The twenty-first century coupled with some of the largest natural disasters ever known has brought great advances in how to provide humanitarian aid and made the public recognize the important role logistics has to play in disaster relief. (Kovács & Spens, 2007)
The definition of humanitarian logistics according to Apte (2007, p. 17) is that it’s a “special branch of logistics management managing the response supply chain of critical supplies and services, dealing with challenges such as demand surges, uncertain supplies, critical time windows and the vast scope surrounding its operations.
” As humanitarian logistics has started to receive a major increase in attention, giving rise to the development of specialized logistics divisions by major international NGOs to support both their activities as well as to the humanitarian community at large. (Vega, 2013) These divisions are also known as “humanitarian service providers” (HSP), designed to carry out tasks for humanitarian organizations in procurement, warehousing, and transportation management. (Shulz & Becken, 2010)
Nevertheless, the growing trend of outsourcing has evolved the role of logistics service providers from simply offering transportation services to a wide array of services, including warehousing, packaging, cross-docking, inventory, and technology management.
(Zacharia et al., 2011) This has made LSPs become major players in supply chains and given their worldwide coverage they should’ve grown into important players in the context of humanitarian logistics as well. (Vega & Roussat, 2015)
What Vega & Roussat’s (2015) research would suggest is that, in humanitarian logistics, there isn’t that much discussion on the role LSPs in academic literature, where contributions mainly call for further research in that area.
What Vega & Roussat’s (2015) analysis found regarding what roles logistics service providers could play, led to the identification of three main roles LSPs could play in humanitarian supply chains. LSPs could either act as “members”, “tools” or “actors”. The “member” role assumes that while not systematically present, they still are a piece of the puzzle, where the members themselves and relations between them varies depending on the relief situation and its requirements. The second “tool” role is where members call on LSPs as operators for specific tasks, like when members don’t have their fleet of transportation but instead outsource to third-party logistics providers. The third role of an “actor”, paints LSPs as active players in humanitarian supply chains. Focusing on managing the entire operation instead of only transport and warehousing.
As humanitarian logistics by its very nature is characterized as an environment faced by turbulence and volatile situations, means that it’s not without its own set of challenges. (Kovács & Spens, 2007) Where supply patterns and demand are unpredictable and unclear, means that more often than not that trying to predict lead time is more than often difficult, and that the available lead time often is extremely short. (Beamon & Balic, 2008; Kovács & Spens, 2009) What’s also an issue in humanitarian logistics is the coordination and collaboration among agencies due to conflicting goals and mandates. (Kovács & Spens, 2009) Where a general lack of willingness to share information, lack of transparency among players, and structural conflicts often ensure that collaboration happens on an ad hoc basis during a crisis, making it difficult to establish a long-term strategic collaboration. (Numala et. al., 2017)
From a supply chain perspective, both humanitarian and commercial sectors share most of the same supply chain elements, therefore it’s reasonable to suggest that the methods and tools used by commercial supply chains could be adapted to humanitarian supply chains as well as the advantages. (Beamon & Balic, 2008)
For LSPs, the benefits of partnering with humanitarian organizations can yield a couple of different benefits. Partnering with humanitarian organizations that have decades of expertise managing front-line relief operations, well-established networks, access to communities, and key relationships with stakeholders and local governments, opens up more markets and in turn new possibilities. What also should be mentioned is the benefit for LSPs to take a role in humanitarian logistics to mitigate the impacts that natural disasters, since natural disasters impact both productivity, growth, and welfare of the LSP’s customers, showing the possibility of mitigating overwhelming potential business losses by investing, contributing and cooperating with the humanitarian sector. Due to the very nature of humanitarian logistics, operations require sufficient experience and a high degree of adaptability, which means that in such situations, establishing a partnership with an experienced actor would be a good solution, since the learning-by-doing approach could be very risky in such a situation. (Numala et. al., 2017)
In summary, the benefits that could be derived from cross-sector partnerships, between the LSPs and the humanitarian sectors are resources that they share. LSPs gain access to the humanitarian sector network, access to communities, and knowledge related to humanitarian operations. Whereas the humanitarian sector gains the availability of funding, information technology, and expertise from the highly standardized and mature supply chains. (Pettit & Beresford, 2009)
A real-life example of horizontal collaboration in humanitarian logistics is an LSP taking on the “tool” role to manage the humanitarian supply chain. This would be DHLs Get Airports Ready for Disasters program (GARD, part of DHLs GoHelp Program) that started in 2009, teaming up with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), to design a workshop program for airport managers and staff from disaster management agencies to make sure that infrastructure, especially airports are disaster-ready, where DHLs aviation experts would coach them, helping them assess the airports and prepare for any logistics challenges posed by disaster crises. As of 2019, more than 45 airports and 1200 representatives have participated worldwide in these workshops. (DHL, 2019)
The Cooperation between DHL and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), has made it possible to establish a global network of Disaster Response Teams (DRTs), assisting airports with handling relief goods after a natural disaster has stricken. These teams can be deployed within 72 hours to any affected airport participating, making sure that relief supplies can be accepted and passed on in a coordinated manner. This is provided completely free of charge. (DHL, 2019)
The scope of activities DRTs is involved with includes handling goods and assistance with customs processes, including warehousing, inventory management, loading, and repacking of relief goods. After each DRT deployment follows an intense assessment based on reports and discussions with OCHA, so that recommendations can be made to further improve future deployments, help DRTs become more efficient, and to make the partnership itself between DHL and OCHA run smoothly. (OCHA & DHL Group, 2016)
The benefits of these two initiatives are that is has demonstrated that public and private partnerships with a clear focus and a long term approach leave behind a successful track record, that showcases that the combination of very different capabilities and strengths could be an essential asset in preparing and responding to humanitarian emergencies, showing that public-private partnerships are here to stay. (OCHA & DHL Group, 2016)
As the need of addressing efficiently and jointly, humanitarian challenges will continue to grow, and making the private sector an equal partner in all stages of humanitarian action gives humanitarian logistics the possibility to harness the full power of the innovation, initiative, and the technological prowess that the private sector possesses. (OCHA & DHL Group, 2016)