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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.]


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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Overhead, HQ, and the global financial crisis

by Michael Keizer on April 25, 2009

Ritratto di Frà Luca Pacioli (1495). Luca Pacioli (1445 - 1517) is the central figure in this painting exhibited in the Museo e Gallerie di Capodimonte in Napoli (Italy). The painter is unknown, although some people are convinced the painter is Jacopo de#39; Barbari (1440-1515).

How much should we spend on non-project costs, a.k.a. ‘overhead’ or ‘HQ’? Ten percent? Twenty? More? Or less? Please think about this for a couple of minutes before you read on, and define for yourself what would be a reasonable percentage in the organisation that you work for.

So now I am going to tell you that whatever percentage you came up with is wrong.

Nasty, huh?

My point here is that we should really stop thinking in percentages. Sure, it sounds nice that we can tell people that we spend only 15% on ‘overhead’, but it is totally meaningless.

First of all, we have these people called accountants, who are very good at defining ‘accounting principles’ in whatever way is needed to present the best picture.[1] When we say that we spend 15% on overhead, we actually say, “15% of our expenditure is attributed to overhead, but that could be any odd (or even) number under different accounting and presentation principles”.

Furthermore, defining how much we want spend on organisation (shall we just stop using those disparaging words ‘overhead’ and ‘HQ’?) in terms of total expenditure, or even as an absolute number, really is utter nonsense. No self-respecting company would say at the start of the fiscal year, “let’s spend so-and-so much on our corporate organisation – doesn’t matter on what, you can just spend this amount”[2]. Instead, they look at what support and control activities are needed from corporate, and then make first an activity budget, and subsequently base a financial budget on that. Similarly, we should define what level and manner of support and control we need from our central departments, and then try to cost it. In the end, the only thing that matters here is how the people we try to aid get most bang for the buck – and if that is more by spending it on support, because that will increase our efficiency in the field by so much, than that is where we need to spend it.

Over at humanitarian.info, Paul Currion makes the very astute observation that the current global financial crisis might actually help us to look at these issues in a more rational way. In short, he contends that the resulting squeeze on our budgets might force us to look more at efficiency, and do that in a less mechanical and more rational way than just at expenditure in the field versus at HQ. He might be right – I definitely hope so.

(Image: Ritratto di Frà Luca Pacioli (1495). Luca Pacioli (1445 – 1517) was, amongst many other things, the inventor of double-entry bookkeeping, a system we still use today. He was also the first to realise that profit and loss were no absolutes but depended on how you accounted for them.)



[1] I have been an accountant and an auditor. Believe me, I know.

[2] Show me a company that does, and I show you a bankrupt in the making.


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