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Novel Approaches to Humanitarian Logistics: Transforming the Landscape of the Supply Chain
Eric James, Laura James, Barbara Myers

Failed supply chains open the door to disaster for relief efforts. The backbone of all aid operations, international supply chains present many challenges. As demand for humanitarian assistance rises, the sector’s dependence on complex supply chains falters on sudden and unpredictable spikes in demand, hard-to-reach locations, disruptions caused by conflict, leakage, spoilage and other commonplace losses. There are new high- and low-tech applications that can reduce reliance on burdensome supply chains. These can provide tailored products while empowering affected populations and dramatically altering the practice – and increasing the success – of humanitarian response.

Anyone working in the field long enough will know the frustration of a broken supply chain. These are disrupted by poor and sometimes inoperable physical conditions and communications following a disaster event. Simply getting the right goods to the right people in the right place at the right time is not so simple or cheap. Logistics account for an estimated 60-80 percent of costs related to humanitarian aid. Yet despite recent improvements in the area of humanitarian logistics, major shortcomings remain.

New technology is opening the possibility of moving manufacturing to where supplies are needed in addressing the challenges inherent in this central part of any assistance project. Novel approaches, like those implemented by the humanitarian NGO Field Ready, stand to transform the landscape of the supply chain.

The key – partnerships and capacity building to provide sustainable manufacturing of essential supplies in the field. This includes 3D printing and other production techniques to improve logistic efficiency while also engaging affected people and strengthening local capacity.

 The Challenge of Humanitarian Logistics

The standard humanitarian supply chain moves products through a series of long- and short-haul shipments comprised of at least six phases – planning/needs identification; procurement; shipping; storage/warehouse; distribution; maintenance/disposal. All demand full accountability and efficiency to be effective. Efforts to improve efficiency and effectiveness have focused mainly on the initial three phases, from planning to shipping. The later phases suffer from unresolved challenges, including:

- An inability to correct ordering errors and replace lost and damaged stock;

- Vulnerability to disruption and delay during regional crises;

- Little to no consideration for cultural needs and individual “one-offs,” such as fitted medical parts, replacement parts for crutches, eyeglasses, and parts for vehicles and generators;

- Harsh and changing conditions creating the need for replacement parts and other items difficult to predict.