The Logistics Lifeline

After a year fraught with humanitarian disasters, best practices for urgent humanitarian relief are emerging, providing hope and furthering the business community’s ability to respond effectively to future events.

Emergency supply chains can be literally a matter of life and death. When companies respond to disasters, the assistance they give—which can include management expertise, technology, financial acumen and other business skills—must be properly coordinated to be successful, or they risk becoming ineffective, or worse, even hampering relief efforts.

Humanitarian logistics is a growing space within the logistics industry. New research is shedding light on what logisticians, NGOs, governments and donor companies should do—before and after a disaster—to ensure a streamlined, successful response.

After the Haiti earthquake, my company, UPS hosted a meeting of academics, corporations, relief agencies and others to share best practices to not only increase the efficiencies of a response, but also provide a framework for creating a strong lifeline to disaster-stricken regions. We share what we learned below.

Best Practice 1: Stagger relief, don’t clog the supply chain.
Well-intentioned but ill-timed in-kind donations made after a disaster can clog the supply chain and hamper relief efforts. For example, in Haiti, confusion over true on-the-ground needs led people to donate unnecessary items, such as bags full of bathrobes. Delivering the right supplies when they are needed is crucial to recovery efforts. Thus, it’s critical to first understand what goods are needed and then stage delivery intervals wisely.

Choosing the most efficient mode of transportation is also vital to creating a supply chain that works and makes an impact on the ground. Less urgently needed supplies should be sent through transportation channels that do not overload the supply chain that slow immediately-needed supplies from reaching those in the disaster stricken areas.

After the Haiti earthquake, the American Red Cross needed blankets on the ground in Port-au-Prince. UPS sent via air only those supplies that were needed immediately. Larger shipments to address the need over the coming days were loaded onto ocean containers bound for the Dominican Republic (as Haiti’s ports were damaged) and transported across the border to Haiti. The end result was that the right number of blankets arrived precisely when they were needed, eliminating backlog in Haiti so urgent food and medical supplies arrived first.

Companies looking to aid in disasters but who are unsure of the best transportation modes available should consult with a reputable third-party logistics provider (3PL) to determine the most effective way to stagger delivery to ensure that high priority needs are met.

Best Practice 2: Make visibility a top priority.
When it comes to a disaster response, accountability and visibility are as important as speed. To avoid blind management of relief efforts, companies looking to contribute aid should go to Aidmatrix, a non-profit that uses supply chain technology to match the donations of the most up-to-date supplies needed by NGOs who are active on-the-ground. This technology allows for more coordinated purchasing, tracking, warehousing, transportation and distribution of products.

Companies also should utilize centralized technologies that provide up-to-date information about what’s in warehouses and what’s en-route to ensure the right supplies are in place, no order is duplicated and replenishment is systematic.

Best Practice 3: Consider adapting existing products, services or technology for humanitarian relief.
Companies need not always return to physical goods when looking for ways to offer assistance during humanitarian relief efforts. There are a range of commercial logistics processes and products that can be used to make a significant difference on the ground. Often, it only takes a creative employee dedicated to innovation to figure out how small adaptations can make existing technologies tools of relief.

For example, UPS leveraged its Trackpad technology, a system ordinarily used for tracking packages in offices and on university campuses, to assist with organization and relief efforts during Hurricane Katrina, the Haiti earthquake and the Gulf Coast oil spill. During Hurricane Katrina, UPS worked with the Humane Society to retrofit the technology to track lost animals after the storm. By using Trackpad, UPS and Humane Society volunteers were able to use bar-coded collars and pictures to place information on lost pets on the web to help reunite pets with their owners.

A similar approach was also used this year during the Gulf Coast oil spill. Researchers at the University of California-Davis engaged UPS to help manage animals affected by the spill. The technology helped researchers ensure that animals were returned to their natural habitats after they were cleaned and treated.

In Haiti, the technology was used to manage the distribution of food and supplies to families in need. Replacing handwritten paper index cards being used by the Salvation Army with high-tech barcode technology, Salvation Army staff members were empowered to confirm what goods each family received by tracking the information embedded in a laminated card that bore unique barcodes tied to the number of family members, their location in the makeshift camp and their needs. This system helped to ensure that all families received the right supplies at the right time and helped reduce theft and fraud, while also freeing up volunteers to assist on other efforts. The system also offered the Salvation Army a way to track the families and their needs in the future as they moved from the temporary camps to more permanent shelter.

It’s safe to say that technology can be redeveloped to answer a number of challenges. While no disaster is the same and the needs of each will differ, it’s important that companies proactively look at their existing tools and systems to determine how they could be leveraged for urgent humanitarian relief.

Best Practice 4: Build efficiencies in advance.
Invest in preparedness planning and capacity building that will make supply chains more efficient before disaster strikes. A growing body of research suggests that when proper measures have been taken before a disaster strikes, lives are saved. So there’s a need to boost awareness about the importance of funding these initiatives to ensure that systems and processes are in place in advance of potential disasters, especially in communities that are at high risk for natural disasters.

Corporations must create ongoing partnerships with NGOs so they can best respond when a disaster strikes. NGOs’ local knowledge of communities from New Orleans to Port au Prince ensures that the business community’s response will be prompt, and above all, appropriate.

Being prepared for a disaster means preparing to be an ongoing champion of aid and support. Tragedy can happen in a matter of minutes, but the recovery is often a more laborious and long-term undertaking. While the immediate donation of monies is necessary, companies must also plan for how they will support the disaster in the long run.

After responding to the initial crisis, it takes NGOs and governments time to assess true on-the-ground needs. These needs may likely change significantly from day one to week one and beyond. As a result, corporations should plan to give donations over time, or make sure their donations are flexible to ensure funds can be disbursed as needed. In addition, realizing that there will never be enough funds to meet all of the needs, corporations should create a plan to contribute in other ways through volunteerism, technology and business acumen.

While the prevention of many urgent humanitarian crises is out of our control, our response to them is not. Whether fully realized or not, companies have many tools and skills at their disposal that can positively affect the relief efforts during devastating humanitarian events. By taking the above best practices into consideration, organizations can draft plans and form partnerships that will help strengthen chances of survival and recovery for those touched by tragedy.


Eduardo Martinez serves as director of philanthropy and corporate relations for The UPS Foundation. He is responsible for the operations and management of its global philanthropic and corporate relations programs.

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