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'Wooden Firehouse' courtesy of Free Range Stock Photos

Update July 4: Andrew points out a linguistic complication: in English, the adjective professional has a much wider meaning than the noun professional; in other words, one can be a professional without acting professionally. So please, read the article with this in mind and replace ‘a professional’ with ‘acting professionally’ where appropriate.

The ever-excellent Linda Raftree recently wrote an article about amateurs, professionals, innovations and smart aid. In it, she sketches in its extreme form two diametrically opposed views of volunteers and professionals: on the one extreme, volunteers are seen as well-meaning but utterly useless do-gooders who potentially do more damage than good, while on the other hand professionals are seen as useless ballast who are in no way capable of doing what they claim to do and who weigh down agile, smart new initiatives from volunteers.

I think that one of the big issues here is the conflation of amateur and volunteer, and of salaried aid worker and professional. In my view, being a volunteer does not automatically imply that you are an amateur, and some of the salaried aid workers out there are not professionals at all. I would say that there probably is a correlation between your contract status and your position on the amateur-professional continuum (although I have no evidence to back that up – just personal observation), but there is definitely no hard-wired link. What makes a professional? And are volunteers by definition amateurs? Read on…

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'Dollar origami 4' by Piotr Bizior

The 1 million T-shirts saga goes on.

I really, really would wish that we could all just say that the T-shirt guys learned from what happened and we could move on to more rewarding issues. In fact, I thought exactly that had happened, and hadn’t spent even the shortest tweet on it for several weeks – and then they posted this blog post. Go and read. And cry.

Yes, that is right. They want to support what is probably the most badly conceived anti-child-trafficking initiative ever. I am not going to tire you here with why it is such a bad idea (others have done an admirable job on that, e.g. this post by Amanda Kloer, which was written well before the T-shirts ever came up). What I do want to draw attention to is that, evidently, Jason still has not learnt that it might be a good idea to stop and think before jumping off –  and preferably only do so while being informed by best practice and evidence.

Obviously, he was taken aback a bit by the criticisms and quickly took the post down, tweeting that he did so for ‘due diligence’. Perhaps it should be pointed out here that ‘due diligence’ is normally understood as something done before the proverbial shit hits the proverbial fan. If you do this afterwards, it is more properly known as ‘negligent laziness’. Why do I go on a rant about this? Click to read on.

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'Billiard Ball Number 11' by Kimeone @ stock.xchng
  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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'T Shirts', courtesy of Billy Alexander.

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 WaterIsLife.com. 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 1millionshirts.org 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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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.]

Footnote

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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In my first article on 3PL, I explored the concept and some of its advantages and disadvantages. In this article, I will explain why I think 3PL will become more and more important for global health and aid.

The push for economy

Rightly or wrongly (and if you followed this blog you know where I stand on that question), there is a big push from donors to economise on ‘HQ’ or ‘overhead’. This means that the pressure is on to decrease the size of departments in headquarters, including logistics departments[1]. Conversely, when there is a crisis, it is fairly easy to get donors to fund the necessary extra capacity that is needed specifically for that crisis. This fits very well with the 3PL model: when there is a crisis, we can quickly ‘buy’ additional capacity.

Of course, this is sound thinking anyway, even apart from donor pressure: why would you want to pay for capacity when it’s not necessary? Large logistics departments are often legacies from a different era, when it was normal to have everything in-house and outsourcing was unheard of.

The move to urbanised settings

A tricycle-truck in Liaocheng, by Frank StarmerAs more of the world’s population is concentrated in urbanised areas, more of our work is done in those areas too. Especially in aid, the idea that our work would take us mostly to out-of-the-way locations in the bush, is thoroughly antiquated: more and more, we work in the shantytowns, slums, barrios, favelas, or whatever they might be called. Local 3PL contractors (see the picture to the right for a good example) are at an advantage here compared to having our own transport fleet. Specifically for aid activities, an added bonus is that we pour more money in the local economy instead of using the iconic, imported white landcruiser.

But even more conventional 3PL providers have an edge here: unlike in many more rural areas, they do have a presence in and knowledge of most cities and many towns. I haven’t worked in any capital yet in which they were not represented, and very few larger towns.

New models of cooperation

Many 3PL providers are actively trying to acquire knowledge of and expertise in fields that were traditionally the preserve of specialised organisations like NGOs and ministries of health. They see large growth opportunities and are keen to get on board, learning as they go in order to be able to deliver better quality than the competition. This also means that they are prepared to cooperate in new ways, using new models that are a better fit with global health and aid work; e.g. temporarily stationing staff within a logistics unit to improve support and communication, or helping to make information systems interoperable (something I will write more about in the next article in this miniseries). For us, this is a big opportunity to improve our effectiveness and efficiency by using what the providers offer in the way of expertise and (not unimportantly)  funds and operations scale.

Where this will lead us

It will be clear that the use of 3PL can have big advantages for global health and aid. However, to be able to use the opportunities that are offered, we will need to work hard on some of our outlooks and practices. In the next article in this series, I will describe what this will mean for how we work.

[Images by Erik Söderström and C. Frank Starmer. Some rights reserved.]

Footnote

Back to post [1] This is actually becoming a bit less of an issue for health authorities now that there is more attention for ‘systems strengthening’. Perversely, it is actually becoming more important for aid organisations.

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Lancing a boil? The Lancet on the aid industry

by Michael Keizer on January 23, 2010

Various scalpels When a leading professional journal like The Lancet writes an editorial that is scathingly critical of aid organisations, people sit up and pay attention. And scathing it is: according to the article, large aid agencies are “[p]olluted by the internal power politics and the unsavoury characteristics seen in many big corporations”, and “… can be obsessed with raising money through their own appeal efforts”. They “… sometimes act according to their own best interests rather than in the interests of individuals whom they claim to help” because “… humanitarianism is no longer the ethos for many organisations within the aid industry”. The result: “… relief efforts in the field are sometimes competitive with little collaboration between agencies, including smaller, grass-roots charities that may have have better networks in affected counties and so are well placed to immediately implement emergency relief.”

Wow. That is quite something. The point of all this seems to be in these two sentences:

Given the ongoing crisis in Haiti, it may seem unpalatable to scrutinise and criticise the motives and activities of humanitarian organisations. But just like any other industry, the aid industry must be examined, not just financially as is current practice, but also in how it operates from headquarter level to field level.

Allow me to make five observations here. The first is that The Lancet does not offer any evidence to back up their claims. They might be right, they might be wrong – but without the evidence we will never know.

Secondly, I happen to think they make valid points, which are sadly invalidated by the way they are phrased as blanket statements. Organisations, including aid organisations, are not monoliths and exhibit widely divergent behaviour on different occasions. The same organisation that acts disgracefully on one occasion can be a beacon of selfless and ethical behaviour in another setting; sometimes even at the same time. Obviously this holds true even more when one makes this sort of pronouncements across a whole industry.

Thirdly, the article conflates all types of aid into one, prescribing humanitarianism as the overriding principle for all aid. The authors ignore that not all aid is humanitarian aid; e.g. bilateral reconstruction aid or nation-building aid has nothing to do with humanitarianism, unless one would stretch the concept to a point where it becomes meaningless. I am writing an article on typologies of aid (and let me tell you, it is not easy going) because this sort of conceptual confusion is actually quite common and leads to meaningless discussions.

Fourth, shorn of its rhetoric, The Lancet makes a valid point when they say that more scrutiny of the sector would be beneficial. The critiques that I have seen up to now are mostly (perhaps even almost exclusively) very superficial, and are for a large part either hagiographic on the one hand or bludgeoningly hypercritical on the other; and most of them are thin on evidence (more so when looking at emergency and humanitarian aid than development aid). It is high time for more critical scrutiny that is balanced and based on evidence, mainly because it could be a catalyst for huge improvements in our practices.

Fifth, I am disappointed by a lack of suggestions for improvement. It is easy to be critical, but then please tell us what and how we can improve – and in slightly more detail than that we need to ‘coordinate better’. I am not suggesting that should have been in the same article – after all, an editorial has its limits – but as it was published in a special issue on violent conflict and health, there would have been ample space for a more in-depth article in that same issue, spelling out how to get the sector to the next level. Sadly, the editors did not do so.

All in all, I think the editorial suggests rightly that more scrutiny is necessary – but that point is sadly overshadowed by the article’s conceptual fallacies, lack of evidence for its claims, and general emphasis on rhetoric over content.

Update: sparked by some comments and pushed by some of my ‘followers’ (how I hate that word) on Twitter, I sent an edited version of this comment to The Lancet as ‘correspondence’. After several weeks, I received a polite form letter saying that they could not publish it for reasons that remained unexplained. So much for The Lancet.

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Over at his blog Wanderlust, Tris Clements questions whether sending in SAR teams is the wisest way to spend our resources:

If, as is generally shown, SAR teams can only hit the ground after 48 hours, and are only saving a few dozen lives in any given reponse [sic], is this a worthwhile use of funding? Should the media continue to carry such high-profile stories and continue to justify this as the best way forward in an emergency? Had an additional 1,200 medical staff and equipment been flown in to Port-au-Prince instead, how many people could they have treated, how many life-threatening wound infections treated, how many shock-managing IV drips inserted, in the last three or four days? Thousands? Tens of thousands?

These are important and relevant questions. However, I think Tris leaves out an important part of the equation: why do we actually send out these SAR teams?

Part of it can be found in an intriguing comment in response to my blog post on the logistics of emergency response: commenter rob_s suggests to send local people involved in emergency preparedness in developing countries to disasters like Haiti earthquake, so they can learn from and experience firsthand the lessons learned.

This is exactly how many of the developed countries who have sent SAR teams think. It is not only altruism, or even a PR exercise, but also a valuable opportunity for these teams to train and learn, so they are better able to respond when something similar happens in their own countries. In that sense, one should add the lives saved by better preparedness in future disasters to the lives saved now; but it will be obvious that any estimate of how many lives we are talking about is no more than a guess, educated or otherwise.

Tris’ questions are still very relevant, and the answer is still likely to be that the resources spent on foreign SAR teams could be spent better elsewhere; but the arithmetic is a bit more complicated than he makes it out to be.

[Image: Fairfax County Urban Search and Rescue at Montana Hotel in Port-au-Prince, by Chuck Simmins. Some rights reserved.]

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Logistics questions around the Haiti earthquake

by Michael Keizer on January 16, 2010

Perhaps unsurprisingly (although it did surprise me, for reasons that I will explain later), I have received a lot of questions about the logistics of the Haiti response. Some of the most frequently asked questions, with a stab at some answers.

But first: although I am on standby for Haiti, I am not there, so everything that I say here specifically about the situation there is only second-hand, from what I hear from friends and colleagues and from what I read in the media.

And secondly: this is not a crash course in emergency logistics, nor will it be very helpful for the logisticians who are there or will be going there. If anything that you read here is new to you, you have no business of going to Haiti as a logistician (unless you will be supervised there by people who do know).

Why is logistics in Haiti so much more difficult than in other disasters?

It isn’t. Really, not at all.

Every sudden-onset disaster causes similar logistics problems. The 2004 tsunami, the earthquakes in China and Iran, even hurricane Katrina in the US: in all of these cases logistics was the main limiting factor for aid.

A painful truth that you will not hear spelled out very often: emergency aid in these circumstances is totally dependent on local preparation, and any aid that that will come from outside the area will be largely ineffective until the logistics has been cleared up – which is usually only after several days in the most favourable circumstances. This is why disaster preparedness is so important, and it is also a main reason why countries like Haiti, which don’t have much capacity for disaster preparedness in the first place, are always so badly hit when the (inevitable) disaster strikes. It is also why expectations of what aid will accomplish over the next couple of days should not be set very high (and why twits like this guy, or this nitwit, should seriously shut up until they know what they are talking about – and that I use these harsh terms here, which I have never done before, should say something).

So why do I hear so much more about logistics now than in previous disasters?

I think you are asking the wrong person (I am a logistics specialist and have no clue about media), but I have observed two parallel developments over the last couple of years that might have contributed:

  1. For the second time in the history of modern of humanitarian aid (the first time was in the early 1980s), aid organisations have been refocussing on logistics as a core competence for aid. Especially the 2004 tsunami was a rude shock for many established organisations, who had become complacent about their logistics capacities and had stopped investing in it – and as a result operated at (to put it in friendly terms) less than optimal levels of effectiveness. Since then, logistics capacity is again increasingly seen as a sine qua non for effective aid, and emergency aid organisations are (again) talking about it as a key competency – also to the media.
  2. Also outside of the organisations themselves, people started to become interested in humanitarian logistics, and there has been much more coverage of it. Recently there have been a number of  books on the subject released, universities have started taking an interest in it as a subject of serious research (and teaching), aid watchers have put the occasional spotlight on aid logistics, and bloggers have started writing about it (with even the occasional blog totally dedicated to the subject). All this has contributed to more attention in the press and the public at large to aid logistics, and I think we now see the first results in the huge attention for the logistics in Haiti.

In that case, what are the main logistics challenges in disasters like this?

Remember, logistics is all about the five rights: the right goods, in the right quantity, to the right place, at the right time, at the right price. One of the main issues here (and one that I have seen very little coverage of) is that in a chaotic situation like this we just don’t know what are the right goods, the right quantities, or even the right place. Needs assessment is incredibly difficult, especially in view of how difficult it is to access some areas.

“So”, I hear you say, “just send as much as possible of everything, and we’ll sort things out later”. That would be a very nice idea, if we weren’t already struggling with overburdened and disrupted infrastructure (more about that later); everything that we send that is not needed, means that we cannot send something that is needed. This is a precarious juggling act, and although logisticians have some tools to deal with it (e.g. the much-vaunted kit system, a development from the 1980s first aid logistics revolution – but one that is nearing the end of its shelf life, for reasons that I will explain at some other time), it is still the major forgotten logistics challenge.

Furthermore, unused goods can become a serious liability after the crisis; e.g. the Indonesian government had to spend untold millions of dollars on disposal of unwanted goods after the 2004 tsunami, causing a serious burden on the reconstruction.

A second issue that is under-reported, is the logistics of logistics: logistics is an immensely fuel-hungry venture (think cars, think trucks, think planes and helicopters, think generators), and getting the fuel where it is needed is not easy. In this sense, Haiti will probably be rather easier than most crises, due to the proximity of two of the largest oil producing countries in the world, and the largest navy fleet in the world; expect one or more of the US Navy’s Brobdingnagian supply ships to turn up soon with large fuel stores.

A third main issue is the wide-spread destruction of physical infrastructure. Port-au-Prince’s harbour at the moment is effectively useless, the airport (not one with a very high capacity in the first place) is damaged, and roads are destroyed and blocked. Large transport helicopters would be immensely helpful but are by far the most fuel-guzzling mode of transport (there we go again with the juggling act) and are not that easy to get there because of their limited operational range; e.g. an Mi-26 (carrying 20 tonnes) ranges only 800 kilometres, which can be extended to 1900 kilometres using additional fuel tanks – but that would seriously impact on its load carrying capacity.

In the fourth place, communications will be difficult. Over the last years, aid organisations have become more and more reliant on telephone communications, and these will be disrupted and overburdened. Many organisations have lost their expertise in radio communications (five years ago, I could program and set up a Q-mac, a backpack-sized mobile HF transceiver, in ten minutes flat, three minutes if it was pre-programmed; I now would need a manual and at least 30 minutes), and many of their staff have no clue about radio protocol – which sounds boring but is absolutely necessary to prevent total chaos on your radio channels. As a result, communication will be a real challenge.

Fifth is coordination. There will be such a host of different organisations on the ground that it will be difficult to ensure that we don’t duplicate efforts (well, duplicate as little as possible). Even more important is to avoid hindering each other, e.g. by using the available infrastructure inefficiently, causing congestion. This is one of the reasons why I would seriously suggest smaller organisations and individuals (especially those that have no previous experience in emergency response) to stay away and not even consider going there before the third stage response starts to set in (probably in about two weeks). For the people on the ground, this means going to coordination meetings. People who have worked with me know that I mostly consider these as a waste of time (I think using personal networks is almost always much more effective and efficient) – but the one main exception is during the first phases of an emergency response. So yes, even in situations like this, humanitarian logistics will involve long hours in airless rooms trying to come to agreements and exchanging information; sorry to prick your romantic bubble.
Update January 17, 10 AM AEDST Apart from going to the coordination meetings, of course it is essential that aid logisticians use and contribute to the information on the log cluster web site.

And then there is the longer term to think of. Decisions taken now can have serious repercussions later, and this is something that every loggie worth their salt will continuously have in the back of their mind. The last thing you want to happen is saving a life now, but costing multiple lives later on in the response.

Apart from these six primary ones, there is a host of secondary issues that I will not bore you with, but that will cause my colleagues in the field more than one heartache.

Any good news?

Well, I already mentioned the proximity of Venezuela and the US. One other thing that will make my colleagues’ lives a bit easier is that, although the number of victims is staggering, the geographical spread of the disaster is relatively limited (compared to e.g. the South China, Pakistan, and Iran earthquakes), so once we can get them there and the fuel issue is solved, widespread use of helicopters actually is a realistic option. And finally, the neighbouring Dominican Republic has been spared the worst of the disaster and can be used as a staging ground for the response.

So what can I do?

For this stage of the response, not much. Donating money (not goods!) to a reputable aid organisation with expertise in emergency response and a pre-existing presence on the ground might help for the longer term, but in the short term the needs seem to be met. Keep on giving, but with an eye on the longer term.

Don’t go out there. You cannot help and will only be a burden to the people who can. The only exception is if you are a humanitarian or military logistician with experience in emergency response, in which case I would suggest that you contact the organisation with which you have worked before (other organisations will not have time to vet your credentials and will use their own roster of experienced people).

And finally: spread the word about these issues far and wide, so that people start giving for emergency preparedness and not only the response; including the building of capacity within the aid organisations, like expertise at HQ level. This is one of the reasons why aid organisations spend money on ‘overhead’, and why it is so silly to judge aid organisations by the percentage spent on overhead.

Finally, comment freely in the comments section, and don’t hesitate to ask questions.

Updates

January 18, 1 PM AEDST

  • WFP is contracting to get the fuel situation solved.
  • US forces have taken over traffic control of the Port-au-Prince airport, but ther are some questions about how they set priorities.
  • Security issues are now added to the list of logistics issues: there are reports of looting (especially at night) and the UN is recommending that aid convoys be secured by armed personnel, but there is some disagreement on how widespread and serious this actually is.

January 18, 4 PM AEDST

According to WFP, repairs to the south pier of Port-au-Prince’s harbour are underway. Informally, I have heard that some ships might be able to dock by Tuesday (local time); if that is true, that would be very good news!

January 19, 3 PM AEDST

  • The informal information I received about the opening of the harbour now seems to be confirmed officially.
  • Until the harbour opens, the airport remains one of the main bottlenecks. Conflicts about priorities are now fought out over Twitter, which I can only be very unhappy about: this is a triumph of the loudest voice instead of reason. Perhaps MSF’s flight should have gotten highest priority, but getting that about by flooding the USAF Twitter account is not the way to go — and I am afraid that this tactic will actually be detrimental to MSF’s interests and, more importantly, their patients’ interests in the long term.
  • In general, more and more aid does seem to get to the people who need it. This, again, follows more or less the normal pattern: as logistics bottlenecks are solved and needs are assessed, the ‘pipeline’ widens and lengthens and items are getting where they are needed.

January 19, 5 PM AEDST

WFP logistician and aid blogging guru Peter Casier, on his way to the Dominican Republic to head WFP’s logistics operations there, confirms that the fuel contract was obtained yesterday and that the first fuel truck already arrived in Port-au-Prince. This will take a lot of pressure from the logisticians there.

January 20, 11 AM AEDST

  • Director of communications for MSF-Canada, Avril Benoît, takes me to task on Twitter: she says that the concrete impact of the “Twitter agitation” is exaggerated and that Twitter is only a small part of MSF’s media advocacy. That might be so, but that does not negate that it was a poorly conceived idea that sets a precedent for future similar campaigns with even less reason. It will also not have made MSF any friends at the place where it matters: the people making the hour-to-hour decisions based on the priorities set — which put medical supplies only at fourth place, for reasons that one might disagree with but that are definitely not total nonsense.
  • As expected, the South pier of Port-au-Prince harbour can now receive geared ships and barges; however, the container terminal is still inoperative and remains so for the near future.
  • UNHAS has contracted a 12 mt plane that will start a cargo shuttle between Santo Domingo and Port-au-Prince.

January 20, 11 PM AEDST

  • WFP starts a cargo shuttle between Santo Domingo and various sites in Haiti.
  • Apparently coordination on the ground between aid agencies is fairly good compared to earlier large-scale disasters. However, this is a second-hand impression gleaned from a very limited number of people, so it could be totally incorrect.

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"Mailboxes" by Minesweeper @ Wikimedia

Five-party logistics?

I have written several times before about supply chain visibility, and where it will lead us. One of the main reasons why visibility will be such an important issue for the foreseeable future, is because third-party logistics (or 3PL) will become more and more important.

So, I hear you ask, what is this 3PL? And why would it become more important? And, last but not least, why would that imply that supply chain visibility would become more important? I will write about those last two questions in a next post; this post will concentrate on an explanation of 3PL and its advantages (and disadvantages).

To explain this, let’s have a look at a fairly common scenario. Let’s say that you are the logistics manager of an aid organisation that has a central warehouse in the capital, and a couple of projects around the country, and you need to send a shipment from the central warehouse to one of the projects. Basically, you have two choices:

  1. You use your own transport, sending a truck (owned or rented) with the shipment from your central warehouse to the project. As you are the ‘first party’ in the shipment, this is known as first-party logistics or 1PL.
  2. You contract a transport company to ship the goods to the project, based on a contract and a waybill. The transport company (or as loggies like to call them, the carrier) is also known as a ‘second party’, and hence this is an example of second-party logistics or 2PL.

Most likely you now have an idea where this is going, but let’s spell it out anyway. Instead of having your own warehouse and trucks, you could have an external provider organise all this for you. You only need to tell the provider that a shipment made up of so many of this item needs to go to that project, and they take care of the rest (at a price, of course). A provider who offers this sort of multiple, integrated services, is called a third party and (you guessed it) this is an example of 3PL. 3PL providers come in all kinds, some offering a wider array of services than others; some very familiar ones are international couriers and international postal services, and freight forwarders: all three offer to organise your shipment across a variety of carriers and often (but not always) include clearing services.

Needless to say that there is actually an animal called fourth-party logistics (or 4PL), but I will leave that one for another day.

The reason for 3PL to exist at all is threefold:

  1. 3PL providers are specialised in integration of links in the supply chain, and they can levy much more expertise in this field than any aid or global health organisation ever will be able to. They know the markets to the last digit, have extensive knowledge of and experience in integrated supply chains, and have seen the same issues crop up over a variety of organisations – and know of many techniques to overcome these issues.
  2. 3PL providers can leverage economies of scale through combined facilities and shipping at much larger scales than any but the biggest aid and global health organisations, potentially providing better efficiency.
  3. 3PL allows for easier up and down-scaling: as our needs change, we can just use more or less of the provider’s services, instead of having to deal with a restructuring of our organisation (including possibly painful measures like lay-offs, or, conversely, having to go through expedited hiring of new staff, with all kinds of risks attached).
Untitled by PACOM @ Flickr

3PL by the US and Indonesian armies on behalf of USAID.

Of course, there are good reasons why 3PL can be a very bad idea, too – or even impossible:

  1. Aid and global health work often takes place in places and markets in which 3PL providers have no or very little experience, which might mean that their general expertise does not add that much value.
  2. In some contexts in which we work, 3PL providers (and, indeed, 2 PL providers) do not operate because of security constraints.
  3. Specifically for humanitarian aid, it is important to adhere to standards of neutrality and impartiality; it can be difficult to verify that 3PL providers do so, and the added limitations could mean that they are not able to offer any increased efficiency (e.g., it implies some limitations regarding combined cargo).
  4. In case of disaster response, many 3PL providers would have difficulties dealing with the damaged and overburdened infrastructure, which aid organisations have much more expertise in.

Yet, taking all this into account, I still foresee that we will use more and more 3PL services. Stay tuned to read why.

[Images: Mailboxes by by Minesweeper @ Wikipedia (public domain); untitled photo by Pacom Webmaster (some rights reserved).]

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