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Aid logistics

Warning: serious business in a very silly disguise ahead.

You will of course remember that logistics is all about the five rights: getting the right goods, in the right quantity, to the right location, at the right time, at the right price. (And if you don’t, you could read all about it in my March article on the five rights.)

But now imagine the following scenario (perhaps a bit too literally a scenario, but please humour me).

You are the logistics coordinator for a nutritional NGO in the Kingdom of Far Far Away. After a rather nasty little conflict about a swamp, large groups of displaced people have moved to the edges of the disputed area, where spontaneous IDP camps have appeared. As there is hardly any food available there, levels of malnutrition rise alarmingly (and there there have even been some unconfirmed cases of cannibalism amongst one of the tribes, the Jinjabredmen). Your NGO has decided to intervene and you are tasked with finding sufficient amounts of the local staple, faerivloss.

You have two possible sources for the faerivloss:

  1. You can buy it in the capital for about 200,000 shrec/MT (about $800/MT). Transport by local truck (affectionately called ‘donkeys’ because of their usually greyish colour, their ability to where even stallions can’t, and their drivers’ propensity for Eddie Murphy impersonations) will cost you an additional 30,000 shrec/MT.
  2. You can get the faerivloss for free from the local sub-office of WFG (the World’s Fairy Godmother) who just received an enormous donation of the food from the Republic of Dizneeland (halfway across the globe). The donation is sitting in warehouses in the main harbour, but the government of Dizneeland offers to transport it for free to the IDP camps using a number of MH-53E Sea Dragon helicopters, stationed on a carrier just of the coast.

Not a difficult choice, isn’t it? Both options give you the right goods, in the right quantity, at the right location, at the right time; but the donation gives it to you for a price that is much righter than the locally bought goods. So you quickly fill in the WFG requisition forms and go off for a beer.

A couple of years later, you return to Far Far Away as part of your organisation’s emergency team. Although the IDP’s have all returned home after the resolution of the conflict and the accession of the new king (as the result of the unfortunate anuration of the old one), the region again is in the grip of a famine, and you quickly find out why: after the importation of massive amount of free faerivloss, the price on the local markets collapsed and the local farmers were forced of their land (and have moved to giant slums in the capital, where they joined the former donkey drivers, who now try to make a precarious living by driving taxis or, if they are lucky, work as drivers for the numerous NGOs that have made their base there). Most of the land lies fallow, and there will be no faerivloss harvested for the second year in a row. Complicating matters is that the local harbour is rendered largely unusable due to a number of very destructive hurricanes – probably the result of global warming.

Suddenly you get a sinking feeling in your stomach; similar to what you felt when, as a five-year-old, you pulled the tail of what you thought was the neighbour’s cat, but turned out to be some strange feline wearing boots and a rapier, speaking Spanish-accented English.

Of course, in reality our decisions will normally not have such dramatic consequences – but each of our decisions could have smaller but still noticeable negative consequences. When you import goods from overseas, you will have an impact on the local economy, and transport will have an impact on the global environment. And, of course, the fact that your NGO does not need to pay for the donated goods or their transport, does not mean that those costs have not been incurred.

Normally it is not up to us logisticians to make the decision whether we would forego a possible advantage for our organisation, based on wider-ranging considerations like climate change or economic consequences. However, it is up to us to make the people who do take these decisions aware of the possible consequences of our logistical choices, and ensure that they know that there is more than just the one option.


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Humourless links for 4 November 2009

by Michael Keizer on November 4, 2009


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Latest job opportunities (2 November 2009)

by Michael Keizer on November 2, 2009


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Poster for vaccination against smallpox.Logistics is so often an afterthought.

All you programme managers, country directors, and other people managing aid programmes out there: how often do you integrate logistics planning into your planning from day 1 of your design phase? (And if any of you say: “always”, please let me know when you need an experienced logistics manager – I would just so love to work for you. Not that I would believe you, of course, unless you are a logistician by background yourself – and even then I would be sceptical.)

An old post by Diane Bennett on the Aid Watch blog tells a cautionary tale of what happens when you don’t integrate logistics into your planning. It is a seven-year history of how a lack of logistics planning caused thousands of deaths in remote South Sudan; not because the logistics weren’t thought of, but because they weren’t integrated into the programme from the start.

A medical NGO who wants to support a vaccination will have to take into account how to get the vaccines on the spot – and finding out much later that “… vaccines were available … at a regional distribution center, a $5000 air charter flight away” is too late. If UNICEF and WHO want to ensure vaccination on the spot, they will also need to ensure transportation to it, and possibly refrigeration there. All these should be planned from the start, because this tale clearly demonstrates how taking logistics on at a later stage will only lead to disaster.

But possibly the biggest issue here is that none of the three organisations involved really did their homework. Measles vaccines are fairly heat tolerant. If they would have been transported to the site in a cold box, and then used within a couple of days or even weeks (depending on the ambient temperature), no refrigeration at all would have been necessary. This technique, known as the ‘fast chain’, has been in use for some time and is endorsed by WHO; but apparently nobody managed include this in the planning.

The tale shows only one thing: include logistics and logisticians in your planning from the start, and you will sleep a lot better at night. And don’t we all want that?


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H1N1: Logistics during a pandemic (3)

by Jurgen Hulst on June 12, 2009

So it’s a pandemic, now what? Let’s assume you’ve read through Michael’s post on contingency planning and his follow-up ‘the logistics of swine flu aid’ and your organisation has updated their pandemic preparedness plans, or is in the process of doing so now. Did you think of everything?

meeting counterparts in protective suits

Meeting counterparts. Source: A.Cook

Let’s take another look at your;

  • Supply chain
  • Staff protection
  • Programme operations

Supply chain and border crossings

Contingency planning done at country level with UN PIC and governments suggests an increased role of national military and police in case of a pandemic outbreak when national services and infrastructure will be impacted.

A high level of staff absenteeism (30% or higher) will extend to your suppliers; make sure to include them in your plans. Will your logistics staff and your shipping agent and main transporter be able to handle customs clearance and possible extra measures for quarantine and maintaining security of supplies? Do they know how to handle cold chain & clearance procedures for medicines & vaccines, which may be needed during a pandemic?

Staff protection

You’ve considered protective equipment for your staff who will be in contact with influenza patients (either at work or at home) and may have purchased particulate face masks, gloves and hand washing gel, maybe even Tyvek protection suits if you’re with a medical organisation.

Did you consider training for protective measures? A pandemic logistics simulation training P2LX in Nov.2008, found that a major part of using protective equipment is learning how to assess the level of risk and deciding when to use it. And: You learn by doing it, not by reading about it. Secondly, the protection of this type of equipment is only effective when used properly.

Programme operations

You went through the four steps as recommended in this earlier post ; prioritise your logistics, sensitivity analysis, contingency planning and communication.

Your contingency planning answered the important question: How will your programme operations adapt to a national pandemic situation, with significantly less human resources and an increased strain on the supply chain?

Does your pandemic preparedness plan extend to your offices at field level? And does it include your local implementing partners? If not, perhaps now is the time to sit down with your partners at field level to discuss their role and activities.

Take note that staff protection will also affect them. How will they deal with it when your staff has all the protective gear and they don’t? Things could get ugly.

In case you are with a medical organisation, did you consider the additional requirements or shift of focus of your programme if you’re suddenly confronted with a surge in influenza patients and deteriorating local healthcare services?


Now that H1N1 has spread globally and a pandemic has been officially declared a possibility is that we will continue to see a gradual increase in cases, until a larger local outbreak happens in a particular region or perhaps your country.

To maintain the key activities of your programme in the field during an outbreak, the basic principle of the supply chain still applies: the chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Your programme operations will only continue successfully if you have looked beyond your own organisation and included suppliers and local implementing partners in your planning, communication and training.
(Guestpost by Jurgen Hulst, @NFIguy)

Prepared? Source: UN Pandemic Influenza Contingency (PIC)

Preparedness. Source: UN PIC - OCHA


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Latest job opportunities (2 June 2009)

by Michael Keizer on June 3, 2009


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How to organise a distribution in six easy steps

by Michael Keizer on June 2, 2009

"Electronic red megaphone on stand" by Adamantios @ WikimediaChasing’ Carly writes about how a distribution went rather wrong, under the title Crowd Control. So how should you organise a distribution?

  1. Make sure that the recipients know in advance when and how the distribution will be organised. In Carly’s case, probably the right time to do so would have been when the coupons were handed out, the day before.
  2. Make sure that the goods are there when promised, and make sure you have enough. Nothing will incite a riot as handily as handing out goodies to the first half of the crowd and then tell the other half they will have to go back home empty-handed.
  3. Make sure your distribution area is well prepared. As Carly observes, nobody likes to stand in the sun (or rain, or driving wind) for long periods of time, so make sure there are shelters; use rope and posts to demarcate corridors for lines; prepare signs for the various queues; make sure that you have communication equipment (a.k.a. a megaphone or bullroarer); ensure water, sanitation, and where appropriate, food are available; etcetera, etcetera. If you start thinking about this on the day itself, you are definitely too late.
  4. Make sure that your registration system is prepared. I will write more about this at some time in the future (thank you, Rob Stephenson, for giving me some serious food for thought on the subject).
  5. Make sure that you have crowd control systems in place. Have ‘crowd controllers’ in situ several hours before the distribution starts. Ensure that they are clearly recognisable. Have authority figures from the community (elders, church leaders, whatever works in the context you are in) assist them by bolstering their clout and by defusing possible conflicts. Make sure that everybody knows what to do when things get really ugly (basically: run).
  6. Make sure that you have logistics back-up capacity. Have one or more people with some logistics experience at the ready who are not directly involved in the distribution itself, and who can jump in when logistics (for whatever reason) breaks down. Ensure that they have sufficient extra materials (rope, plastic sheeting, water, duct tape, spare megaphone, etcetera, etcetera) to be effective.

And a bonus step: don’t call in the cavalry unless lives are in danger. In most aid contexts, it is a sure-fire way to lose cooperation.

A little exercise for the reader: why is the title of Carly’s post incorrect? (I suspect it is on purpose – a more descriptive title would probably draw far fewer readers.)


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Coordinating logistics

by Jurgen Hulst on May 27, 2009

'UN JLC recruitment poster' by Nigelito @ flickr

Editor’s note: As a first on this blog, I have asked Jurgen Hulst, a colleague for which I have tremendous respect, to write a guest post on coordination of logistics. Jurgen started in 2000 with humanitarian work in South America. Since then he has been doing various work always with a health logistics focus in several humanitarian emergencies worldwide. In 2005 he made the switch from an NGO to logistics work at a big UN agency. He is currently active in supply chain improvement and emergency logistics coordination, through the cluster approach. Jurgen can be found on Twitter as @NFIGuy.

The private sector acknowledged that creating partner networks to improve collaboration can improve supply chain efficiency and save millions. The United Nations, mindful that a collective effort could strengthen a humanitarian response in emergencies, in 1991 established OCHA to improve coordination.

Easier said than done. Do you need to be coordinated?

Right, until 2005 it was business as usual, until an independent review identified long-standing gaps: weak partnerships and insufficient accountability.

As a result in 2005 the IASC, a “unique forum involving the key UN and non-UN humanitarian partners”, started the Humanitarian Reform, using the cluster approach as a new, improved, way of creating partnerships and improving collaboration.

What does this mean for logistics during a humanitarian emergency? It means that in recent new emergencies such as in Pakistan and Gaza and in ongoing humanitarian crises, a Logistics Cluster, supported by WFP, can provide a platform for local and international NGO’s, government and UN agencies to improve logistics collaboration; and consequently improve the overall humanitarian response.

If you are actively involved in logistics in a humanitarian crisis:

  1. Visit http://www.logcluster.org/ to find out if your country has a Logistics Cluster. If so, this site will be good source for up to date maps, road, air, sea transport and contact information. If not, it is still a useful resource for Logistics toolkits & links.
  2. Participate in the next local Logistics Cluster meeting, because you can meet colleagues and find solutions for customs issues, increased transport prices and shortages of warehouse space, to name a few frequent problems.
  3. Participate even if your organisation has well established operations, because your knowledge can help newcomers, while others agencies may offer supplies and services which you can use immediately.
  4. Turn to WFP as a ‘provider of last resort’ for logistics. This means that WFP, as the lead agency for Logistics, accepted the commitment to do their utmost to fill critical gaps in the logistics operations during a humanitarian response.

Logistics and supply chain management in the private sector evolved from doing it yourself, to outsourcing parts of it (third party logistics or 3PL), into using companies which provide integrated supply chain solutions (fourth party logistics or 4PL).

Similar to 4PL the Logistics Cluster provides a unique opportunity for the humanitarian community to share assets and competencies, in order to reach integrated solutions. However, contrary to 4PL, a Logistics Cluster or lead agency does not attempt to run logistics operations on behalf of your organisation.

Does it work, or is it just another talk shop? I invite commenters to provide their own experiences.

(Image: UN JLC recruitment poster by Nigelito @ flickr)


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Supply chain risk management

by Michael Keizer on May 25, 2009

A lot has been written about how to deal with logistics disasters, or how to avoid specific types of mishaps. Much less attention is given to the process of managing those risks.

Risk management for the supply chain is not really different from generic risk management. Like all risk management processes, you start by making an inventory of possible risks, based on your environment, the programmes that you try to support, possible future scenarios, etcetera. This inventory includes the nature of the risk, its likelihood of occurrence, as well as its possible and likely impact. The result should be an overview of the possible extent of risk for each of the risks that you list. Some examples:

  • If a meteorite would hit your main logistics hub, you would be in dire straits indeed. However, the likelihood of this happening is vanishingly small. As a result, the extent of your risk is still very low.
  • If one of your 15 drivers would fall ill, it would probably not pose much of a problem; however, the likelihood of this happening in any given year approaches certainty. Still, because of its low impact, the extent of the risk would be low.
  • Having your one and only purchaser fall seriously ill would not be a big problem in a well set up system, in which everything is well documented. The likelihood of this happening is also quite small, so the extent of the risk here is very low.
  • However, if documentation is sketchy and most of the knowledge about markets and suppliers is locked up inside the head of your purchaser, the impact of this happening would be a lot bigger. Suddenly, the extent of your risk is now medium or possibly even high.

This last example points to the importance of the risk environment when performing your risk analysis. (It also points towards a possible way of dealing with it, about which more later.)

The next step is to design a strategy to deal with the risks. All risk strategies can be divided into four basic categories: avoid, reduce, transfer, and retain. In our example, this would mean:

  • Avoid: an avoidance strategy could take the form of not doing any local purchasing, or perhaps withdrawing from the programme. This illustrates that avoidance strategies are rarely feasible in the environments in which we work, but nevertheless they should be considered.
  • Reduce: ways in which we could reduce the extent of the risk include hiring a second purchaser (reducing the likelihood of being marooned without a purchaser) or ensuring good systematic registration and documentation (reducing the impact of the purchaser falling ill).
  • Transfer: we could outsource our purchasing to an external company, using service level agreements to ensure that they deliver what we we need, when we need it. This is not a very likely scenario for most of us, but it is something that we often do with e.g. air transport: we transfer the (very real) risks linked to these operations to e.g. a charter company.
  • Retain: we could decided that the extent of the risk is so small (e.g. because we hardly do any local purchasing anyway), that we take no action and leave things as they are. In other words: grit your teeth and suck it up.

A risk management plan basically consists of the risk analysis, with the appropriate strategy for each of these risks. Risk management plans for multinationals often comprise whole volumes (or, more and more often, many Gigabytes of documentation, code, and data), but for most field operations there is no need to go to that length: two to five pages would normally be enough. On an organisational level, it will obviously depend on how big your organisation is as well as its nature: the risk management plan for a two-project, one-country educational organisation will probably be not much more than the one-page result of a day’s hard work, but WFP’s risk management plan will more likely resemble that of a big multinational company.

However, whatever the size or nature of your organisation: you cannot afford to go without some form of risk management; organisations that think they can tend to be unpleasantly surprised at some stage.


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A skirmish with smugglers from Finland at the Russian border, 1853, by Vasily Hudyakov (1826–1871).

If a paper entitled Air Transport and Destabilizing Commodity Flows gets widespread attention in the press, it is time for logisticians to sit up and pay attention. A policy paper from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) with that bone-dry title was recently released, and made quite a splash. The reason: it made an explicit link between aid work and the smuggling of small arms and light weapons. So was Beyond Borders an accurate depiction of reality after all?

Luckily, things are a bit more tenuous than that. The authors (Hugh Griffiths and Mark Bromley) performed a survey of “Security Council Sanctions Committee and other arms trafficking-related reports”; based on this survey, they conclude that “… at least 90 per cent of intercontinental air cargo carriers named in UN Security Council and other arms trafficking-related reports have also supplied UN agency, EU and NATO member state government departments, NGO and private contractors in Africa, Europe and the Middle East” (p. 24). This is then translated into headlines like “Africa aid shipped in planes ‘used for weapons’”. As so often, catching the reader’s eye seems to be more important than truth.

Looking at the report itself, I have one major critique to start: much of its argument is based on the authors’ survey that I mentioned above, but methodology and full outcomes are not presented anywhere – only those results that the authors want to present are brought forward. This makes it effectively impossible to verify or challenge their conclusions. They would have done themselves and us all a favour by giving (e.g. in an appendix) a rigorous presentation of their methods and all results, not just the ones they feel are interesting for us.

Update (14 May): Andrew Hughey points out that the database of air cargo carriers that was used by the authors is published online (thanks, Andrew!). However, still missing is an explanation of exactly which are those “other arms trafficking-related reports” are, as well as how they identified which of these carriers were supplied by UN/EU/NATO/NGOs/private contractors.

Having said this, Griffiths and Bromley make a number of interesting points. The one that relates most directly to logistics for health and aid, is that too often we support arms trade (legal trade, but perhaps more importantly, also illegal trade) by using air transport contractors for aid operations that are known to be involved in this (illegal) trade. I don’t know whether we do; absent this presentation of their research methods and outcomes we will just have to take their word for it. However, I do know that we hardly ever take this into account when contracting air transport. In fact, personally I have to admit that I have literally never made the effort to find out whether a transport contractor was involved in illegal arms trading; I don’t know how typical my experience is, but I suspect that it is definitely not totally atypical (other aid logisticians: please feel free to comment – anonymous comments more than welcome!). MSF’s Gerald Massis made the particularly lame comment, “It’s like you hire a taxi. After your trip you don’t know what they do afterwards.” That one had me cringe; I would wish Massis had done his homework before he said that.

A more cogent argument is that, by their very nature, many contexts are mainly or exclusively serviced by contractors who are involved in more-or-less damaging or illicit trade: I don’t expect KLM or Lufthansa to start flying on El Geneina any time soon, and the transport companies who do are the ones that would usually be more open to risky but profitable deals like arms transports. Our choices are sometimes extremely limited, a reality that seems to be difficult to translate into a news headline.

However, I am afraid that we cannot deny that, too often, we do not put sufficient effort in selection and filtering of transport companies. I for one will be a bit more circumspect about this in the future, and I hope that the SIPRI report will have other aid logisticians start thinking seriously about this issue as well.

(Image: A skirmish with smugglers from Finland at the Russian border, 1853, by Vasily Hudyakov (1826–1871).)


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