In the logistics world, relief agencies stand in very small company, if not alone, in bearing the type of responsibility where success or failure can mean the difference between life and death.
And in responding to the types of natural disasters such as the Japanese earthquake and tsunami in March or last year’s Haiti earthquake, it’s logistics that often poses the most daunting challenge relief organizations face. Not only is there an urgent need to provide food, water, medicine and other supplies to hundreds of thousands of people, but in many cases, critical infrastructure has been destroyed.
Fifteen ports in northeast Japan were shut down for almost two weeks after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, while the airport in Sendai, the devastated city of 1 million nearest to the quake, was available only to aircraft carrying relief supplies. It will likely be several months before the airport can resume regular passenger flights.
Japanese shipping and logistics companies such as MOL and Nippon Express helped with the recovery effort, but there was relatively little foreign assistance after the quake. Japan is a wealthy country, able to provide urgently needed supplies from domestic sources, and is as well-prepared for earthquakes and tsunamis as any country — although it, too, was overwhelmed this time, especially because of the nuclear crisis that followed.
It was a much different story in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere that was already heavily dependent on foreign assistance even before the 7.0-magnitude earthquake in January 2010. The quake triggered the world’s biggest humanitarian response in history. The U.S. government, U.N. agencies such as the World Food Program, and private relief agencies, many of which already had staff on the ground in Haiti, swung into action immediately.
The U.S. military took control of the airport in Port-au-Prince, the nation’s capital and largest city, which was near the epicenter of the quake, but it took about a week for supplies to begin reaching the city.
Thousands of non-government organizations sent relief aid and personnel to Haiti, but to some extent, their assistance added to the confusion, as pallets loaded with valuable supplies were left stranded at the airport.
“We called it the Republic of NGOs,” said Jock Menzies, president of the American Logistics Aid Network, a nonprofit group that seeks to provide a coordinated response by participating companies and associations with supply chain expertise.
“The challenge is that most businesses don’t know how to engage at the time of an event with the relief agency community and with government agencies. The flip side is that relief agencies at the time of an event are taking on new resources and donations,” Menzies said. “If I come along with something that’s very helpful to the Red Cross, but if they don’t know me, they can’t take risk of the impact on their brand. Whereas if they know ALAN, they know who this is.”
The airport in Port-au-Prince normally gets four or five international flights a day, but after the quake, it was getting more than 100. Its port was out of commission for a month until Crowley Liner Services, at the request of the U.S. government, installed two floating docks. They are still the principal docks in Haiti, along with a third dock installed by Haiti’s National Port Authority, according to Jay Brickman, Crowley’s vice president for government services.
Many aid organizations have been in Haiti for a long time. The International Medical Corps, for example, runs programs in areas such as nutrition, water and sanitation, as well as health clinics. “We need to make sure those are stocked. We work with our partners to procure supplies and to transport them into areas where we work,” spokeswoman Jaya Vadlamudi said.
Many NGOs, U.N. agencies such as UNICEF, and the U.S. Agency for International Development have operations in dozens of countries. Some nonprofits also have pre-positioning centers. AmeriCares, for example, has warehouses in Connecticut, Amsterdam and Mumbai.
“We move a lot of commodities and use almost every modality — sea freight, commercial air, charters, ground couriers, truckloads, less-than-truckloads,” said Christoph Gorder, AmeriCares’ senior vice president for global programs.
Private companies have assisted in relief efforts for years, primarily in the form of donations of cash, goods and services. But their assistance has come mostly in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. Formal operations by private logistics companies are a more recent development, triggered in part by the Southeast Asia tsunami in December 2004 and, to a greater extent, after Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. ALAN, for example, was created after Katrina.
Logistics companies often work in partnership with specific relief agencies. FedEx, for example, has long-standing relationships with the American Red Cross, Salvation Army, World Vision, Direct Relief International and Heart to Heart International.
As a result, those groups have specific contacts at FedEx they can call in an emergency, “so we can move supplies quickly to FedEx planes and, once the goods get on the ground, get them to people who need help,” spokeswoman Deborah Willig said. FedEx, likewise, has regular contacts at the aid groups.
Emergencies created by earthquakes, hurricanes and floods garner the most public attention, but ongoing programs of food and medical assistance are at least equally important for relief agencies. Private partners such as UPS help build logistics systems so the aid organizations can move supplies.
UPS has had a close relationship with CARE for about 10 years, but most of that was initially in the form of financial assistance through the UPS Foundation. The aid organization about four years ago asked UPS to share its supply chain expertise. After conducting field trips to Honduras, Darfur and Indonesia, “we quickly found there are definite benefits we can bring to them,” said Jim Coughlan, UPS’s vice president for customer solutions.
The logistics company has donated to CARE an inventory management software program for warehouses called the Commodity Tracking System, developed by AidMatrix, a nonprofit specializing in supply chain management for humanitarian relief, in collaboration with UPS and CARE. The relief agency, dedicated to fighting poverty through permanent social change, with special emphasis on programs for women, has 180 warehouses in 70 countries.
UPS recently expanded its work with CARE to include TrackPad, a proprietary system that connects the commodity tracking system to last-mile delivery. “Now you have true visibility like in a commercial relationship. They (CARE) basically have oversight over procurement, logistics and transportation,” said Dale Herzog, UPS’s director of humanitarian logistics, who splits his time between CARE and the American Red Cross, one of UPS’s newer partners.
UPS also has strategic partnerships with UNICEF, the World Food Program and the Salvation Army.
AidMatrix’s supply chain management services for disaster, hunger and medical relief agencies include needs management, in-kind donations management, transportation donations management, procurement, online warehouse, online ordering and an asset registry. “We work with AidMatrix to aggregate the needs of relief agencies and then distribute them through the supply chain community,” said Menzies, who is also president of Terminal Corp. in Baltimore.
Unlike other logistics companies for which relief work is primarily philanthropy, Kuehne + Nagel, one of the world’s biggest forwarders, has a business unit of about 70 specialists who work exclusively with aid organizations. They are based in Washington, Johannesburg, Nairobi, Copenhagen, Paris and Dubai.
“What we sell is a professional, sustainable service,” said Tim Smith, K+N’s vice president for emergency relief in the United States, and who previously spent seven years with the World Food Program. “I saw a lot of providers coming in thinking they could teach the WFP how to do things. What we (forwarders) need to do is to understand how the aid organizations operate and figure out how best we can support them. We’ve got to find our place and do what we do best.
“A logistics provider’s size and track record with commercial clients means little to humanitarian organizations unless it comes with an understanding of the very different needs in this market,” Smith said.
About 30 percent of K+N’s work is emergency relief and 70 percent ongoing development and recovery assistance, he estimated.
Despite the possibility that aid agencies could produce duplication of efforts, Gorder said that’s relatively rare. “For organizations that do this professionally, our teams tend to know each other. Coordinating and partnering with other organizations is a core function,” he said.
Responding to emergency situations often requires ingenuity. After the Asian tsunami, AmeriCares had massive amounts of cargo in Jakarta, but had to charter “a huge old-fashioned sailboat” to deliver the supplies to Bandar Aceh, the hardest-hit area in Indonesia, Gorder recalls.
Another particularly challenging operation happened in October 2000 during a famine in Ethiopia. “We brought in a chartered IL-76 (a Russian Ilyushin air freighter) into a remote area near the border with Somalia that was 700 miles from the closest asphalt road,” Gorder said. “There was a huge airstrip that had been built in the middle of nowhere by the Russians in the ’70s. But the airstrip wasn’t on any conventional map, so we were given a GPS locator. We found it.”
Contact William Armbruster at firstname.lastname@example.org.