A Logistics Lifeline

A Logistics Lifeline

Copyright 2003, Traffic World, Inc.

Delivering relief supplies in Iraq is much like delivering freight anywhere - except that people are trying to kill you.

"Totally woeful disorder" is the order of the day in Baghdad, former forwarding executive Lynn C. Fritz said after a recent visit to Iraq. "I didn''t know until I got there the extent of the chaos and the absolute lack of security," said Fritz, now director general of San Francisco-based Fritz Institute, which specializes in humanitarian logistics support.

Fritz was on a mission not to ferry in supplies but to bring his years of supply-chain experience to the relief effort, and to build on a larger effort to bring the lessons of commercial logistics to situations that are utterly devoid of sense and order.

Fritz recently brought logistics professionals and executives from relief groups to his vineyard in California''s Sonoma County - a world away from Baghdad - to discuss ways they can collaborate. "We''re trying to bring in infrastructure and support from the private sector. The private sector can provide talent, technology and assets that will help these organizations be more efficient," he said.

The questions of relief logistics have grown considerably in recent years as the spread of small-scale wars around the globe has stretched humanitarian organizations to their limits. Most of these groups are geared to respond to natural disasters, not catastrophes caused by combat.

"Most disasters are floods, fires or earthquakes where everything about the infrastructure is destabilized," Fritz said. "Iraq has infrastructure. Iraq is a man-made disaster."

Being efficient in the midst of chaos is a tall order. "In the commercial sector, everything is designed to be predictable," Fritz said. "During a disaster, nothing is." Most commercial operations have a predetermined set of vendors, manufacturing sites and suppliers, he explained. "There''s none of that in humanitarian logistics."

For example, the flood of unsolicited gifts donated in a disaster''s wake can be a major headache for relief organizations. "It''s a big operational problem. If a warehouse of unsolicited stuff comes in, they have to deal with it - they can''t just put it aside. It''s not something Sears or Boeing would have to deal with."

Fritz has focused on disaster relief since he sold his freight forwarding and logistics business, Fritz Cos., to UPS in 2001. His nonprofit institute''s mission is to strengthen humanitarian organizations by mobilizing logistics and technology expertise and resources from the corporate world and academia. The institute is an "honest broker" that can unite private companies and aid groups, Fritz said.

He leads by example. The institute spent more than $1 million to develop web-based, modular logistics software specifically for relief organizations - software designed to impose order on an inherently disorderly process. "You need flexible and solid software that will embrace the lack of predictability and still support the supply chain," he said.

At most relief organizations, logistics is handled manually. "People are calling each other, faxing each other, there''s no central database of inventory or supplies, no way for people to determine what''s available in the nearest warehouse," he said.

Fritz''s software will let them do that. "They can quickly determine what supplies are available, what supplies are needed and even track carrier performance," he said.

Groups using the software can move relief supplies to disaster sites 20 to 30 percent more quickly, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies estimates. The IFRC installed the software - which Fritz donated - at its headquarters in Geneva this fall.

"The Red Cross was our ''beta'' customer," said Fritz. "We chose them because they are probably the most complex, deepest and widest relief organization. If the software would work for them, it could be applied to any relief organization."

The stakes are inhumanly high. "If there are slip-ups, the penalty is lives lost, families separated," Fritz said. "The software really does enhance these organizations'' ability to do their job."

Fritz and Anisya Thomas, the institute''s managing director, saw the problems relief organizations face in the field when they visited CARE International''s operations in Baghdad.

"There was no police, no army, no order. It was every man for himself," he said.

Relief supplies are reaching Iraq but not always those who need them, Fritz said. "It''s being stopped and ripped off once it gets there. Sometimes it doesn''t get to the actual people. It''s nothing to have a CARE car or UN car stopped and carjacked. That was happening all the time."

The results of looting were evident, particularly at local hospitals. "This was not just looting, it was disembowelment," said Fritz. "I went to a small hospital in Baghdad that had been ravaged. It wasn''t just furniture - the lights were taken out and all the electrical wiring, as well as sinks and pipes. The place was left totally inoperable."

The aid workers are doing their jobs in "a dangerous, highly volatile situation," he said. That danger was driven home when a massive truck bomb ripped apart the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad in August, killing more than 20 people, including UNICEF''s senior program coordinator in Iraq, Christopher Klein-Beekman.

Aid workers have been attacked directly, as well. A UN worker was wounded when gunmen fired on his truck in July, killing his Iraqi driver. The British aid group Oxfam evacuated its non-Iraqi aid workers to Jordan in August.

Aid workers have been killed recently in Afghanistan and West Timor, evidence that relief groups are no longer merely in danger of getting caught in crossfire but are targets themselves.

"The killing of humanitarian workers in Iraq and Afghanistan is an unprecedented situation," said Fritz. "There''s been a premeditated decision by destabilizing forces to kill humanitarian aid personnel."

To Fritz, it makes assistance from private companies even more critical to relief organizations. "We''re not looking for $10 million donations or bags of food, but brains, expertise and assets," Fritz said. "We''re in a wonderful position to orchestrate that and get effective, measurable results. And it will make the world a better place."