The Humanitarian Logistics Gap

The chaos in delivering aid to Haitians more than a week after the Jan. 12 earthquake is all too familiar to José Holguín-Veras. It resembles the debacle he witnessed after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, although on a much larger scale.

“In Katrina there were two disasters, the failure of the levees and then the logistical debacle,” says Holguín-Veras an engineering professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., and a specialist in humanitarian logistics research.

A big part of the problem is the chasm between humanitarian logistics and its commercial counterpart, a gap not well understood by many of the players that rush relief to the victims of hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis and other natural disasters.

“Both are concerned with the distribution of goods, but that’s where the similarities end,” said Holguín-Veras, who was to leave Friday for the Dominican Republic to aid relief organizations moving all types of emergency supplies to neighboring Haiti.

In commercial logistics, a small group of decision makers determines the best way to move goods along a structured supply chain, based on demand forecasts.

In humanitarian logistics, he says, “you have thousands of decision makers, thousands of supply chains, all sending goods to the area affected by the disaster at one time.” There is no demand forecast, and overlapping relief supply chains compete for resources.

Purchasing is perhaps the weakest link in the humanitarian supply chain, says Holguín-Veras, whose research is supported by the National Science Foundation.

“This was a major problem in the wake of Katrina. FEMA didn’t have agreements in place to purchase goods,” he said. “A lot of it had to be handled on the fly. You cannot be looking for goods in the middle of a disaster. That was the most important cause of delay.”
Governments around the world and relief organizations should enter “blanket pre-purchase agreements,” Holguin-Veras says, focusing on perhaps 100 different items that would satisfy 80 percent of the immediate needs in the wake of a disaster.

“We need to get into the business of pre-positioning supplies for disasters that could happen,” says Holguín-Veras. “These supplies need to be the first wave of resources that arrive after a disaster. In the time it takes to purchase supplies and get a humanitarian supply chain going, you arrive with aid a week or more after the disaster.”

That, unfortunately, is what is happening in Haiti, where enormous amounts of food, medicine and other supplies will be needed for a long time to come.

He notes the United Nations’ World Food Programme warehoused food supplies in El Salvador, “but not enough to feed 2 million people” for an extended time.

(The WFP is using five humanitarian corridors to move millions of ready-to-eat meals into Haiti, where it is setting up four distribution hubs. See this release for more detail.)

Holguín-Veras was flying to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, where he was to discuss logistics with the Dominican government officials and various aid groups funneling relief supplies to Haiti. He hopes to travel to the Haitian border — if not into Haiti.

“I don’t know to what extent I’ll be able to help, but I’m more than glad to give it my best shot.”

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