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Humanitarian logistics

Making aid more effective

by Helmut Baumgarten, Hendrik Blome

In depth

African road systems tend to be poor: truck in Tanzania in 2010.

African road systems tend to be poor: truck in Tanzania in 2010.

The success of a humanitarian intervention hinges on whether the relief goods arrive where they are needed fast enough. This is a logistical challenge. Rising to it also matters in purely financial terms. Logistics accounts for up to 80 % of the cost of an aid operation. By Helmut Baumgarten and Hendrik Blome

Humanitarian logistics encom­passes “all processes associated with planning, implementing  and monitoring the supply of relief goods, tools and personnel” (Baumgarten et al. 2010). Included are the provision of food, water, sanitation facilities and temporary shelters. Moreover, the flow of funds and information must also be ensured.

Whether logistics is intended to alleviate an acute humanitarian emergency or a permanent disaster is an important distinction. Acute emergency aid primarily focuses on providing quick relief to the places affected. The provision of supplies must be handled with flexibility, as success often depends on such flexibility. It is a less pressing concern to keeping the costs low. Even expensive interventions like air-dropping relief goods from airplanes can make sense.

For long-term operations, the prior­ities shift. Speed still matters, but supplier reliability, supply-chain stability and accurate delivery become increasingly relevant. Cost-effectiveness likewise counts. After all, funds not spent on logistics in a long-term operation can be used for other humanitarian purposes.

Permanent, slowly-unfolding disasters like hunger and poverty attract much less attention than sudden catastrophes. For relief workers, however, the principal objectives are to source and distribute relief goods in the right amounts in an appropriate time. For this purpose, programmes of governments and voluntary relief organisations must be coordinated well. Adequate infrastructure is needed, including storage facilities, transport hubs and fully-operational cold chains. A team of researchers at the Technische Universität Berlin is working on proposals to improve logistics to provide long-term support to hunger-stricken regions in Africa.

A lack of infrastructure

Especially in sub-Saharan Africa, logistic often fails due to the lack of infrastructure. Africa has considerably fewer roads than economically comparable regions in Southeast Asia or Latin America (Foster et al. 2009). In several Central African countries, for instance, only 20 % of the people live close to a road that can be used all year.  

Railway tracks typically only serve a single line from the coast to the interior of a country. Larger, cross-border networks are rare. The distribution of medication and food depends on cold chains, which often are not guaranteed in Africa. One reason is insufficient electricity supply. Accordingly, the “last mile” is a huge challenge when rural people need to be provided with relief goods.

Apart from infrastructure bottlenecks, logistics managers must cope with regulatory hurdles. Even getting access to a country where a humanitarian intervention is underway can prove difficult. In many cases, the regulations on the matter are not clear-cut. Many countries grant special access rights to major relief organisations such as the Red Cross or the World Food Programme (WFP), but smaller organisations frequently do not enjoy that privilege. Sometimes, their staff must enter a country with tourist visas, and that may cause additional worries when a visa needs to be extended.

Customs and duties often prove similarly problematic when aid agencies want to bring relief goods into a country. Moreover, the acceptance of relief supplies is sometimes delayed out of national pride or political convictions. “Tied aid” – aid with certain conditions on how it is procured and transported – further complicates logistics. For instance, a large share of food aid from the USA must be sourced in the USA and brought to the crisis region by an American transport company. Such rules result in slow procurement and, depending on the situa­tion in the disaster area, misallocation of resources.

A lack of expertise

The lack of basic and advanced training in sub-Saharan Africa logistics further compounds the problems. Only about 60 institutions in 23 of 49 countries even offer a university course in logistics. By comparison, more than 100 institutions were running academic courses on the matter in Germany in 2008.

For historical reasons, logistics is very seldom considered a relevant field of study in Africa. When most African countries gained their independence in the 1960s, they did not systematically collate knowledge in the transport sector. The consequences are still felt in every aspect of logistics today. Africa has only very few competent teachers and logistics experts who pass on their insights and hands-on experience to students.

Accordingly, bad investments and miscalculations mark Africa’s transport sector. Vehicle fleets tend to be mismanaged. Many itineraries are inefficient. The lack of technical expertise and knowledge of foreign languages exacerbates the problems. Logistics operators cannot read instruction manuals, so they do not handle things properly. As a result, maintenance costs rise.

It is a huge challenge to start new educational programmes. There are not enough classrooms and teaching ma­terials. The individual institutions that do offer logistics training in Africa barely cooperate with one another, and they definitely do not form a network. The same applies to commercial logistics companies, the managers of which have no platform for discussing current developments. Most training programmes are not in touch with logistics operators. Accordingly, they cannot take their needs into account.

Better training, however, would boost the capacity of African logistics systems in the medium and long term. It would serve the goal of helping Africa help itself. The knowledge and technology of commercial companies from the rich world must be transferred to Africa. Humanitarian aid itself could become more efficient and more effective by building on the knowledge, experience and technology of the private sector.  

In one project, the scholars from TU Berlin are doing research on 57 national and international haulage and shipping companies and other logistics providers. Of these firms, 30 have taken on humanitarian commitments, 16 have partnered with a humanitarian organisation and 22 only take action when acute disasters strike, mostly by transporting relief goods to the affected regions free of charge or at a discount.

In regions beset by permanent crises, long-term commitments are few and far between. Furthermore, most companies’ humanitarian commitments are handled by their Corporate Social Responsibility department, which is not connected to the company’s logistics management.

One of the goals of the Berlin-based researchers is to promote and improve such fundamentally positive commitments as are made by many logistics companies. This  needs to be done because only a few major aid organisations have the human resources to let their own staff plan logistics and implement things in humanitarian interventions.

Aid organisations have much to gain. They should not only view private-sector companies as sources of funding, but also as partners they can learn from. The strategies and approaches brought to bear in commercial logistics are not directly applicable to humanitarian logistics. However, there is a large body of knowledge from which aid organisations could benefit.

That can be accomplished by adapting the ideas, transport systems and communication methods of commercial logistics to the needs of humanitarian agencies. Moreover, interdisciplinary and advanced training in logistics must improve at the secondary and tertiary education levels. All relevant players should be connected. In Germany, the latter objective is supported by a network made up of scientists, relief organisations, private enterprises and a working group from the German Logistics Association.

The scholars at TU Berlin have identified some solutions to some of the problems listed above. For instance, they are cooperating with African universities and vocational-training institutions on courses to convey appropriate knowledge. Moreover, they are researching how African countries can improve their infrastructure and how the knowledge of international logistics companies can support that cause. It is essential, however, that none of the new proposals and measures disrupt traditional ways of providing for the people. In other words: incentives for local people to take their fates into their own hands must not be undermined.

Helmut Baumgarten is the founder of the logistics department at the Technische Universität (TU) Berlin, and he heads the “Humanitarian Logistics” research project. baumgarten@logistik.tu-berlin.de

Hendrik Blome conducts research on the same topic at TU Berlin. blome@logistik.tu-berlin.de