The challenges of humanitarian logistics have become increasingly apparent throughout the world. However, with closer cooperation between the public and private sectors, the process of delivering food, water and medical supplies has seen vast improvements over the past few years.
Political and military conflicts can turn thousands of people into refugees or internally displaced persons in very short periods. Natural disasters also leave vast numbers homeless and in need of basic shelter, food and water.
Though natural disasters, war and ethnic conflict are not new problems, modern systems exist today to respond to victims' needs.
Just as businesses rely on logistics for the movement of goods all over the world, so relief organisations rely on logistics operations to bring food, water and other supplies to people in need during disaster situations.
Humanitarian logistics involves all the processes and systems needed to mobilise people, resources, skills and knowledge to help vulnerable people affected by natural disasters and complex emergencies.
A humanitarian logistics operation includes planning, procurement, mobilisation of personnel and transport, customs clearance, warehousing, transport, track and trace, coordination with other organisations, and in-country operations such as local transport, last-mile delivery and distribution.
As in any logistics operation, all involved parties must share information. And like corporate logistics, humanitarian logistics requires leadership by skilled personnel, adequate resources, a reliable delivery infrastructure, and close cooperation between all players, including relief workers, beneficiaries and civil/military authorities.
The latter will enable the head agency to maintain visibility over the entire operation. It can then prevent duplicated efforts and backlogged supplies.
Steps toward preparedness, such as regional stockpiling and supplier agreements, are also very important. However, while planning should be attempted at the outset, plans may have to be set aside due to the volatility of the environment.
In such cases, creative problem-solving skills may be the most important resource that the logistician can muster.
Because emergencies are unexpected occurrences, relief organisations must plan for every contingency and be ready to act at a moment's notice. In this respect, humanitarian logistics is much more demanding and uncertain than corporate logistics, which affords more time for planning and strategising.
One way to compensate for the last-minute nature of the work is to warehouse food and other supplies in locations around the world so that it is closer to potential areas of conflict.
The International Federation of Red Cross and Crescent Societies (IFRC) has three mechanisms to ensure rapid response: a disaster relief emergency fund (which provides money to initiate activity before the international appeal for funding is launched), a field assessment and fact-gathering team, and finally the emergency response units.
In recent years, the IFRC has improved its procurement procedures, which in the past have been complicated by unsolicited donations.
By standardising relief items and making agreements with suppliers on price, quantity and delivery requirements, the IFRC can be sure that recipients will receive the supplies they actually need. They also maintain regional warehouses and logistics units.
In addition to the tasks of planning and preparedness, there are a number of challenges that arise from the volatile contexts in which humanitarian logistics operations take place.
Operations often occur without government support in chaotic environments where physical infrastructure has been destroyed. Transport capacity may be limited or non-existent.
In the Iraq war, more than ever before, militants directly targeted humanitarian workers, adding a new type of threat. Ultimately, the constant uncertainty of humanitarian logistics calls for improvisation and creative problem solving. If practised by experienced professionals, these tools will be helpful in some situations.
For many years, corporate logisticians have been developing and refining strategies and technologies for optimising global supply chains. Unfortunately, this expertise has not trickled down to humanitarian relief organisations, many of which suffer from poorly defined manual processes, insufficient funding, fragmented technology, high employee turnover rates and a lack of institutional learning.
The Fritz Institute, a non-profit organisation dedicated to strengthening humanitarian relief organisations, has stressed the great need to mobilise logistics and technology expertise and resources from the corporate and academic communities.
The delivery of humanitarian relief can be improved through training for logisticians, the creation of collaboration and coordination mechanisms before a disaster occurs, seamless coordination with the military, private sector, and humanitarian organisations, and the development of new technology for track/trace and disaster relief supply chains.
Such applications utilise the best of corporate logistics, but tailor the software's functions to the needs of the humanitarian logistician.
The Fritz Institute worked with IFRC to develop a humanitarian logistics software package that performs mobilisation, procurement, logistics and tracking, and reporting functions.
In a simulation of the response to the Gujarat earthquake of 2001, the software increased the speed of the relief process by 20-30%. The IFRC had been using the software for more than one year when the tsunami hit, so they were able to utilise it effectively in tsunami relief operations.
They found it to be a stable, well-written programme and a particularly effective tool for documenting field requirements, requesting donations, allowing donating parties to see what requirements existed and then filling them, and goods delivery tracking.
The private sector clearly has the expertise and ability to serve humanitarian relief organisations in a new way. Yet, these organisations have often been afraid of the private sector, imagining that it exists only to make money.
By thinking this way, humanitarian organisations have at times inflicted unnecessary problems and costs on themselves. The barriers must now come down. When humanitarian and corporate logisticians can work together to share best practices, they will be better able to use worldclass logistics principles to assist those who are suffering.
Issa Baluch is chairman and CEO of Swift Freight International and past president of FIATA. He is the author of Transport Logistics, Past, Present and Predictions (www.transportlogistics.com)
1. Creating a professional logistics community will enable humanitarian logisticians to share knowledge and experience on common issues and to create a consistent, powerful voice with all the stakeholders in the sector.
2. Investing in standardised training and certification will help build a pool of logistics professionals that share common processes and vocabulary, promoting professionalism and collaboration.
3. Focusing on metrics and performance measurement will empower logisticians to demonstrate and improve the effectiveness of the humanitarian supply chains.
4. Communicating the strategic importance of logistics will enable logisticians to create awareness of the contribution that logistics makes and to obtain needed funding and resources.
5. Developing flexible technology solutions will improve responsiveness by creating visibility of the materials pipeline and increasing the effectiveness of people and processes. Furthermore, advanced information systems will create the infrastructure for knowledge management, performance measurement and learning.