Donations of Emergency Services equipment to the Global South come from all kinds of sources and contain a variety of brands. Donating entities collect whatever they can and bundle goods into shipments that ideally fit the needs of the recipient.
But the somewhat haphazard donations process can end up creating added pressure on Global South recipient departments. Imagine having a mix of equipment, each with slightly different attributes – gear, tools and vehicles with different manuals if you have them, different spare parts when you need them, specialist technical support if you can somehow access it locally, and often instructions that are not in your local language.
Additionally, some donations can be useless – occasionally even dangerous. Estimates from Global Emergency Services Action suggest that up to 30% of all donated equipment is unusable to recipient departments because the goods are inappropriate for local conditions, are no longer fit for service, or come without adequate instruction. I have seen donations arrive in recipient countries that are clearly marked as out of service, unserviceable, unrepairable, failed and even ‘unsafe – do not use’. Also common is damaged or incomplete equipment; PPE that is torn, soiled with blood, or without thermal liners; cracked helmets without face shields or inner shells; SCBA masks without harnesses or exhalation valves; seized pumps; and, the most common of all, punctured fire hoses.
Donations typically include written disclaimers that absolve the Global North organisation of any responsibility in the case of accident, injury, or mechanical failure after delivery. But recipient departments are primarily concerned with protecting personnel, and clear fit-for-duty conditions should always be met by a donation to ensure it serves its intended purpose.
Are we encouraging risk?
It concerns me – and I have seen this in the field – that some kinds of sophisticated donated equipment often encourage firefighters to tackle emergencies that they have no training to handle. In many cases, they expose themselves to far higher risk, as they have neither the experience nor the training opportunities that Global North responders have.
Responders in emerging markets don’t have the luxury of calling the local gas company to isolate supply to a property before they enter. They might face stored domestic gas bottles, unauthorised electricity connections, and other hazards that make their operations especially precarious. But armed with their newly donated equipment, they sometimes assume that they are better protected to enter those risks than before, when they had nothing.
Some donors send personnel to give brief, basic training and issue their own ‘certificates of attendance and/or competence’. But attendance is not the same as mastery. Unless certifications are endorsed or recognized by a genuine standards agency in the host country and the instructors have current qualifications and legal authority to issue them outside their own country, the practice is questionable.
In many ways, professional guidance is even more important than the donated equipment itself. If we want to prevent donation-driven risk-taking by Global South first responders, we need to not only donate equipment that is fit for duty but also support our donations with qualified people on the ground, working closely with the local personnel for an appropriate period of time to correctly guide and certify users in operations and maintenance.
Donations should drive change
Donations do not automatically remedy the equipment and training void in emerging markets – they serve as short-term fixes to budget shortfalls. Donations should be leveraged to engage departments and their governments in important discussions about long-term financing. In the long run, the goal of donations must be to motivate governments to address the real needs of their departments by actually funding the development of Emergency Services in their countries.
Quality donations that fit the needs of the recipient community not only help departments improve service but also help policy makers and budget holders see the value of investing in Emergency Services equipment. Effective donations can also motivate public support of the Emergency Services sector both politically and financially, giving hope to communities that need help. This plays a crucial role as we seek to build capacity and quality in underserved communities around the world.
Breaking the logjam
Sadly, the donation system as it is currently ‘organised’ isn’t achieving anywhere near what it might. The process can be arduous and long. Not all local authorities in recipient countries have the import rules and regulations in place to receive goods. Firefighters on both sides are often volunteers with no government affiliations and no special exemptions or experience in the donations process. In frustration, some donors even stop trying to work with certain countries, impatient as their well-intentioned donations remain stuck for months or longer awaiting liberation from customs offices.
We need to break the logjam and create a donations system – a pipeline – that puts all this good will to better use. Success will start with understanding the actual situations facing recipient departments, helping make a stronger match and enabling departments to evaluate their own needs and request gear they can use. Success will mean building standards for donations so we can stop shipping goods that should be retired or trashed, while recycling the maximum amount of gear that can be given additional life.
For our sector, for donations – but more broadly for an improvement of service globally – success means going beyond good intentions and insisting on good results. We’ve just scratched the surface and so much is possible.
The future of donations
Ten years ago, connecting donors and supplier companies with communities was nearly impossible. Today with advances in technology, improvements in global logistics, and growth in the developing world, there is more opportunity and incentive to make the connection. We can video conference to discuss recipient requests and even conduct part of our training virtually. We can develop and share standards for donations to make sure everything shipped is worth shipping. We can keep in touch after goods are received to offer support. And working together, we can create models that are economically and environmentally sustainable.
There can be no shortcuts. Donations need to be quality equipment, certified for use, and where possible, similar brands as those being used by recipients. Equipment needs to come with real training from practitioners with current expertise on the gear being received. And donations should not end a conversation about budget – they should be part of a conversation about higher standards and better service that relies on a variety of new, recycled and donated equipment to serve the ever-expanding needs of the global Emergency Services community.
Our sector is on the brink of some true advances. Learning and collaboration are at the core, and I applaud the efforts of Global Emergency Services Action as they work to bring standards, coordination, and learning together to make progress at scale. We need to build a pipeline – connecting departments and manufacturers in the Global North with purchasers and donation recipients in the Global South to create a better, safer, happier and more prosperous world.
For more information, go to www.gesaction.org