Aid and aid work

Without title by Chance Agrella

Scenario 1: a house in your town catches fire, killing one person and making 5 people homeless. As the logistics officer of your town’s emergency services, you are in charge of the logistics support for the initial response as well as for the physical support of the newly homeless people.

Scenario 2: you are still that town’s logistics officer, but now a gas explosion rips through an entire block. Ten people are killed instantly, tens are seriously wounded, and scores are made homeless.

Scenario 3: you did well in the previous two cases, and have been promoted to your state emergency services’ logistics position. Three days after you start your new job, a number of bush fires break out under very hot, dry, and windy conditions, and converge on your state’s capital. More than a hundred people are killed in the next three days, several hundreds are seriously wounded (swamping the hospitals’ emergency, IC, and surgical departments), and almost a thousand people are now without homes.

Scenario 4: as emergency logistics coordinator at your country’s ministry of internal affairs, you are confronted with a devastating earthquake that destroys large parts of the capital and trashes the main harbour and the two airports. First reports indicate over a thousand casualties, untold numbers of wounded, and up to a million people who are living in the streets under improvised shelters.

The impact of these four scenarios more or less follows a logarithmic scale: each is about ten times as big as the previous one. Does that mean that the logistics for each is ten times as difficult as the scenario that precedes it? Nothing like it: organising the logistics for scenario 2 will take considerably less resources than ten times scenario 1; but scenario 4 will take considerably more than 1000 times as much to respond to at the same level – and organising its response logistics is probably several thousands of times as difficult. In fact, it becomes a practical impossibility to offer the same level of response: there is no way that we can give all those casualties dignified burials, all those wounded top-notch medical care, get everyone who is made homeless under a solid roof within the day; even if we would have the resources to do so. Why does it become so difficult? Click here to read on.


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Humourless links for May 8, 2010

by Michael Keizer on May 8, 2010

'Liquid Links' by Desirae

[Image: Liquid Links by Desirae; some rights reserved.]


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  1. Tenacity. No, I did not put it there because I have been looking for an opportunity to use that word for as long as I can remember (although that is true): a lot of what we do in logistics needs long-term, relentless attention – you will need to follow through what you start in the long term.
  2. Patience. Hardly anything will happen as quickly as you might want to. The flip side of the tenacity is that you will need the patience to wait things out – which sometimes can take quite a while.
  3. Numeracy and maths skills. A lot of what we do requires a feel for numbers and some basic mathematical skills. You don’t have to be an operations research whizz (although a basic understanding might help), but you have no business working as a logistician if you don’t understand the sawtooth graph and its mathematical underpinnings, how it affects what we do, and how our decisions affect it in turn.
  4. A flair for administration and communication. Information management is immensely important for what we do. Without a certain facility with the underlying paperwork and with communicating the information, you will be less effective than you could be.
  5. Time management. As logisticians, we will always need to juggle several balls: it is rare that we can concentrate on one issue. If you don’t manage your time well, you are sure to drop one or more of those balls.
  6. The ability to delegate. You cannot do everything yourself. If you don’t know how to delegate (without abrogating your responsibilities), you will probably do more harm than good.
  7. The ability to ‘switch off’. People who cannot stop mulling over the daily problems and challenges when they go to bed are prime candidates for a burn-out. This is true for most aid professions, but especially for logisticians because logistics is usually a 24/7 process. I put in long hours, but most people I work with have learnt to respect that I prefer not to discuss work when I’m off.
  8. Language skills. You will hardly ever work in a country where everyone (or even a sizable majority) will speak your native language. Speaking more than one language helps, but what is even more important is a facility to quickly pick up the rudiments of a new language. Click here for more skills

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Latest job opportunities (May 4, 2010)

by Michael Keizer on May 4, 2010

[Image: Job opportunities by Coffeechica. Some rights reserved.]


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This morning’s round table teleconference on the 1 million shirts episode was an interesting experience: I don’t think a start-up charity initiative has ever been able to draw on such a wide array of aid expertise in one public venue (but I would be very happy to stand corrected on that). Some thoughts and impressions.

One million shirts as a confusing meme

I don’t think a charity has ever been propelled into meme status in such a short time frame. The problem with this is that there are actually five memes but that they all use “1 million shirts” as their catch phrase:

  1. The project and the organisation itself as a concept.
  2. The project (and similar projects) as a great idea on how to do good.
  3. The project (and similar projects) as a horrible idea that will not help and perhaps even harm the people it purports to help.
  4. The project as a good example on how to harness social media for a cause.
  5. The (possible) change in attitude and practice by the project and its founder in the face of the attention in the (social) media as an example of how scrutiny of aid might change for the good.

This confusion is one of the reasons why I have tried to avoid the hash tag #1millionshirts on Twitter. It seems to have seeped through into the meeting as well: from my perspective as an observer, it looked as if the participants came in with different ideas on which of these memes the convo would address. This has led to some cross-purpose dialogue, which in turn ate up a lot of the (very short) time that we had.

The beginnings of a conversation?

The main organiser, Katrin Verclas, told me in a tweet that “… the point of the call was really to have the beginnings of a CONVERSATION as opposed to twitter and blog shouts”. This was my expectation, too. However, conversations had already started before, and turned out to have advanced much further than I expected. In fact, they had outstripped anything that was going on during the call itself, superseding much of the discussion that occurred.

Does that make the meeting itself superfluous? I don’t think so. First of all, I have a strong suspicion that the then upcoming meeting catalysed at least one of the conversations, if not more; it put pressure on what otherwise could have been a very long and drawn-out process that might not have led to the same results. Secondly, I think it has been a great success as an experiment, giving us much to think about on how these convos can really help and how they can be done to best result.

So what has changed?

I don’t think the discussions during the call made much of a difference. As far as I could see, none of the positions grew any closer; any rapprochement had occurred before. Jason Sadler showed again his mastery of the media by getting Teddy Ruge and Marieme Jamme on board beforehand, but whether that will lead to real change remains to be seen. Judging from post-convo tweets and blog posts, both participants and audience mostly walked away with the same opinions they originally brought in.

My main worry, however, doesn’t deal with the participants or the audience: it concerns the two charities that originally advised Jason, H.E.L.P. International and They have a lot to answer for but did not participate. I am not aware whether or not they were in the audience, but if they were they did not identify themselves. My question is: did they and similar charities learn from this? What will be the reaction next time somebody knocks on a charity’s door with a well-intentioned but badly conceived idea? Has anything changed for them?

And for our next trick…

I think the round table was a great initiative, and I am truly grateful to the people who made it work. It has been an unprecedented event in the history of international aid (at least, as far as I know) and has given us much input for future similar events.

There are a couple of lessons for future, similar convos that I think we can take away from this meeting:

  • Plan more time. One hour is really too short to start a meaningful conversation on issues as complex as these. Of course, we have to deal (as almost always) with limited resources. Within those limitations, I think it is better to have just a few longer meetings than many short ones.
  • Be clear and extremely specific about the subject and goal of the meeting: not “1 million shirts”, but e.g. “how can use collected t-shirts more effectively”, or “how can we avoid that future well-meaning entrepreneurs make the same mistakes as 1 million shirts did”. This will at least partly avoid the confusion that I mentioned above.
  • Taking into account the subject and goal, decide who will be participants. Although I like the ‘unconference’ idea of wide participation, I think this does not work as well for a teleconference as for a physical meetup. Participants should be limited in number and selected for their role (e.g. Jason), specific expertise (e.g. Teddy), or both (e.g. TFtH). That does not mean that the audience should not have any input; but this should be moderated input via the … well, who else but the moderator; in fact, it would be a good idea to have a two-headed moderation team, so one person can concentrate on the discussion between the participants while the other can deal with the audience. Twitter seems to work well for this, but basically anything that can work as a back channel is fine.
  • Set a clear, specific agenda and stick to it. Make sure that all participants agree with the agenda (another reason why a limited number of known participants is important). When Katrin originally sent me the agenda, I thought it was fairly specific and clear (and I would assume she did as well). However, less than five minutes into the meeting it turned out that point 2 of the agenda (“Overview of 1 Million Shirts (Jason)/Goals and plan”) would not be covered at all because it had been superseded by events.
  • Moderate extremely strictly. Even in longer calls, time is precious and is easily wasted. Set strict time slots for each introductory presentation, impose time limits for questions and answers, don’t allow people to talk when not called upon by the moderator, ensure that people stick to the agenda contents and answer the questions asked instead of going on tangents, and ruthlessly mute anybody who does not play by the rules. Nobody will like you for it, but then, a moderator’s task is not to be liked.
  • Coverage of the meeting should go through several channels and be as ‘live’ as possible. I think the live tweeting by Linda Raftree and parallel use of an Etherpad was very helpful for audience engagement (especially those who did not have access to live audio), and something similar should be planned for future convos.

Other thoughts?

This has been an interesting and possibly revolutionary event. I have jotted down some of my thoughts, but I am sure that many of you will have very different or additional ideas. Please fire away in the comments!

More reading

The audio of the meeting can be downloaded from Katrin’s blog, Things I like (which, BTW, is a title I like); there is a transcript on Unicef’s Etherpad, and you can find live tweets in Linda Raftree’s twitter stream. A tweet archive with all tweets marked #1millionshirts can be found at Twapperkeeper. Rachel in Goma comes up with the first original idea after the convo of how Jason could do an incredible amount of good. Saundra Schimmelpfennig wonders whether there will ever be an end to well-intended but ill-informed ventures like this (my take: no, but that doesn’t mean we should give up the fight). Danielle at Ecoblips muses on some of the more negative lessons from the convo; Linda responds with the positive.


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Round table teleconference on the T-shirt affair

by Michael Keizer on April 30, 2010

The day after I published my post on gifts in kind, a minor eruption rocked the aid blog-and-twitterverse: a new charity tried to get 1 million t-shirts to ‘Africa’. See the gifts-in-kind post at the bottom for more information.

Katrin Verclas from MobileActive has graciously organised a round table teleconference in which one of the initiators as well as a number of experienced aid wonks will participate. In Katrin’s words:

Here are the details:

Friday, April 30 at noon Eastern Time/US.  Log in online at and use code 3979111. The call-in number is  866 740 1260 / 3979111.  Alternative number is 303-248-0285.  Local numbers can be found at (though, unfortunately, Liberia is not on the list, but skype call-in works)

We will be talking with you all (I hope!), Jason Sadler of One Million Shirts, @talesfromthhood, @tmsruge, Christopher Fabian (@unickf) and Erica Kochi (@uniemk) of UNICEF, @penelopeinparis, Laura Seay (@texasinafrica), and anyone else who would like to join in about this project, sustainable and responsible aid work, and the questions that the #1millionshirt project has raised about aid and development.  We expect this to be a lively but respectful conversation in the spirit of a fruitful conversation. Please join us.

Suggested agenda for the 1-hour call:

  • Introductions of roundtable participants
  • Overview of 1 Million Shirts (Jason)/Goals and plan
  • Comments from the aid community and response/local manufacturers/others
  • Discussion and questions/comments from the audience (submitted through Ready Talk online to keep it manageable)
  • Closing remarks

This promises to be a very interesting meeting, for which I will gladly give up a night’s sleep (it will start 2 AM local time where I live). Join the discussion and see how we can turn this into a project that will really help some people.

[Image: King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.]


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Humourless links for April 28, 2010

by Michael Keizer on April 28, 2010

[Image: Liquid Links by Desirae; some rights reserved.]


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Latest job opportunities (April 26, 2010)

by Michael Keizer on April 26, 2010

[Image: Job opportunities by Coffeechica. Some rights reserved.]


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The unkindest cut: why gifts in kind are often a bad idea

by Michael Keizer on April 24, 2010

The Park House Club in Cardiff, wrapped as a gift - Howard Dickins

Over the last couple of months, a lot has been written about old shoes, a.k.a. gifts in kind (GiK). Most commenters seem to agree that they are only appropriate in a fairly limited number of narrowly defined situations. Over at Tales From the Hood, J. has come up with two preconditions for GiK to be acceptable: they should fit programme design (instead of vice versa) and they should directly address the needs in the field. Of course, J. is correct as ever, but I do think that in this case he is not exhaustive. I will use the five rights of logistics to add to the list.

The right goods

Both J.’s preconditions are linked to this one. Of course, they should fit the needs of the people we are trying to serve, and that implies that the programme should fit these needs and that the goods delivered in turn should fit the programme. Another issue to keep in mind here is that they should also fit the way your organisation works: if nobody knows how to work that donated doodad, it could fit your programme like a glove but it would still be utterly useless.

The right quantity

GiK hardly ever come in the quantities needed: either too much or too little. In the former case, the challenges of dealing with the surplus could more than negate the advantages of receiving the gifts. In any case, it would be a good idea not to accept more GiK than are needed for the programme[1]. If the GiK are not sufficient to cover the full need of the programme, the extra cost having to buy and handle smaller amounts of goods from multiple sources need to be taken into account as well.

The right location

Often, there are local or regional sources of the same goods that are donated. Obviously, these goods will be available at the programme location much faster and much more cheaply than the donated goods ever can be.

The right time

For most programmes, timing is crucial. An item can be really needed at some stage, arrive in just the right quantity and be available at the right spot, but if it arrives too late it will be as useless as a recipe for lumbard mustard for McDonald’s. If it arrives too early, it will needlessly clog up storage space (which is an important consideration in many of our programmes). It is hardly ever possible to time GiK correctly.

The right price

GiK are, as the name implies, free.

Well, no, actually they aren’t. There are serious costs connected to GiK: costs when organising collection and reception, cost when handling and shipping, costs when using. Good examples are the costs for the organisation of collection points, for bundling and preparation for shipping, for cleaning and repair, and for maintenance in the field. Similar costs are, of course, connected to goods bought from donated money; but almost always these costs are much lower than for GiK – sometimes so much cheaper that, all in all, it can be cheaper to buy them new than to pay for the costs to process the GiK.

Most people understand that this is the case when comparing local goods with GiK: obviously, it is quite possible that the cost of shipping items from Freetown, Kentucky to Freetown, Liberia could be more than the full price of the same item bought on the local market. However, this could also be true for items bought in (in this case) the US. This comes as a surprise for many people: how can it be cheaper to buy e.g. medicines locally and ship them over, than to have those drugs donated at the exact same spot for free? Yet this is true quite often, caused by e.g.:

  • having to combine items from various locations instead of shipping it directly from one location (the supplier’s);
  • use of standardised items designed for cheap and simple transport, e.g. because they are lighter, can be nested or because a multiple fits exactly in a standard shipping container;
  • being able to easily consolidate shipments, leading to lower shipping costs;
  • having to deal with reverse logistics after early expiry of goods (i.e. earlier than newly bought goods).

Gifts in kind are not always kind

Time to out one of my darker secrets: back in my younger days, I have been involved in a drive to collect gifts in kind for Romanian orphanages (after the revolution of 1989). I was highly disappointed and slightly upset when none of the large aid organisations wanted to accept our goods. Now, half a lifetime later, I understand why they did so. Gifts in kind can be the right thing – but often they aren’t. Both donors (when giving or organising drives) and aid organisations (when accepting the gifts) should keep this in mind – and logisticians have a special responsibility for explaining the issues.

Update (April 28): I hardly turned my back (had a long day of lectures and didn’t read my Twitter stream) or a new GiK initiative crops up. This time, somebody want to get 1,000,000 shirts to ‘Africa’. A good analysis of the goods and bads can be found on Amanda Makulec’s blog (and it is of course always nice to called a “development logistics guru”); Aid Thoughts has a rather snarkier take on things; Tales From the Hood comments on the rather aggressive media strategy of the founder (which basically seems to come down to, “let’s get this discussion off from the internet ASAP”); Texas In Africa lists better alternatives.

Update 2 (April 30): There are now more than 30 blog posts written about the whole 1 million shirts kerfuffle. A selection of the most interesting ones:

[Image: The Park House Club in Cardiff, wrapped as a gift by Howard Dickins. Some rights reserved.]


Back to post [1] Of course, this is true for gifts in money, too, but I leave that fish for others to fry.


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Some time ago, I wrote about SIPRI’s report on the link between humanitarian aid transporters and the (illegal) arms trade. Recently, SIPRI has followed up and started, what they call a ‘clearinghouse’ for information about transporters being used by the humanitarian community. This is definitely an interesting development, and a direct contradiction of a particularly lame comment from MSF’s Gerald Massis, “It’s like you hire a taxi. After your trip you don’t know what they do afterwards.”

Sadly, I cannot get access because I am currently not connected to a “bona fide organisation engaged in humanitarian relief, crisis response or peace support-related activities” (whatever they may mean by ‘bona fide’), so I cannot really comment on the contents of the database. I would appreciate comments from any reader who does have access (anonymous comments welcome).


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