7 Things you might not know about Logistics in Humanitarian Assistance and International Development

by Bill Rohs, Operations & Logistics Specialist

 1Sometimes you have to figure out what to do with the strangest things.

When a large humanitarian crisis occurs such as the 2009 earthquake in Haiti or the 2004 tsunami in SE Asia, there is a large outpouring of donations of all kinds.  While intentions are good, sometimes the utility of these items is not necessarily appropriate for the circumstances. For example, there had been reports of South Pacific islands receiving shipments of down winter jackets.

In my case, while working on an island off North Sumatra in Indonesia post-tsunami, I found myself on the receiving end of 18 pallets of high sugar fruit drink and 5 large boxes of teddy bears.  Our organization’s main office didn’t know what to do with it, so they sent it on to us.  We tried to donate the fruit punch to other organizations that might have a use for it, but no one wanted it.  The teddy bears turned out to be donated from individual children and each one had a handwritten tag revealing that child’s name.  After talking with our local staff, we decided that the best plan was to donate the bears to an organization working with children as well as some to local area orphanages. It was amazing to witness the smiles and laughter as the kids lit up receiving these gently used and very loved animals.  Each orphanage also received a healthily (or not-so-healthy) supply of fruit punch to boot.

2Getting out behind the spreadsheets and getting to know people is the way to get things done.

One thing I always try to do is get to know all the local suppliers, customs agents, taxi drivers, and porters in the airports.  This is where my background in the restaurant industry has certainly come in handy–I can talk to just about anyone.  These local people all can be a great resource for better pricing, making your order a priority, and looking out for you when there is a problem–and there is always a problem.  Plus, learning more about the local culture as well as sharing smiles always brightens those problem days.

3You can get a lot of things done AFTER the official meetings.

We were at a UN health cluster meeting where we were informed of a new outbreak of a deadly type of malaria.  The Ministry of Health then approached our organization for assistance.  At that time, our organization had manpower, but none of the necessary supplies or the financial resources to scale up operations to an entirely different district outside of those in which we had been working.  That evening while out to dinner with colleagues from other international organizations, we were able to brainstorm a collaborative response using shared resources.  We were then able to quickly implement this outbreak response.  Just goes to show that trusting relationships built over time coupled with hard work and ingenuity can go a long way.

4Your greatest resource is your staff and their local knowledge; by listening to them you will solve a lot of problems.

Knowing the best roads, where to find the best dealers, what days are market days in each village, etc. is all invaluable information.  I learned to really listen to the answers staff members are giving you to get the right information.

For example, we were trying to schedule a distribution in a village on a Monday, and I asked if we could go to that village on Monday.  My staff, who was always eager to please, repeatedly told me that we could go there.  Monday came, and I said: “Let’s go, right?”  My staff then admitted that we couldn’t go today because it was Market Day.  It wasn’t that my staff had lied or not told the truth.  It was that I had to learn what to ask and to empower them not to only give me the answer I wanted to hear.

5Drivers can be your best friends.

You spend a lot of time with drivers (who may or may not be your organization’s employees) going from site to site. You really get to know a lot about them and can become good friends.  In one case, on a mass vaccination campaign, we had to drive 2 hours each way to reach our villages—which gives you a lot of time to talk and to learn.  Many of the drivers I have been fortunate to know have really looked out for me to make sure I was safe, so I always tried to look out for them too.

6You do much more than logistics.

The job requires you to be the jack-of-all-trades.  You are a little bit electrician, builder, buyer, accountant, manager, peacekeeper, problem solver, and general handy man.  When anything is broken people come to you.  As some of my team members have told me, a good “loggie” can be GOLD!

7 – Maintenance is the key to sustainability.

Working with a local staff member who I helped to train and who taught me quite a few things in return, we did a maintenance check on all the equipment in a hospital together—equipment that was already there and things that had just arrived via shipping container.

We made all of the necessary repairs and set up equipment maintenance schedules to make sure it runs for as long as possible.  Many environments are very tough on equipment, and it just won’t last if you don’t take care of it properly.  Be diligent, find your local resources, and build for sustainability.

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