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Humourless links for May 8, 2010

by Michael Keizer on May 8, 2010

'Liquid Links' by Desirae

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


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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).


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Latest job opportunities (November 19, 2009)

by Michael Keizer on November 19, 2009

[Image: Job opportunities by Coffeechica]


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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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The new pirate threat: germs

by Michael Keizer on March 5, 2009

If you are interested in logistics, health, and aid, the United States Naval Institute (USNI) blog is a wonder. Really.

The more-or-less recent attention in military circles for soft power means that the USNI is also more and more interested in how the Navy can be involved in aid, in order to win hearts and minds (force multipliers[1], anyone?). Of course, the US Navy is also one of the biggest logistics operations in the world (hey, logistics originally is a military science). So of course the USNI can be a source of fascinating stuff about the two.

One of those little gems was published a couple of weeks back. As the Navy is actively involved in catching those elusive Somalian pirates, some people are getting worried what an outbreak of e.g. MDR-TB, brought across by captured pirates, could do on a closely-packed military vessel. The stuff of nightmares, apparently, and they even quote MSF to support that. Luckily a commenter makes clear that TB is not that easy to transmit, but still…

My first posting ever on this blog was about the threat to aid (and hence to population health) posed by Somalian pirates. Apparently that threat goes further than that, and Navy sailors can be threatened by more than bullets.

(Picture: Arrrgh! | Pirates by Joriel “Joz” Jimenez. Some rights reserved.)


[1] I find it curious that nobody noticed that Powell used the term ‘force multipliers’ routinely — he even had a personal rule: “[p]erpetual optimism is a force multiplier.” So his description of aid organisations as force multipliers might actually have been a lot less meaningful than it has been described. Still not a smart thing to say, though.


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Latest job opportunities

by Michael Keizer on February 28, 2009


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