Monday, 18 January 2010

The unique challenges of #Haiti’s emergency logistics

Over the last days I’ve been so frustrated by media reports out of Haiti pointing fingers at aid workers and my UN colleagues. I’m lucky enough to have a sister who did her doctoral thesis on logistics of humanitarian organization during disaster response. So I asked her to write a piece explaining the complexity of a relief operation in Haiti’s context.

Here is what she had to say:

As the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake unfolds, the media highlights the lack of adequate response by humanitarian organizations to the needs of the population. ‘Logistics’ and ‘coordination’ are often named as the two areas where humanitarian organizations have failed in. But don’t humanitarian organizations have the experience to mobilize relief resources and stage an adequate response? After all they have been confronted with large-scale and complex disasters such as the 2004 Tsunami and the Iraq and Afghanistan emergencies before. So, what can explain the delay in relief efforts by humanitarian organizations? I will first try to illustrate how humanitarian organizations operate and then put their efforts into the context of the Haitian earthquake.

The operations of humanitarian organizations
Most humanitarian organizations typically specialize in one area of relief assistance (food, medicine/medical assistance, shelter, non-food items, etc.) and/or population group (children, refugees, etc.). They are usually not involved in rescue efforts which are conducted by specialized national emergency teams or military forces. Therefore, they cannot be expected to respond to all the needs of all the survivors. What is even more important to appreciate is that the success of any disaster response effort does not fall squarely on the shoulders of humanitarian organizations. This is because humanitarian organizations do not operate in a vacuum but depend on a number of stakeholders to stage their disaster response.

For each disaster, a humanitarian organization establishes its own emergency supply chain. This disaster-specific supply chain consists on a number of activities to be carried out by a range of actors. Humanitarian organizations can be retained responsible for the timely activation and coordination of these activities that continue to depend on the capability and contribution of seven networks of actors. These are the media, donors, relief item suppliers, recipient country, neighboring countries, military forces, and implementing partners. The media through coverage of a disaster often activates an emergency supply chain and is a source of information on its development. Donors provide funds, goods, services and people. Donors together with private sector suppliers provide relief items. Donors, recipient country, neighboring countries and military forces provide logistics assets. Implementing partners, that is the local and foreign NGO community, typically acts as distributors.

In terms of activities, soon after a disaster, a humanitarian organization carries out a group of activities. With a view to plan its relief effort, it assesses the needs of the population and prepares an initial appeal targeted at the donor community to mobilize resources. After having mobilized cash, people, services, information, relief items and in-kind donations, it ensures their transportation to the disaster site. Both procured and solicited in-kind donations are stored in warehouses before distribution to the population. It is worth noting that planning does not occur once, that is, at the outset of a disaster but is a continuous activity.

The humanitarian community has long identified coordination and logistics as two critical areas for disaster response success. The UN’s Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), established by the UN’s Secretary General in 1998, functions as a coordination platform for the humanitarian community during all emergencies. OCHA provides a number of common services to the humanitarian community. It is the secretariat for four coordination mechanisms and tools: the Consolidated Appeal Process, the Central Emergency Relief Fund, the UN’s Disaster Assessment Coordination teams, the Humanitarian Information Centre and Military and Civil Defense Unit.

The complexity of more recent humanitarian crises has led to the unbundling of logistics from generic coordination. For over a decade, the humanitarian community activated a specialized temporary facility: the UN Joint Logistics Center. To ensure predictable leadership and accountability in key disaster response areas, in December 2005, the policy making organ of the humanitarian community, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), endorses the cluster approach which implies the activation of clusters in nine key areas, each to be led by a humanitarian agency. Given its experience in emergencies, the World Food Programme (WFP) is designated as the lead agency not only in the areas of food assistance but also logistics and emergency telecommunications.

Haiti before and after the earthquake
Now let us step back and take stock of the Haitian reality prior to the disaster and the effects of the earthquake on the country.

Haiti is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere and ranks 148th of 179 countries on the United Nations Development Programme Human Development Index. Prior to the disaster, out of approximately 8.5 million Haitians, one million was already dependent on foreign aid. Haiti does not have any military force which implies lack of army and military assets (e.g. heavy duty equipment, helicopters). Due to the history of the country, some of the functions of the government and its institutions have been overtaken and carried out by a host of NGOs.

The epicenter of the destructive earthquake which struck Haiti on 12 January 2010 is 22 km from the capital city of Port-au-Prince and 15 km from the other major urban centers; the most densely populated area of the country. (The capital city alone accounts for 2 million people). The earthquake is estimated to have killed 200,000 people and left behind an unparalleled number of severely injured survivors requiring medical attention and assistance. An approx. 3 million survivors, most of which inhabitants of shanty-towns, that is, the poorest of the poor, require everything from water, food to shelter and psychological support. As the quake has hit the capital city, government, UN, NGO community and private sector operators have all suffered from human losses and damage to their infrastructure such as offices, shops and equipment. The port, airport and the road network are severely damaged. The capital city’s water supply and electricity systems have collapsed, leaving millions of people without access to safe water. Only one hospital in the city appears to be functional. With a disbanded police force and significantly reduced UN security workforce (100 staff still unaccounted for), there is no force to ensure safety and security.

A logistical nightmare
The response of the international community to the disaster is heartening both in terms of speed and size. Therefore, there is no question of goodwill or lack of resources to stage a relief effort despite the fact that the daily needs - from food, water to shelter - of 3 million people and medical care to the injured have to be met. An effective response is being held back by the logistical challenges confronting those on the front-line. Operators deployed for the occasion are aware of how these challenges can quickly trigger into mass revolts, further undermining any possibility of an orderly relief effort.

What becomes clear from the above is that humanitarian organizations cannot be held responsible for logistical failures. The sheer infrastructure devastation left behind by the earthquake and lack of local manpower and equipment to remove rubble from roads and repair critical infrastructure undermines significantly the speed and scale of any relief efforts to be staged by the humanitarian community.

Luckily, soon after the disaster, the damaged airport control tower was repaired to allow aviation operations to resume. Given the limited size and capability at the Haiti airport, the humanitarian community obtained the necessary authorizations to fly relief items to the Dominican Republic. However, the international response to the disaster has congested the two airports delaying the delivery of key equipment and supplies even to the aid operators already on site. Given longer repair times, the port continues to be out of use. As a result, vessels already at the coast are not in a position to off-load their cargo of relief items.

Lack of on-site transport assets such as trucks and dwindling supply of fuel further limits the ability of humanitarian organizations to transport goods from the airport towards the population. Moreover, given the overall destruction, the humanitarian community requires time to identify storage centers and set up secure and safe distribution centers. As mentioned above, usually the large UN relief organizations depend on the NGO community for distribution of relief items. As the earthquake has also affected this particular set of actors, the humanitarian organizations need to fly-in or identify qualified staff to man these centers. Finally all the above has to be carried out in an insidious and volatile security environment.

Coordination in the context of a dominating donor
Response to a logistical nightmare is effective coordination. The success of the humanitarian operations depends on i) how well the community manages the logistics bottlenecks caused by limited infrastructure and high demand on its use, and ii) how effectively it can prioritize the movement of people and goods necessary to avert any social uprising.

In its lead capacity on the logistics cluster, throughout the Haiti crisis, WFP will manage the passenger air service, provide information on the transport network and coordinate the operations of the humanitarian organizations among each other and that with the Government of Haiti. Given the huge contribution of the US through its military, it also needs to coordinate and de-conflict the humanitarian community’s response with that of the US military. This leaves behind private and bilateral donations. As far as the EU is concerned, Italy appears to take on the coordination role among European countries. It is unclear who will deal with the other donations, which if not coordinated will only add to the chaos and aggravate the situation at key entry points such as airports and ports.

The speed and scale of the US’s response to the disaster in terms of funds, goods and military support is unprecedented. This is both a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing as the US military will have the means to reestablish a safe and secure environment for humanitarian organizations to operate in and bridge the command and resource gap left behind by the Haitian government. It is a curse as with its huge resources it will dominate the relief effort, overshadowing others, and monopolize the use of the limited logistics assets as exemplified by the current ‘exclusive’ use of the Haitian airspace.

I hope by now we can all appreciate the complexity of humanitarian response during disasters. Humanitarian organizations are not only conditioned by the environment in which they operate, but also by the actions of other actors. In Haiti, they are operating against all odds. But let us hope that donors with resources required by humanitarian organizations actively participate in the coordination initiatives led by the UN. This is the only way to ensure that relief activities are coordinated, assets are shared and the use and movement of resources are prioritized, thus meeting the needs of the population.

Ramina Samii


About the Author
Ramina Samii currently works for the OPEC Fund for International Development (OFID), an international development financial institution. Before joining OFID, Ramina worked as a researcher at INSEAD, the international business school. During her time at INSEAD, she conducted research on several topics including supply chain management with particular emphasis on humanitarian logistics. Her research resulted in the publication of articles in academic and practitioner journals as well as numerous case studies. It also constituted the basis for her doctoral thesis entitled: Leveraging Logistics Partnerships: Lessons from Humanitarian Organization.
Ramina holds a PhD in management from Erasmus University, Rotterdam School of Management and a Laurea degree in economics and business administration from the University of Rome, Italy.

I hope the readers find this blogpost informative and provide their comments. This way I can show my skeptic sister, that social media is indeed useful and an immediate way of getting your message and knowledge to a wide audience.
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