Lynn Fritz, director general of Fritz Institute (www.fritzinstitute.org), divides disaster relief into three parts: preparation, the relief effort and reconstruction. Though the most compelling scenes of relief and recovery that the public sees are when the first aid shipments arrive, the most important logistics role occurs when no one is looking — during preparation and the reconstruction.
I thought of my father's descriptions of the Normandy landings on D-Day and the logistics of World War II. Putting my pride at his role aside, I had always thought that was the most complex logistics effort in modern history. But imagine launching D-Day on 24 hours' notice.
Most military campaigns have the advantage of a timetable and a target. Corporate logistics operates in much the same way — assuming your marketing department has told you about the new product launch in six weeks. Using underlying structures and current planning, you address the needs of the market blitz, new product introduction, or manufacturing shift. You reach out for information on logistics resources and infrastructure conditions you might be less familiar with, and you fill the gaps you have in information. If everything works, your product arrives intact and on time for the introduction or special promotion.
Relief organizations have become masters of estimating what will be needed for various disaster scenarios. The first teams on the ground start providing assistance and relay back intelligence about conditions and needs.
Resources are mobilized, and a giant logistics machine is put into motion. What few people know is that this machine was far from efficient because it lacked many of the basic tools every logistics department has. Again, Lynn Fritz has a three-part list: people, expertise and technology. And again, two of the three are more critical.
Logistics practices in relief organizations were stuck somewhere in the 1970s or '80s, and technology to provide supply chain functionality or visibility was all but nonexistent. Fortunately, that situation was recognized and the private sector has provided expertise to support improvements in procurement, finance and logistics best practices. This is a fledgling effort, but it has already demonstrated results at relief organizations.
Another facet of the training and skill exchange comes into play during the recovery and reconstruction stage of any disaster. People in the affected area must be identified who can provide ongoing support to the efforts to rebuild. These are people who live in the region and will still be there tomorrow and the next day. Without their ongoing efforts, the recovery will stall or fail. Again, the private sector has a role to play helping to train these individuals.
And after all of this, there is a more critical role helping to develop the core logistics expertise that will be prepared to respond to the next disaster — large or small, local or regional. The wreckage wrought by the tsunami, the famine in Dafur or the AIDS pandemic are not enemies that are going to surrender. So for as long as there's a need for aid, logistics will be on call.