Humanitarian Disasters: Why logistics is vital

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Humanitarian Disasters: Why logistics is vital
By Martin Christopher

When humanitarian disasters hit the headlines, we hope and expect that rescue and resources are rapidly and effectively applied to help affected individuals. Sadly, we know that this is sometimes not the case and slow response and inefficiencies can lead to unnecessary suffering and delays. In recent years a focus on logistics management has been brought to bear to good effect: in particular, the disciplines developed from commercial and military logistics can be applied to avoid the chaos that often follows catastrophies such as the tsunami that took place in South East Asia in 2004.

Disasters seem to be on the increase and floods, earthquakes and the like are occurring more regularly and are much more on the public’s radar than was the case in the past. Disaster relief is as much about logistics as it is about fund raising – indeed it has been estimated that for every pound that is raised, some 80 pence is spent on logistics. More to the point, the essence of disaster management is rapid response: one of the areas on which leading practitioners of logistics and supply chain management have focused is agility: i.e. how do you develop processes that are capable of responding rapidly to unpredictable events? Agility must be at the heart of humanitarian logistics, where there is a huge potential for improvement, and consequential benefit to those affected by such activities.

For some years Cranfield has been working jointly with Cardiff University to lead a working group of academics and professionals in the humanitarian logistics arena– the Cranfield-Cardiff Humanitarian Logistics Initiative (CCHLI). This has helped to capture and share knowledge in this area. CCHLI brings together a unique blend of expertise from military logistics, commercial supply chain management as well as on-the-ground, hands-on experience in the field.

Many similarities with business logistics

In the past there was a reluctance to acknowledge that humanitarian logistics could learn anything from the world of business. However, there are indeed a lot of parallels: a modern commercial supply chain has to deal with high levels of turbulence and volatility and increasing uncertainty. The commercial world has discovered that it has to become better at responding to events as they happen. Supply chain agility enables an organisation to move quickly and meet market change or whatever the need is. In this context, agility also applies to situations of disaster.

The 2004 Tsunami a wake-up call

The Asian Tsunami of 2004 highlighted that disaster response wasn’t achieving the level of coordination that was needed amongst all the major agencies. Supply chain management is all about how to manage the linkages in complex networks, recognising that there is much that can be gained through better supply chain coordination. With this in mind, the United Nations set up what is known as the Logistics Cluster to enable better co-ordination across different relief agencies and this has already borne fruit and will continue to do so, but there is still a lot more to be done given the difficulties of bringing together different agencies from different countries and cultures.

Humanitarian logistics is not so unique

To ensure successful and efficient provision of humanitarian aid, the way in which those involved in humanitarian logistics undertake their role and activities is critical. There is now a much greater willingness for all parties to come together, share ideas and improve practice. Humanitarian relief agencies can learn a lot from commercial supply chain management and military logistics and this increasingly recognised. The mission of CCHLI is to assist this transfer of knowledge and experience.

However it is not sufficient to ensure that best practice solutions are adopted. It has also become clear that there is a need for high levels of professionalism and skills in the whole humanitarian logistics and supply chain management area. Whilst there is some very good practice around, some agencies would benefit from greater depth of experience in logistics management and the view of CCHLI is that this where we need to be putting a lot more focus and energy. Moral and ethical commitment and best intentions are not enough, important though they are.

Martin Christopher is Emeritus Professor of Marketing and Logistics at Cranfield School of Management and is co-editor of the recently published book Humanitarian Logistics, Kogan Page 2011.

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