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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 ethicalcargo.org, 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).


Continue Reading 1 comment }Aid and aid work, Logistics

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.


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.


Continue Reading 49 comments }Aid and aid work, Featured, 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.


Continue Reading 4 comments }Aid and aid work, Logistics, The light(er) side

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.


Continue Reading 2 comments }Aid and aid work, Logistics, Public health

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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Air logistics: are we on the same Page?

by Michael Keizer on May 6, 2009

Wouldn’t it be great if we could transport our goods from one place to another using just one transport means from place of dispatch until the spot where we deliver aid (thus eliminating time and capital intensive loading and unloading activities), staying high above conflicting parties until we have reached the very place where we want to land (thus avoiding highway robbers, pirates, lacking infrastructure, and roadblocks), at relatively high speeds (130 – 160 km/hour), with excellent fuel efficiency (thus dramatically decreasing transport costs) – and all this without having to invest in very expensive infrastructural works?

Well, the technology is there. What we need now is someone to invest in it.

After the dramatic holocaust of the Graf von Hindenburg, airships were off the map for anything remotely interesting. This lasted for quite a while, but the early 1990s saw a resurgence in development efforts for airships. Most of these were unsuccessful and ended in financial problems. However, there are some successful examples as well, e.g. de Zeppelin NT. What is still missing is a large, long-range airship: the ones used now are much smaller than their pre-WWII cousins, and have a much shorter range.

The problem is that the market for the sort of airship that would be useful for aid work is very limited: only activities that normally have high numbers of transit points, have issues with roads leading to their destinations, and have relatively high cargo and passenger number requirements, would be able to sustain these much larger and farther-ranging airships – and that leaves very little but the humanitarian aid effort and the military (and yes, there has been some interest from various military powers in airship development).

So the question is: would we be able to support the development of an airship model suitable for aid work? Or have someone do it for us, e.g. a big donor? It will be clear that supporting the development of a big airship will be impossible for almost any aid agency (with the possible exception of one or two UN agencies) – but would there be a case here for a consortium of aid organisations and/or donors to put money in it?

A number of initiatives have sprung up that seem to answer this in the affirmative; but none have been very successful, possibly partly because support from aid organisations and donors has been totally absent. The potential advantages of using airships for aid work are immense; but nothing will happen without that support.

It is about time we start being less conservative about aid logistics and look at possible revolutions instead of only looking at incremental evolution. And perhaps, in some years, this will not be the only Zeppelin involved in aid:

(Image courtesy J. Rohrer)


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The latest professional reading: Marie Claire on HAS

by Michael Keizer on March 23, 2009

I never thought I would ever feature an article from Marie Claire, but maintaining a blog takes you places. In a recent issue, they interviewed Danielle Aitchison, a pilot for the UN’s Humanitarian Air Services. Anybody who has ever worked in humanitarian hotspots will know how important UNHAS’ services are for logistics operations, and even though I have some reservations about the content and general tone of the interview, it still well worth reading. Enjoy!

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