Help when and where it's needed

How humanitarian logistics is making a difference

Logistics is a serious business. Ensuring that resources and goods are delivered on time with a high level of cost efficiency is vital to the success of organizations around the globe. But the way logistics is managed and executed can also have a profound impact on people’s lives, even to the extent of being the difference between life and death, explains Professor Maria Besiou, associate professor of humanitarian logistics at KLU.

Humanitarian logistics is the logistics activity triggered when there is a disaster such as an earthquake. “It is also all the logistics activities of the development programs that humanitarian organizations operate at a disaster site, focusing on improving the life quality of the people there and building local capacity and resilience to a future disasters,” she said. “Examples of development programs are healthcare, water and sanitation, and education projects.”

Besiou adds that non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and non-profit organizations such as the Red Cross and the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) deliver vital aid and assistance around the world. However, they don’t always have all the resources they need to do so.

“Until recently, these organizations considered logistics an auxiliary function that was not of prime importance,” said Besiou. “Their core business is to help their beneficiaries, so in many cases nurses, for instance, would take care of the logistics. After some time, the NGOs and donors started to realize that they needed to professionalize this aspect more and began employing people who had experience in logistics.”

This change in thinking gained impetus after the 2004 tsunami in Asia, says Besiou: “The humanitarian organizations faced many challenges and many tourists from developed countries were also victims. The disaster received a lot of media coverage and the NGOs did not react in the most effective way in all cases, so afterwards they were under pressure to professionalize their logistics activities.”

Not that the solution is a matter of simply applying the principles of commercial logistics to the distribution of aid. “When you have a commercial company, you know who your client is. In humanitarian logistics it’s more difficult,” she explained. “You have children in Africa who are suffering from malnutrition and they are your ‘customers,’ but at the same time they are not paying. You have to satisfy your donor and those children at the same time.”
A commercial business also more or less knows what its demand is going to be, but aid organizations do not enjoy this luxury. “For example, you cannot say that you’ll start sending one million tons of food aid to Haiti because you know tomorrow an earthquake will take place there,” she said.

Given the intangibles involved, it’s clearly a field of expertise that requires strong adaptability and problem-solving skills from its practitioners. They also need to understand the environment they are working in, be able to set priorities, and remain calm under pressure.

“If you are a logistician sent to a remote place that has experienced a disaster and you have to build everything from scratch, you cannot always operate by the book. You just need to transport something from place A to place B, otherwise people will die.”

Besiou says it was “pure luck” that she became involved in humanitarian logistics. She comes from a small town near Thessaloniki, in Greece, and completed her PhD in Mechanical Engineering and Operations Management when she was 27.

Besiou was doing post-doctoral research at IN-SEAD in France, when she was asked to join a research project on humanitarian logistics. “I said, ‘Why not? It cannot be that different from commercial logistics.’ But I quickly realized it’s completely different. Since then, I have worked on research projects with the Red Cross, I have been to Uzbekistan with Doctors without Borders, and I was at a refugee camp in Tanzania. ”

As well as studying how humanitarian logistics differs from commercial logistics, Besiou’s students look at disaster management and development program case studies and talk to practitioners about their work. The students also acquire first-hand experience in working with humanitarian organizations through internships with organizations such as the WFP and World Vision in places as far-flung as Kenya and the Philippines.

In addition to teaching, Besiou is involved in a number of research projects – including investigating the impact of fundraising on humanitarian logistics. With Laura Turrini and Joern Meissner of KLU, she co-authored a paper on the subject that won the “Best Paper” award at the Humanitarian Operations and Crisis Management (HOCM) Production and Operations Management Society (POMS) Annual Conference in Washington, DC this year. It’s not the first time that she’s been honored by the society: Besiou picked up the HOCM POMS “Best Paper” award in 2012 together with Alfonso Pedraza-Martinez and Luk Van Wassenhove and was appointed vice president of outreach at HOCM College in 2013.

Given the increasing awareness and importance of humanitarian logistics, Besiou is a regular speaker at conferences such as POMS and the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS) conference. This year, she has also presented her work at the European Conference on Operational Research (EURO) in Glasgow and the European Operations Management Association (EurOMA) conference in Switzerland.

By Jeff Kavanagh