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Moving Away from the 'It's Always Been Done This Way' Mentality – Lessons Learned from the 2004 Asian Tsunami


It is over 10 years since the 2004 SE Asian tsunami. In this article, Peter Tatham reflects on some of the improvements, standstills, and learnings in the field of humanitarian logistics over the last decade.

From the perspective of academics researching and teaching in the field of humanitarian logistics (HL), the 2004 South East Asian tsunami clearly represents a date when serious attention began to be paid to the logistic-related challenges of preparing and responding to disasters and complex emergencies. This is evidenced by recent reviews of the literature that show less than 20 papers were published prior to 2005, but well over 200 since.

So what, if anything, has this focus achieved? In answering this question, I would like to reflect on the four core issues that were offered to me by a highly experienced practitioner some 8 years ago: (1) Getting more funding into the preparatory phase, (2) Metrics, (3) Coordination, and (4) Needs assessment.

In relation to the funding challenge there is an increasing acceptance of the importance of logistics – which in a humanitarian context can be broadly equated to commercial supply chain management with, in some instances, additional tasks stretching from premises management, via communications management to security. The rule-of-thumb figure is that some 60-80% of the income of an aid agency is spent on procurement of goods and services, transporting them into the affected region, warehousing and ‘last mile’ delivery. A global figure of some $15Bn annually remains uncontested, and so the question remains whether this is being spent as efficiently and effectively as possible.

In part, this crosses over into Question 2 as the development of robust metrics to manage this multi-billion dollar business is, to my mind, still immature. Many agencies (or course) have metrics that measure their throughput, but those that really help to understand the outcome of this vast effort require additional thought. Nevertheless, there remains a strong argument for the movement of resources from the immediate post-disaster response into the preparation phase. There are multiple examples of how such risk mitigation funding has paid dividends. An obvious example is the reduction in mortality from cyclones in the Bay of Bengal following a range of programmes that have built relatively basic cyclone shelters and introduced warning systems that support mass evacuation from the potential danger areas. However, it is fully acknowledged that no-one (including governments, companies and individuals) really likes spending money on what are, in essence, insurance policies – especially when they relate to low frequency events. Nevertheless, I would argue that it is important to continue research into ways in which such mitigation approaches can be adopted; so that, if/when the disaster takes place, its impact (and the associated logistic cost) will be significantly less.

Turning to the whole question of inter-agency coordination, I would strongly argue that this represents an area where some progress has been made, but where much more is possible. That such coordination is achievable is clearly demonstrated through the work of the international search and rescue organisations, which are able to develop common approaches, standards, communications protocols, etc. across the 40+ organisations globally that make up the INSARAG community. A similar model is being developed by the international medical teams under the auspices of the UN’s Global Health Cluster and, of course, already exists across various international military communities. Whilst it is accepted that each humanitarian agency has a mandate to follow, there is precedent in the shape of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) that sets an agreed framework that covers a wide range of areas from pilot training, via aircraft maintenance, to meteorology, and within which individual airlines are free to compete. It is strongly argued, therefore, that the HL community should follow a similar route and, through this, achieve significantly greater interoperability and, hence, reduce the incidence of gaps and overlaps in responding to a disaster.

Such is the nature of the HL context with damaged infrastructure, damaged communications, multiple sick and injured individuals to support, and even the breakdown of the rule of law, that the whole area of Needs Assessment is, inevitably, fraught with difficulty. However, the experience of the last decade has allowed a much clearer understanding of the core materials that need to be supplied in the immediate aftermath of an event. Thus, at least in part, 1/3rd of the question is now (to a greater or lesser extent) resolved. We know the ‘what’, but still need to understand the ‘how much’ and ‘where’ questions. In practice, therefore, the immediate response to a disaster (especially one that is in the rapid onset category) can now be seen as having three phases: (1) Push – based on an historical understanding of what is needed, both generally and in the specific geographic and cultural context; (2) Pull – based on a more nuanced response that takes into account the initial needs assessment activities; (3) A final phase in which there is a switch away from the provision of items of equipment etc. into a cash-related response that will allow those affected to purchase the items that they perceive to be important, whilst simultaneously helping to reinvigorate the local economy.

In addition to all of the above process-related changes, two other areas are worthy of mention as ones where improvements are clearly taking place – albeit, in both cases, more work needs to be done. The first is the whole area of the professionalisation of the HL community. This is very much being championed by the Humanitarian Logistics Association (HLA) which envisages the development of a humanitarian logistic career pathway based on a recognised sector-wide competency framework. By mirroring a similar approach to that found in more established professions (for example accountancy), it will help improve standards, provide an agenda for education and training providers, as well as helping to achieve greater opportunities for humanitarian logisticians to develop their careers within this vitally important field.

The final area that clearly needs monitoring is that of the use of emerging technologies – be these unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to support needs assessment, or 3D printing to provide items of equipment locally and circumvent lengthy and expensive supply chains. In particular, pilot field trials with the latter are proving to be extremely well received by logistics (and programmes) staff, and the answer to the core question of how to provide the right mix of centralised and distributed design and production expertise is being teased out.

In summary, therefore, I remain highly optimistic that progress will continue and that the resultant logistic operations will become more efficient and effective and, thereby, reduce the impact of a disaster on those affected. Clearly, there is more to do, but there is also a will to confront some of the more significant challenges and to move away from the ‘it’s always been done this way’ mentality. Long may this last!!

You can read more about lessons learned from the 2004 SE Asian tsunami and other critical topics in humanitarian logistics in Peter Tatham's book, Humanitarian Logisticsco-authored by Martin Christopher