Collaboration brings the revenue in humanitarian logistics
Delivering value through logistics has always been the corner stone of the industry. When it comes to operating in areas where there is a humanitarian crisis logistics becomes crucial in the fight against hunger and suffering.
It is no wonder then that one of the first things Christopher Moore, a logistics manager at Global Aid Network (GAiN), tells me about humanitarian logistics is that it is not only about delivering the goods to where they are most needed but delivering an ‘immense added value’ that many NGOs cannot create on their own.
Logistics in the NGO area is more about collaboration.
I met Christopher at the Aid&Trade event in London, an exhibition that brings together leading private and none-profit organisations (NGOs) companies from all around the world to showcase their latest achievements in the humanitarian sector and what needs to be done to improve operations. We start talking about the role of humanitarian logistics in protecting people in need and how the macro meets the micro in war zones and refugees’ camps.
‘Logistics is a hurdle that a lot of humanitarian organisations have to get over,’ explains Christopher. This is a shared view by many logistics professionals in both private and non-profit sectors. Those who have little to no knowledge about logistics usually find it hard to get their heads around everything that needs to be done. However, there is a significant difference in the way people in the non-profit sector look at the role of logistics. Whilst private companies try to create revenue, logistics in the NGO area is more about collaboration.
One for all – All for one
Being able to deliver food, medical supplies, and many more items to areas where roads are a novelty requires a lot of insight and knowledge. Such a base of information is impossible to operate without companies working together and sharing information all the time. Logistics professionals in the NGO sector are collaborative and are ready to give hand to those in need. This includes providing information on what customs’ forms are needed so shipments can move without troubles. ‘We are all facing the same problems. When one of us gets past it, it is shared,’ explains Christopher. This might sound like something normal but it is not a standard in the logistics industry.
Passionate about his job Christopher continues by explaining how he creates collaboration. During his first days at Global Aid Network he notices that the organisation creates a great pile of paperwork. Each country they were in, 190+ in total, is served by a different paper form. Many of them have just small changes, but changes nevertheless. All that paper work slows down the process and makes the logistics inefficient. So the decision is taken to compress all forms into one and rely on a software that can autofill data about every country with minimum human interaction. Such a small change makes a huge difference. Later, during a conference, Christopher sticks to the idea of collaboration and decides to strip off all the branding and give the forms away to other organisations from the sector.
Global Aid Network has staff in all countries they operate, however, they are not expats who go there to tell off the locals. Trust is put in the centre of everything they do. That means creating lasting relationships with people from the area who know how things are done and understand the local laws and traditions. When a new company applies to be part of GAiN they need to meet certain criteria like being able to operate a humanitarian logistics, have sufficient warehousing and knowledge, as well as good relationships with the local authorities.
After that a team is sent to meet the candidates and find out more about them and what they really need. The process could take up to two weeks as at first many companies and people are not sure what they need and how they can ask for the right items and goods. Christopher sites a time when they were asked to deliver two dental chairs to a newly opened dental clinic. ‘Something that granular they would never even think that they could ask for, that is the kind of trust we build so then we can go in and get the right stuff and only the right stuff.’
And the importance of the ‘right stuff’ is great when you look at what happens when the ‘wrong stuff’ is delivered. A good example is Kenya where multiple charities bring second-hand clothing on the local market from the US and Europe. What this means is people can buy Nike T-shirts so cheap they never spend money on locally produced garments. This leads to the complete decimation of the Kenyan clothing industry.
Toothbrushes for art
With so many items being delivered there are good stories Christopher can tell. Once GAiN had to transport a delivery of toothbrushes part of a care kit the organisation makes. However, they stumbled upon a problem when the custom authorities of one of the countries they were passing through refused to let the brushes in. An artistic solution was created by renaming the toothbrushes ‘art brushes’. ‘If I had to, I was prepared to paint with them,’ explains Christopher.
‘This is exactly what we needed,’ said the customs authorities at the end.
The ‘amusing’ customs story continue. The authorities of the same country also refused to allow entry to wheelchairs without a technical passport. ‘I knew it didn’t exist, so I knew that they had never seen one, so I made one. I found a wheelchair catalogue and using Adobe Photoshop I cropped the people out and the information that wasn’t necessary,’ says Christopher. The result was simple and perfect. ‘This is exactly what we needed,’ said the customs authorities at the end. This is where logistics is best – at problem solving.
Other items GAiN ships regularly are food and mobility equipment. The latter changes the lives of many disabled people in countries where disabilities are seen as a sin and a curse from the gods. Mobility is becoming more and more important and lack of accessibility could shape whole households.
The future holds many challenges for humanitarian logistics. One of the biggest is corruption as most NGOs operate in countries with mainly two points of revenue. The first is taxes, and the second tourism, but only if the state is stable enough. Authorities in this counties have started to refuse giving NGO status to many organisations as this means they will not get any tax revenue. ‘Moving forward, it is going to get more difficult. Even advances in technology can’t combat good old-fashioned human corruption,’ Christopher tells me. Operations are becoming more expensive in an industry that already needs to lower cost without jeopardising its efficiency. On top of that NGOs have to deal with the continuously changing landscape of tariffs and international politics.
Finally, I ask what can be done to make things easier for NGOs and its logistics operations. Money would help, but logistics managers from any part of the industry are used to being the cost-cutter. What is really needed, according to Christopher, is better understanding of the risks. Many companies send items without really making sure they will be accepted and end up in a hard situations where they need to explain what has happened to their donors.