Almost three months after the Jan. 12 earthquake in Haiti, the massive international relief effort there is still in its beginning stages — and getting more difficult as the world’s attention wanes and torrential rains begin.
Most of the 20,000 U.S. troops who helped distribute aid in the wake of the quake that killed an estimated 230,000 people have already left Haiti, but more than 900 nongovernmental aid organizations are still there, aiding more than 1 million homeless and hungry people.
The volume of relief supplies shipped to the island is staggering. The World Food Program distributed some 12,600 tons of rice in the first six weeks after the quake, reaching nearly 4 million people. In that period, the U.S. military helped distribute more than 2 million meals.
The scope of the disaster in Haiti and the long-term commitment required by the ongoing relief effort is putting pressure on transportation and logistics companies providing crucial support to nongovernmental organizations distributing aid and supplies. To maintain a relief campaign that will last not months but years, perhaps a decade or longer, those NGOs and their logistics and transportation partners may need to rethink how they work together and enter into more formal, long-term agreements.
“Some of the large companies have (memorandums of understanding) with the NGOs, but a lot of companies do things on an ad hoc basis,” said Frank Clary, senior manager of corporate social responsibility at Kuwait-based Agility, the global logistics company. Ad hoc contributions might be sufficient in a disaster where there’s a short timeline to recovery, but not one where true recovery may be years away.
The big change for relief organizations and logistics companies came with the Southeast Asia earthquake and tsunami of 2004, when the far-flung devastation and suffering overwhelmed conventional efforts to donate goods and services. Global organizations set up internal groups that would go into action in set ways, such as the Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Management Office that DHL created. Like-minded logistics operators in the U.S. created the American Logistics Aid Network that set standards for response and lines of communication between logistics experts and groups providing relief supplies.
Those operations, in turn, have set up networks and plans in advance with relief groups that can swing into action more quickly in the critical hours after a disaster strikes.
Transportation companies may be reluctant to help at all in situations where the commitment is open-ended and ill-defined. That’s likely to drive more logistics operators into structured relationships with aid groups as relief efforts put long-term demands on capacity, Clary said.
Agility has such a relationship with International Medical Corps, a Los Angeles-based organization that sends supplies, doctors and nurses to communities in war zones and disaster areas, providing supplies, treatment and medical training. Agility has provided logistics expertise, personnel and assets to IMC in disaster relief efforts from Indonesia and Southeast Asia to Haiti since 2007, Clary said.
“I became acquainted with IMC early that year, as we were setting up our humanitarian logistics program,” he said. “We operate in a lot of developing countries, as does IMC. We saw a lot of unique opportunities to work together, and started a dialogue with them to see if they’d be interested in a formal MOU with us.”
|IMC got its start in 1984, when Dr. Robert Simon, an emergency room physician in Los Angeles, began providing medical services in Afghanistan. Since then, it’s provided care in more than 50 countries, including Haiti and in Chile following the Feb. 27 earthquake there.
Agility developed a multifaceted agreement with IMC, moving beyond the occasional donation of expertise or equipment. “If they need support or services, they can give us a call, but we also provide training,” Clary said. “They can go through our training program, and we’re talking about doing on-site training at their headquarters.”
The logistics company and aid group signed their MOU in January 2009, planning long-term cooperation as well as short-term disaster relief. In many ways, IMC became integrated into Agility’s operations. It is one of the company’s “charities of choice.” Agility matches employee donations to IMC dollar for dollar, and raises money for IMC in other ways as well. “If an executive is traveling and flies economy instead of business, half the savings can be donated to IMC,” Clary said.
Training is key to both sides of the long-term partnership. “We learn quite a bit working with our NGO partners, and IMC is no exception,” he said. “It’s not a one-way street.” For example, an Agility engineer sent to help IMC relief efforts in Indonesia had to build a tent warehouse complex from scratch. “These are skills that are really relevant when he goes back to work with his team,” Clary said.
Humanitarian logistics puts skills most logisticians don’t use everyday to the test, he said, often in unexpected ways.
“In our business, we rely so much on technology to solve problems,” he said. In the wake of a disaster, and especially in areas where there may not be much technology available before the disaster, “you have to look at things differently and be creative and simple” — for instance, finding innovative ways to make last-mile deliveries and getting aid supplies to those who need them.
“When we think last-mile delivery, we think delivery vans and trucks,” Clary said. “In other parts of the world, they might think motorcycles, bicycles and animals,” such as horses and mules, or simply slinging it on your back.
Last-mile logistics has been a major hurdle in Haiti, where much of the transportation infrastructure — already in poor shape — was destroyed by the earthquake. “Haiti is very, very challenging,” Clary said. Having local partners who understand the physical and cultural terrain is key. “If you go in without local knowledge, it’s very difficult.”
IMC, he said, knows how to gain that knowledge very quickly. “If you go in there without that, you’re going to really spin your wheels and use up a lot of your resources on logistics rather than aid delivery,” he said.
International Medical Corps was on the ground in Haiti less than a day after the earthquake, with doctors and other personnel operating a hospital in Port-au-Prince and running 15 mobile medical centers. Its emergency response teams were treating 1,000 people a day last month, and that requires significant logistics support, an IMC official said.
“The expertise and resources Agility is providing are invaluable,” said Rabih Torbay, the group’s vice president for international operations. The joint relief-logistics operations “serve as a model for how responsible companies can assist humanitarian organizations,” Torbay said.
To deliver aid to Haiti, IMC set up a logistics pipeline to ship goods overland from the Dominican Republic. Relief supplies flow from Santo Domingo to more than 10 distribution centers throughout Haiti, the organization said, moving by truck, plane and boat.
Agility deployed Mike Bezares, a senior operations manager, to the Dominican Republic to work with IMC on all aspects of logistics, including procuring supplies, hiring subcontractors, arranging transportation and warehousing. Bezares “hit the ground running,” said Marin Tomas, who heads IMC’s logistics operations in Haiti.
“His experience and knowledge have allowed us to lower supply chain and logistics resource costs, and that allows us to get more assistance, faster, to those in need,” Tomas said. “Agility is giving us an opportunity to save a fortune on logistics and transport costs from Santo Domingo” in the Dominican Republic.
Agility also has an MOU with the U.N. World Food Program, and it works closely with other logistics providers to assist the WFP.
The Haitian disaster has Agility working closely with UPS and TNT to support the WFP. UPS and TNT helped receive and transport relief cargo from the Santo Domingo airport, while Agility helped coordinate logistics among the aid groups using the airport, the WFP said.
The three companies work together in Logistics Emergency Teams through which assets closest to disaster zones are quickly made available, the organization said in a statement.
“The quick integration into our logistics system of these three companies is a product of past experience and serves as a model for private sector involvement in humanitarian emergencies,” WFP Haiti Emergency Coordinator Carlos Veloso said.
There’s always a demand for humanitarian logistics, but Clary said the group will be almost as active in a quiet period, which he said will allow IMC and Agility to focus more on training and laying the groundwork for their response to the next disaster.
“In that case, we can think about sending someone to IMC to work with them to improve their supply chain,” he said. “There are always opportunities to move freight for them.”
Contact William B. Cassidy at email@example.com.