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Food 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

A couple of weeks back I wrote about a possible upcoming food crisis, and what it could mean for aid logistics. This made me finally pick up HPN‘s latest Good Practice Review, Emergency food security interventions, by Daniel Maxwell et al, which has been waiting on my to-read stack for some weeks. My friends, I was shocked — shocked, I say! (Add appropriate TV preacher’s voice here.)

When we talk about large-scale aid logistics, WFP is the obvious role model: no other aid agency moves such large amounts of goods over such long distances. (Whether or not this is a good idea in the first place is debatable, and will be debated in a future posting — but what is clear that at this stage WFP is doing it). Now why would the World Food Programme, from all other UN and other aid agencies, be the one with the largest logistics capacity?

Very simple: because (and read this well, Messrs Maxwell et al): good logistics is essential for food aid! Food aid (perhaps with the exception of cash transfers) needs good logistics like medical aid needs medical infrastructure.

So why, you may well ask, why this sermon? Why all this bold font? What, my dear Michael,  is the cause of your outrage? Well, believe it or not, but Maxwell et al managed to write a 147-page guide on emergency food aid… including a half-page on logistics. That is right, they spend about 0.3% of their (otherwise admirable) review on it. Now does that seem right to you?

(Photo: EU food aid, courtesy of Rock Cohen. Some rights reserved.)


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When logistics goes bad

by Michael Keizer on February 18, 2009

Logistics can impact quite severely on public health. If we do our work well, health professionals and patients get their supplies and lives are saved. If we goof up, those same lives might be lost. But sometimes, things become much, much worse.

A faulty logistics management system at the Peanut Corporation of America was partly to blame for a recall that ended with the corporation recently filing for bankruptcy protection. But in the mean time, 19,000 people had become ill , of which nine died, due to infection of certain products with salmonella.

Good logistics can be a lifesaver in the most literal sense of the word; but bad logistics can just as literally be a killer.

[Picture by joannapoe. Some rights reserved.]


Continue Reading 0 comments }Logistics, Public health

Thoughts about food

by Michael Keizer on February 15, 2009

Over at Market Sceptics, Eric deCarbonnel predicts a food catastrophe for 2009. My knowledge of food production is not good enough to really assess whether or not he is right, but he makes a convincing case. For example, have a look at this map:

You will notice that there is a large overlap between the countries that experience the worst droughts and that produce most of the world’s food: China, Australia, and the USA. Not a very reassuring idea.

So what would this mean for us? Well, you can be pretty sure that organisations that deal with food aid, WFP most of all, will be busy. WFP logistics will most likely be strained to its limit, if not beyond. Logisticians in any organisation that deals with the malnourished (and that would include almost any medical or food aid NGO) will have to deal with an increase in the number of feeding programs that will have to be supported, and should already prepare to be able to do so — e.g. by taking a hard look at their procurement and transport capacity for therapeutic food. And manufacturers of therapeutic food can look forward to yet another big year — if their production and logistics capacity can keep up.

Does your organisation have the logistics capacity to deal with this?


Continue Reading 1 comment }Aid and aid work, Logistics