Logistics ignored in disaster relief

With frustration, however, we see that there is a gap between the event and when supplies actually reach people in need.


In the case of Haiti, the infrastructure was completely destroyed. The main port and airport were not operational for the first 48 hours, making it impossible for aid to enter the country. Once the airport’s runway was operational, there was chaos prioritizing which planes should land.

Even after aid was on land, debris blocked roads with no available equipment to clear them. This is the conundrum that’s plaguing relief workers and frustrating and confusing those donating money for recovery.

Innocently, donors earmark funds solely for supplies rather than infrastructure and logistics.

Unless this changes, disaster after disaster, we will continue to see a breakdown between when supplies arrive and when they reach people in need.

Investing only in supplies is similar to having most of the pieces of a car, but having neither the tools nor people needed for assembly. We end up with pieces and no operational whole.

This is the same for humanitarian logistics. Unless we invest in and plan for people, equipment, and infrastructure, the best-intentioned response will continue to be late and ineffective.

There is a smarter way of doing this.

For example, investing just $10 out of $100 into an inventory management system and other infrastructure could allow relief organizations to deliver goods and services on time to those in need compared to spending the entire $100 on goods.

This allowance for “smart overhead” will require a fundamental shift in thinking for donors, organizations and others.

What can you do? Individuals can continue to support charities but mark some donations as “flexible” so that organizations can respond to immediate needs while preparing for what is to come.

Selecting one organization over another just because it has a slightly lower overhead rate is short-sighted. Those organizations may not necessarily be the best positioned to save lives when the next disaster hits.

Private industry can partner with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to improve processes and build human capacity for better logistics operations.

As an example, UPS is providing CARE-USA with industry experts who help advise the NGO on its global supply chain system.

Foundations and large donors can earmark funds to improve the supply chain system or promote collaborations among NGOs, academia, industry and government, which can lead to game-changing shifts in operations.

Here’s an example: An NGO collaborates with experts to develop a system to analyze procurement, routing and inventory so that their disaster planning is scalable across all offices.

The international humanitarian community can consider jointly financing expensive assets, such as debris removal equipment that can assist in last-mile delivery in a disaster.

NGOs also need to work with neutral parties to develop measures that consider the efficiency gains in the long run from smart overhead or the trade-off between dollars spent and the benefit achieved.

Government can develop approaches to collaboratively improve infrastructure to be sustainable in the long term — for example, building better roads to serve the population as well as resort areas.

Imagine the payoff if we’d invested smartly in the Louisiana levies. Infrastructure investment matters in dollars and, most importantly, lives.

The authors are co-directors at the Center of Focused Research on Health and Humanitarian Logistics, and professors in the Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering at Georgia Tech.

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