Humanitarian Logistics Has Come a Long Way Since I Picked Up the Phone

On Wednesday, September 13, 2001, two days after the tragedy of September 11, 2001, I received an unexpected call. Ricardo Robles, at that time a logistics executive for The Home Depot was phoning to see if I could help get empty pallets for an emergency warehouse that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) wad setting up nearby in New Jersey. Some of The Home Depot management team, including Ricardo, had been brought in to run the operation.

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I probably had 10,000 empty pallets sitting in the parking lot that belonged to my grocery industry employer, but they weren’t going to do me any good. The crazy thing was that I was located in Vancouver, Canada, clear across the continent. Ricardo, who I had come to know after he had by chance stopped at the Industrial Reporting booth at a ProMat trade show,  thought I might have some connections for getting a donation of pallets based on my relationship with Pallet Enterprise Magazine. I didn’t really, (my main focus was on pallet users) but posted the request on the Pallet Board that afternoon, and hoped for the best.

I hadn’t really thought about that incident in ensuing years, but it recently surfaced when I was looking at a book pertaining to the field of Humanitarian Logistics, which is basically the logistics of preparing and responding to disasters. I decided to call Ricardo, who now works in Florida as an account executive for Paramount Logistics. To be honest, Ricardo told me, he had no idea whether or not they actually found someone to donate empty pallets, or if it even turned out to be an issue. He said that things were highly chaotic at that time, with priorities changing in rapid order. He said there was a ridiculous amount of different authorities involved, and seemingly not a lot of coordination. At one point, the surprised warehouse even received a full trailer load of dog food, with the idea that there might be packs of displaced pooches wandering the streets. Ricardo wasn’t sure whatever happened to that dog food, but it was never deployed to the streets of Manhattan.

Not surprisingly, Ricardo observed, the most effective logistics took place when established commercial supply chain  channels were used, with loads of supplies such as plywood being shipped directly from The Home Depot facilities to the location requiring the product. He did not place any of the blame for the lack of coordination on FEMA, commenting that the agency, at that time, had never been intended for that type of operation.

Blame aside, Ricardo’s recollections of a lack of coordination resonate with the thesis of a recent book, Humanitarian Logistics: Meeting the Challenge of Preparing for and Responding to Disasters (2014). Authors Peter Tatham and Martin Christopher note that in 2012 alone, 124 million people had their lives disrupted by 357 natural disasters, resulting in almost 10,000 deaths. The book points out that when logistics systems underperform in business, customers may not get the products they need, and companies may lose money. When logistics systems fail in humanitarian efforts, people die.

When it comes to disaster relief, a lot of money is spent on logistics, to the tune of 60 percent to 80 percent of Human Relief Organization annual expenditures. Unfortunately, the book notes, donors often do not appreciate the importance of logistics and are reluctant to fund supply chain improvements. As a result, these groups have tended to lag in acquiring modern information and logistics systems that could help them be more effective in emergency response and ultimately in saving lives.

The Importance of Coordination and Cooperation

Ricardo’s recollections of relief coordination problems reflect problems that have been experienced all too commonly where the supply chains of too many relief organizations respond in uncoordinated efforts to disasters.

Over time, however, response is becoming increasingly professionalized, with greater cooperation between agencies. This is especially true of leading Human Relief Organizations such as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), World Vision and Oxfam.

This “Cluster Approach” of agencies responding to disasters has become a new best practice that helps deliver a more orderly response and more clearly defines leadership roles and accountability for various participants.  

Other Trends in Humanitarian Logistics

Humanitarian Logistics is becoming increasingly sophisticated, and is emerging as a professional field, now having its own professional publication, as well as certification opportunities for professionals. Certification in Humanitarian Supply Chain Management as well as Humanitarian Logistics Practices is now offered from the Fritz Institute, in conjunction with the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport (CILT).

There remains work to be done. In particular, the field still needs overall improvement in its capabilities for tracking supplies through the supply chain. In this regard, the Fritz Institute has developed specific Humanitarian Logistics software, which is used by the Red Cross.

While Humanitarian Logistics has made considerable gains, some researchers believe that the state of the field is at a point comparable to corporate logistics best practices circa the mid-1990s. The field can continue to benefit from the adoption of commercial sector best practices, where resources permit.