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Is Humanitarian Logistics Really That Different?

In this article, Peter Tatham questions whether humanitarian logistics is really that different and explores how military expertise can be applied to avoid the chaos following natural disasters.

The challenges faced by the humanitarian logistician are different in multiple ways – not least in terms of the price of failure – from those of their ‘for profit’ counterparts. But I would argue that many of the approaches adopted in the commercial context to the management of supply networks are applicable to a humanitarian logistics setting.

For example, the commercial world has long understood that one key to an efficient and effective (i.e., in their case, profitable) business has been to harness the power of the management of information to help ensure achievement of the ‘5 rights’ (the right goods are available, in the right place, at the right time, in the right quantity and quality, at the right cost). This is no different in the humanitarian context even though the challenges of identifying the demand side of the equation whilst simultaneously supplying across an impacted physical environment are frequently significantly more complex. What is different is, of course, the achievement of the necessary physical and communications infrastructure and processes, but the principle of ‘substituting information for inventory’ to my mind remains unassailable.

In addition, there are clear overlaps between humanitarian and military logistics. As is increasingly clear from the real world events of the current decade, it is almost inevitable that these two groupings will meet especially in the aftermath of a complex emergency. Therefore, achieving an improved mutual understanding of the motivations and approaches that are employed in advance of such an event is of enormous value and one which, in turn, will reduce the inevitable challenges when both are engaged in responding to a crisis. The trick here is for both communities to engage and develop ways of working together that will not compromise the ethical principles and mandate of the former whilst, at the same time, harnessing the capabilities and the competencies of the latter.

More broadly, the wide ranging remit of the humanitarian logistician is such that individuals may find themselves at a crossing between a number of disciplines. I would argue, therefore, that there is an increasing need for a clearly documented and understood career path for those working in the humanitarian logistics community – a cause that has long been championed by the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport in support of the Humanitarian Logistics Association as part of its drive to improve the professionalisation of the sector as a whole.

Perhaps humanitarian logisticians would also be well advised to follow the commercial trend and re-position themselves as supply chain managers. This implies a much broader engagement at a more strategic level that reflects the absolutely fundamental importance of this role. In the humanitarian context, this case is advanced on the well understood reality that some 50-80% of the income of a non-government organisation (NGO) is spent on buying items of stock/equipment, warehousing them, transporting them into and within an affected region, and the ‘last mile’ distribution activities. With this in mind, those who are charged with the oversight and management of these processes – the humanitarian supply chain managers – must increasingly be viewed as pivotal to the operation of a humanitarian agency. If they fail, then the agency as a whole is unlikely to meet its remit.

This brief article gives a taster of some of the issues explored in the 2nd Edition of Humanitarian Logistics in which Professors Peter Tatham and Martin Christopher have assembled a broad ranging collection of thoughts, ideas, concepts and approaches contributed by both practitioners and academics that, together, provide an overview of some of the core challenges facing today’s humanitarian logistician. In doing so, they have ensured that the individual chapter authors have developed and updated the material from the 1st edition in ways that reflect the changes, improvements and emerging challenges that have been encountered over the last three years. In addition several new chapters have been included which cover new perspectives including, for example, those from South East Asia and, perhaps most importantly, from a number of experienced field practitioners.