-hand at the local shops, and that works out about the same as buying them second-hand in Singapore and shipping them, plus we have the relationship then with the shop that will service the hardware and give discounts on upgrades.

I honestly can't see the point at all in buying computers in the U.S. to ship overseas unless you have either donated shipping/airmiles, or you are getting really good computers for free.

It would be a lot easier to have your friend or someone she trusts buy the computers in the city. You could wire the funds direct to the shop that's selling them to the school.

If you're worried about organising it, look for an active small charity in the area that has email and a good reputation, and contact them about doing the purchasing of computers for this school on your donor's behalf in return for a 10-20% project management fee. Another NGO wanted to build a school in our region, and we helped with the financial paperwork, reports and photographs etc, in return for a small percentage of the total grant, a win-win for both of us.
posted by viggorlijah at 8:23 AM on July 4, 2012

While you want to do all you can for this to be a success, you must realize, she is the one that has to take lead. This is a huge project that will require her to do some leg work.

The import tax might be hellish for computers, perhaps the PCV can look into getting an exemption of some sort? Perhaps the items the ministry of education imports are exempt from taxation?, if so, tell her to hook up with them!

Also, large shipments have been handled by other NGOs in her country. The best thing to do is for her to seek these NGOs out and pick their brains from their first hand experience.

Maybe she can seek out the MP from her district, who will surely want to help her to take credit for the donation!

Addtionally, I am sceptical that there are no ways to buy the computers, in-country. Can you tell us what country this is?

To echo K8t's concerns, what exactly is the plan to sustain these computers? Is there sufficient electrical wiring already in her computer lab? How is cooling handled, fans or AC? Is the school ready for their power bill to shoot through the roof after they turn these things on? Are you including a printer, network gear? Who will set all this up and maintain it? Are you sending extras in case things break?

I sure hope your friend is technically savvy, since, once these PCs arrive, whatever her current job is will change. She will be the schools IT administrator, whether she wants to or not.

A fun blog that discusses computer donations by a Peace Corps Volunteer. Its a great story.
posted by calm down at 8:27 AM on July 4, 2012

Don't give them computers unless you know they can use them. A donation they can't use isn't good for anyone. Your friend might want them, but maybe the organization needs to deploy its limited resources elsewhere, and more computers would just end up being an albatross.

Give them the money and hope for the best. If you don't trust them with the money, then how can you trust them to use the computers effectively? Or trust that they won't just sell the computers the second you turn your back?
posted by gjc at 4:31 PM on July 4, 2012

I am with the others on buying locally instead of shipping internationally. If you ship internationally you run a serious risk that the computers will never arrive at their destination, that someone will have to pay a bribe to get them, that it will take months for them to arrive. That is just my experience re: shipping to east Africa.

If you cannot buy locally, then consider having other people carry them over for you. If your girlfriend does not know people who are coming to visit who can carry some computers over when they come, then consider trying to contact someone who is part of an adoption group for that country, if possible. People who are adopting internationally are making trips to that country, and often are quite willing to help out charities while doing so. Just an idea. (or use another nonprofit group that takes international volunteers and send with them)

Consider the following:
- Plugs will be different in the country you are shipping to and will require adapters
- The voltage may be different as well. Computers can usually adjust for this but it is a consideration when sending any type of electronics.
- If the power supply goes on and off frequently, then the laptops ought to have very good batteries. Of course the problem is if the batteries cannot be locally sourced, once they are dead, the computers become not very useful. It would be helpful for the school to have a source of backup power like solar or other generator for this reason.
- If the power has frequent surges (the developing country I visit has this problem) then it is VERY important that all computers be plugged into surge protectors at all times instead of being plugged in directly
- If the computers will be connected to the internet, students should have to undergo VERY thorough training before being able to use them, and computers should have the strongest anti-virus and anti-malware software that can be afforded, as well as people in the school trained to be able to clear the computers of malware and viruses. If this issue is neglected, the computers will become so virus and malware ridden so quickly it will blow your mind how fast they'll be useless.

Sorry, don't mean to join the rain on the parade. I think it's a really nice thing you're trying to do. Don't give up on trying to help others just because it's hard... please.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 7:54 PM on July 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

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