The Critical Role of Logistics in Aid Worker Support

Humanitarian logistics is the science that allows the global market in refugee aid to function. It is perceived as an essential component of the nexus between relief efforts and sustainable development.

Based on qualitative research in 5 countries (Jordan, Lebanon, Greece, Rwanda and Sweden), this article explores how humanitarian-business partnerships see logistical solutions as essential to adapting refugee aid to emerging standards of sustainability.

Managing the Movement of Aid

The logistical processes of moving goods, materials and information from point of origin to the points of distribution and consumption form a critical function for humanitarian actors. This is especially the case when these resources are in high demand due to sudden natural disasters and forced displacement crises.

To help ensure the rapid provision of life-saving aid in these situations, logisticians spend significant time analyzing available data to identify routes and supply sources. This includes mapping the availability of transport facilities, assessing road and runway conditions, identifying possible security issues and the existence of mines or armed actors, and establishing backup routes and delivery mechanisms.

Ultimately, this allows logistics professionals to optimize the movement of goods and information using the most effective means possible. The logisticians also make sure that the right supplies are delivered to the right locations. For example, in the case of medical products that are shipped out in response to a global health crisis, specialized staff might work with partner organizations to ensure that kits are distributed according to priority needs, so that they reach the people who need them most.

The same applies to other types of relief items, such as food and shelter. To determine the best way to deliver these items, logisticians often rely on remote management technologies that allow them to monitor the movements of goods and the location of beneficiaries from the comfort of their offices. In addition, logisticians might use bar codes on shipment-related documents, which allow them to represent alphanumeric characters (letters and numbers) with bars that optical scanners can read. By enabling them to automatically recognize these symbols, such systems can speed up the process of tracking and tracing shipments.

Humanitarian logisticians are often proponents of market-based solutions, seeing the private sector as a “force to be reckoned with” that can bypass the inefficiencies of humanitarian agencies. In fact, many of the interviewees we spoke with expressed a strong preference for private sector collaborations that would eliminate the NGO “middle men” altogether. This trend coincides with an emerging shift in refugee aid that moves away from the provision of material relief — such as food parcels or durable shelters — towards privileging beneficiaries’ access to local and transnational service markets as a means of promoting their economic activation and self-reliance.

Managing the Movement of People

When we see images of disasters and crisis situations around the world, we often hear of heroic aid workers bravely assisting those in need. What’s less well-known is the dramatic backstory involved in getting these life-saving supplies and medicines to people in need – a story that hinges heavily on logistics.

Managing the movement of people and goods in humanitarian logistics is no easy task. For one, it requires a thorough understanding of how to manage supply chains across a variety of global contexts with unpredictable demands and supply chain disruptions. Moreover, it also involves the use of a variety of tools to monitor and evaluate operations, as well as to ensure that the appropriate resources are available at the right time and place.

This guide is designed to help you understand the unique complexities and immense significance of logistics in humanitarian efforts. It is designed for a wide audience, including aid workers, logisticians, managers of supply chain functions in the public and private sectors, and students interested in pursuing a career in this field.

Humanitarian logistics is the process by which humanitarian agencies systematically acquire, store, distribute and return items for the provision of relief to populations affected by conflict or natural disaster. In this sense, it is distinct from conventional supply chain management (SCM) as a discipline, which encompasses a wider range of business responsibilities and is concerned with the total supply of a firm’s goods or services. Despite this distinction, many of the principles and best practices used in SCM are also adapted in humanitarian logistics to address specific challenges that arise in this environment.

In order to effectively manage the movement of people in humanitarian efforts, many organizations rely on the expertise of logistics companies that specialize in this area. One such company specializes in organizing logistics for aid workers and volunteers, ensuring that they are able to reach the affected areas safely and efficiently. By handling the complex logistics involved in transporting personnel, these companies allow humanitarian organizations to focus on their core mission of providing aid and support to those in need.

Managing the Movement of Information

In the context of humanitarian logistics, a critical task is to transmit information in a reliable way. This is because information can be crucial to the delivery of aid to displaced persons. Humanitarian logistics is the process by which food, water, medical supplies and equipment, and other essential items are procured, stored, and delivered to displaced persons in predisaster and post-disaster situations. This includes procurement, inventory management, transportation, and warehousing. It also encompasses activities like preparing for disaster response, planning and executing relief operations, and monitoring and reporting on the progress of a relief operation.

In order to achieve these objectives, the logistical system is comprised of an organization’s supply chain network segments that connect from point of origin to point of destination. A successful logistical system requires the coordination of many different elements, including procurement, transport, warehousing, information processing, and distribution processing.

To this end, humanitarian agencies must be able to acquire and store essential items such as medical supplies and emergency shelter materials before a crisis hits. They must then preposition these items at designated locations in a way that maximizes their impact during the pre- and postdisaster period. This involves acquiring and storing these items in locations that are suitable for the disaster-prone area, such as warehouses or temporary storage facilities. These facilities must be designed and built to minimize the risk of damage and to ensure that their contents are protected from deterioration during storage.

As a result, the humanitarian logistics system is quite unique, with several unique challenges that differ from those faced by business supply chains. For example, the complexities of humanitarian logistics require a greater degree of collaboration between humanitarian organizations and the private sector. This is highlighted by a recent study that finds that humanitarian professionals are increasingly adopting calculative logistical rationales and embracing market-oriented approaches to refugee governance (Lemberg-Pedersen and Haioty, 2020). The authors of this article argue that these trends demonstrate the blurring of distinctions between the non-profit and for-profit sectors in the global governance of displacement crises. They further point out that these developments exemplify the need for more research on the interface between humanitarian and commercial supply chain management.

Managing the Movement of Resources

As a management science, logistics is central to refugee aid and disaster relief operations. It is the “process of planning, implementing and controlling the efficient flow of goods, materials and information, from point of origin to the place of consumption” (Ross, 1994).

Humanitarian logistics systems are required to procure and transport food, water and medicines as well as equipment, vehicles and personnel. They must also ensure that those items remain safe and secure during the pre- and post-disaster periods, when they are not being used by those receiving the assistance (see Chapter 5). Humanitarian logistics consists of a chain of processes and systems that includes assessment, planning, procurement, transport and warehousing. This chain must be capable of responding to changing requirements quickly and effectively.

The complexity and significance of humanitarian logistics can be illustrated by comparing the challenges faced by humanitarian agencies with those of commercial businesses. An analysis of the responses from humanitarian actors interviewed for this research indicates that they view their own supply chains as “more complex, more difficult and less transparent.”

In a broader context, the ubiquity of e-commerce and the proliferation of mobile technologies have transformed expectations about service delivery in general. These changes are having profound implications for the management of humanitarian supply chains. In addition, the rise of the global philanthropic sector and the increased prominence of the private sector in international development cooperation have contributed to shifts in donor expectations regarding humanitarian aid, including the demand for greater efficiency and accountability.

Interviews with logisticians in five countries (Greece, Jordan, Lebanon, Rwanda and Sweden) showed that the blurring of the boundaries between business and aid characterizes the current partnership environment in which refugee aid operates. In the eyes of those interviewed, humanitarian-business partnerships are essential to adapting refugee aid to emerging standards of sustainability within the so-called humanitarian-development nexus.

These shifts have implications for the way in which research on innovation in humanitarian logistics is conducted. Flint et al. (2005), for example, describe how customer clue gathering and negotiating activities in the private sector lead to inter-organisational learning that leads to logistics and supply chain management innovation. Such processes are not well suited to the humanitarian context, where customers have no negotiating power and are often unaware of the nature of their own needs.