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Book Review: Humanitarian Logistics


Humanitarian Logistics: Meeting the Challenges of Preparing for and Responding to Disasters (Kogan Page, 2014), by Peter Tatham and Martin Christopher, provides a look inside the challenges faced by the people and organizations providing relief after disaster strikes.


Don’t let the title and subtitle fool you. Although the topic is targeted, there are benefits to be gained by more than one reading audience. As the authors and their team of contributors point out, there are many commercial sector best practices that humanitarian logistics can benefit from. I would add to this that there are just as many opportunities for return gains through new thinking and altered perspectives. As stated in the introduction, “One of the distinguishing features of modern supply networks – both in the world of business as well as in the humanitarian arena – is that they are characterized by uncertainty and, hence, unpredictability.” (p. 5) Obviously, the concern associated with the loss of human life is more severe than stock-outs, but some of the same measures can improve both.

One challenge faced by both sectors is the need to respond well to uncertainty. In commercial supply chains the uncertainty is usually associated with risks of disruption or quality. In humanitarian operations, it is the sheer unexpectedness of the event itself and its aftermath.

Improved communication in the face of uncertainty can be the difference between success and failure. Imperfect flows of information (in and out) must be anticipated and overcome. For instance, for the first 1-2 weeks after a disaster, the response is likely to be a ‘push’ effort where outside parties decide what to send in. After that, the people affected must be allowed to ‘pull’ as requirements become more specific. Unnecessary relief efforts can cause as many problems as they are intended to solve. In their coverage of the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia, the authors wrote, “Overall, the amount of unsolicited and inappropriate aid presented a logistic problem in its own right in all the countries affected.” (p. 133)

Cooperation between organizations or agencies is another shared challenge. In the commercial sector we are constantly hearing about the need to collaborate with our supply partners in order to innovate and exceed expectations. Humanitarian organizations often have to work together, even allowing their systems to be included in a shared interface, in order to get the work done.

From a specific disaster standpoint, the chapter on the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia, as well as the concerns of a repeat in 2012, was fascinating. It just so happens that two of the book’s contributors were in Thailand in 2012 to witness first hand the changes and preparations that had been made as a result of 2004 and the work that had yet to be done. Even some of the preparations, such as signage and communication capabilities, were not found to be lacking until they were put to the test.

One characteristic of humanitarian logistics is that the funds do not come from the beneficiaries like they do in the case of a commercial enterprise and its customers or suppliers. In this way, a humanitarian logistics operation has more in common with publicly-funded procurement. The money being spent is not always coming from the person receiving the benefit.

If, as the book states, humanitarian logistics is a growing practice area, it is not unreasonable to think that many of today’s commercial practitioners will find themselves called upon to take on this new role in the future. Indeed, the growth of commercial demand from and trade with previously cut off geographies has laid the foundation for the networks used to move relief supplies and assistance after a disaster. This book lays the foundation for both sides – commercial and humanitarian – to learn from and assist each other.

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