Book review: ‘Humanitarian logistics’ by Tomasini and Van Wassenhove – a missed chance — Logistics for health and aid - A Humourless Lot

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Book review: ‘Humanitarian logistics’ by Tomasini and Van Wassenhove – a missed chance

by Michael Keizer on November 9, 2009

If you have followed this blog, you will know that I am very much in favour of more academic input into our logistics efforts. As you can imagine, I was tickled pink when I saw the ads for a new book about humanitarian logistics, written by respected INSEAD academics Rolando Tomasini and Luk Van Wassenhove.

Let me not mince words here: I am disappointed. Expectations are high when a prestigious university like INSEAD releases a book under its own impressum, but those expectations are not met – not even closely. The reason actually is made clear in the first paragraph of the book. The authors describe their experience in humanitarian logistics on which they base the book: case studies they did for WFP/UNJLC, the IFRC, and FUNDESUMA. In other words, they base a book about humanitarian logistics in general on limited experience with three organisations that are very unrepresentative of the sector as a whole. This has clear effects throughout the book: although they do make some valid observations (especially when they talk about partnering with the private sector, which is clearly their focus), much of what they describe is over-simplified, or even dead wrong.

All three of the organisations they worked with (especially the IFRC and FUNDESUMA) have a focus on disaster aid, which obviously skewed their view severely. It leads to occasionally ridiculous assertions; a good example is that, according to Tomasini and Van Wassenhove, in humanitarian supply chains “… time cycles are very short [and] new and unprecedented demands occur frequently …” (p. 8). Definitely true in some types of humanitarian response – specifically disaster response – but totally untrue of many other types. When the authors describe the characteristics of a humanitarian supply line (ch. 1), they very clearly have a specific type of humanitarian response in mind; a type of response that in reality makes up a minority of humanitarian work.

Chapter 5, which is devoted to information management (which people who know me will immediately recognise as one of my personal hobby horses), goes as far as basically describing the SUMA model (with a bit of info about UNJLC’s website thrown in for good measure) as the paradigm to follow, without recognising that it is totally inappropriate for a majority of humanitarian aid work. A bit of scrutiny of e.g. would have been useful to inform this chapter.

The book comes into its own in chapter 7, about partnerships between humanitarian and corporate organisations. It is very obvious that this is what the authors are experts in, and it is the most useful and well-written chapter of the book. Sadly, that is not enough to justify its rather inflated price.

All in all, this is a missed chance. Gentlemen, I just know you can do better: get to it.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Olaf Pots November 10, 2009 at 6:19 am

Thanks Michael,
Had the book on my desk for a while now and know where to focus now!


Tielman Nieuwoudt November 19, 2009 at 5:27 pm

Hi Michael, good blog I have bookmarked it. I read the book and thought it was interesting. Are you aware of any books that focuses on the logistics of social products? e.g. Vitamins, condoms. Most of the material available only seem to focus on the social marketing aspects with logistics very much taking a backseat.


Michael Keizer November 19, 2009 at 5:40 pm

Thanks, Tielman.

A good source for logistics of social products is USAID/Deliver (formerly JSI/Deliver). Probably their general logistics information will be a bit too basic for you, but e.g. their Family Planning Logistics Handbook can give you a good idea of contraceptive logistics.


Nigel Snoad November 25, 2009 at 3:59 am


having been the subject of some of their work (having been the Information Manager at UNJLC) and also having conducted an evaluation of SUMA for PAHO I’d have to say that I agree with your comments. I had fun working with Luk and Rolando, but we often disagreed about the conclusions and motivations for collaboration and cooperation.

Now I need to get the book and have a close read. One thing that I find interesting about both the UNJLC and SUMA scenarios/models is that they are explicitly about interagency logistics and logistics coordination – as you point out most often in disaster response.

As you know this is often a VERY different problem from how to manage an effective and useful supply chain for an ongoing humanitarian operation involving a single agency, or even a group of agencies (e.g. UNJLC in Darfur). I’ve spent enough time being bitchslapped by my righteous MSF friends to think that this is ever easy either – but it requires a different set of monitoring and information tools and approaches, particularly to sustainability.

But I think that it’s the decision making capabilities that are most often lacking (as Paul Currion repeatedly points out). We go around in circles about how much of this is due to poor information and systems. I’d say that it’s actually about the motivation to continue any system beyond the tenure of a single individual. How did the processes for visibility and reflection/improvement you’ve mentioned continue after you left Chad?

Which means we’re back to – how do we create and sustain doctrine? How do we make it matter?


Michael Keizer November 25, 2009 at 6:36 am

Thanks, Nigel!

Yes, I totally agree that inter-agency coordination is what UNJLC and SUMA are good at, and that it is very important. In fact, I have an article on that subject planned for the very near future, courtesy of an extremely interesting doctoral thesis that I stumbled across a couple of weeks back.

I think that you make a very important point here: different horses for different courses. What is appropriate for an acute disaster response with lots of unsolicited donations coming in (SUMA) is not necessarily appropriate for a sustained, long-time planned humanitarian campaign. The issue with the book is that Tomasini and Van Wassenhove have taken one specific type of humanitarian response as typical and representative of all that we do, even though it is actually not what we do most often. But even in disaster circumstances, the SUMA model will become less and less relevant as we try to move away of unplanned donations (another subject for an upcoming article).

And yes, I totally agree with you that our decision making capabilities are a big issue — but I think the crux is that we are not only going around in circles in attribution: I think it is actually a vicious circle, in which piss-poor information (management) breeds a new generation of managers who are not trained to use the information we have, and hence are not interested in better information management, and consequently don’t invest in or promote it, which lead to even poorer information, which leads to a new generation… well, you see the problem. This is actually one of the reasons why I maintain this site: perhaps some people here and there are influenced, and if we get enough people to work on this we might actually break that vicious cycle. Hey, a man can dream, no?

(As an aside: this vicious cycle is not only present in information management; you can see similar mechanisms in almost any aspect of humanitarian logistics management. A couple of organisations seem to be in the process of extricating themselves from it, of which, as far as I can see from the outside, WFP is definitely one, but most of us still go round and round, wearing out nice little circles for our successors to follow.)

The experience I described in the East African country (no, that was not Chad, BTW) was actually quite interesting in that the organisation did manage to continue on the path that was set out until the moment they left, about four years later. I think there were two main reasons for that:
1. I vested the responsibility for it in our local staff, specifically our local supply manager, who turned out to have a terrific flair for this sort of thing. This meant that we were less dependent on transient international staff.
2. I had the good fortune to have a long-time country director who actually saw what we gained and adopted my supply policy and procedures as a formal policy for the mission — and spit fire at any international staff member coming through who wanted to change things yet again.

As you point out. these are crucial issues, and I will write about them at more length in future articles. I must say that I am very happy to read that I am not the only one ‘calling in the desert’, and that more and more colleagues are convinced that we cannot go on as we have done up to now. I am sure that we can be at the start of an immense improvement on humanitarian logistics over the next years if we are able to create sufficient impetus now.


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