Humanitarian Teamwork from Logistics Giants

A partnership launched at Davos brings together relief organizations and transport companies, united in a can-do approach to disaster response

Addressing companies at the World Economic Forum's annual meeting in the aftermath of the December, 2004 Southeast Asia tsunami that claimed almost a quarter of a million lives, Peter Bakker, chief executive of Dutch logistics and transport company TNT (TNT.AS), laid out a bold manifesto.

"We should not compete when it comes to saving lives," Bakker said. "We have a social duty to lend our expertise to help solve what has been too often referred to as a 'logistics nightmare'—that is, the prioritization, transportation, storage, and onward distribution of appropriate goods in the immediate aftermath of humanitarian disasters."

Thus, at the Davos Forum in January, 2005, the Logistics and Transportation Industry Humanitarian Workstream was born—an alliance of some of the world's major logistics and transportation companies, including United Parcel Service (UPS), TNT, Agility Logistics (AGLT.KW), and Deutsche Post World Net (DPWGN.F), the parent of DHL.

Putting People First

The first challenge for the member companies was to prove to the humanitarian community that they could put humanitarian goals above business objectives, particularly following disasters where transportation and warehousing services are at a premium.

"Our motivation has always been to use our logistics expertise to help make a difference to people on the ground, when and where we can," says Tarek Sultan, chairman and managing director of Agility. "We recognized from the beginning we would have to take a collaborative approach with the humanitarian community. Our companies took the road of dialogue, transparency, and relationship-building, saying quite openly we are in this for the long haul, sometimes there are going to be bumps, but we will learn from each other and act in good faith."

The journey has not been easy. Indeed, it has been too slow for some, especially since each company had been working as an individual contributor to humanitarian groups. TNT, for example, had a long-established successful partnership with the World Food Program. At its CEO's insistence, the company was prepared to share its tried-and-tested approaches with other firms.

During the Lebanon crisis in 2006, during which 800,000 people were displaced, Agility worked with local Red Cross and Red Crescent operations to move food, blankets, and mobile hospitals into affected areas during the bombing and immediately after the cease-fire. The company's recent projects also include helping transport enough food to feed 43,000 people in Indonesia for the World Food Program after flooding in Jakarta. The firm similarly worked with the local government in Bangladesh to procure and transport food and bottled water after a cyclone, as well as delivering life-support materials to displaced families in Iraq with the International Medical Corps.

DHL had already tested the concept of airport emergency support in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami and Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The concept was developed further into DHL Disaster Response Teams, which are the core element of the company's partnership with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

For its part, UPS linked volunteers and emergency management leaders with operations experts in the U.S. to develop best practices for volunteer engagement in all phases of disaster relief. The Atlanta-based company is a longtime supporter of CARE, a leading humanitarian organization fighting global poverty. In addition to funding, UPS is conducting assessments of CARE facilities in Honduras, Sudan, and Indonesia to help determine ways to improve its emergency response network.

Building Trust

The process of building relationships based on trust was particularly hard, not just between the companies: Words and actions were scrutinized by the humanitarian community along the way. In 2006, UPS and TNT joined forces to offer free warehousing facilities to the United Nations Humanitarian Response Depots, run by the World Food Program in Ghana and Panama. Then in August, 2007, in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, an area still suffering from the impacts of the tsunami, the World Food Program hosted Logistics and Transportation Industry Humanitarian Workstream company managers from Agility, DHL, TNT, and UPS.

The exercise involved training and supporting World Food Program daily activities, such as warehousing, transportation, and distribution. The companies contributed valuable expertise to logistics capacity assessments in Eastern Indonesia. At the same time, the operation represented a controlled run of a new jointly developed concept—Logistics Emergency Teams (LETs). These teams meet a profile of skills and experience, and provide trained and competent individuals with specific core skills, such as airport or warehouse management.

By December, 2007, an agreement between LETs and humanitarian organizations was "endorsed by participants of the logistics cluster, and all look forward to the support of LETs in the future," according to a communiqué. The document acknowledged "it has been a protracted process, but nonetheless the start to growing collective cooperation between the humanitarian and private sectors…"

On Jan. 25, 2008 in Davos, Switzerland, the participants held a press conference to sign a set of guidelines from the World Economic Forum and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs called the "Principles on Public-Private Collaboration in Humanitarian Disaster Response," which will govern the partnership. Josette Sheeran, executive director of the World Food Program, said: "When disaster strikes, our job is to mobilize massive assistance and to make sure it reaches those in need—fast. Private-sector expertise and corporate partnerships are critical to helping us save lives."

LET companies already have started working hard to refine the plan, covering training, deployment, operations in the field, exit strategy, and post-deployment. There is an awareness that all need to understand and respect the triggers for deployment and rules of engagement. The joint guidelines for these—covering everything from restrictions on public relations and commercial advantage to partnership governance—were hard won over a year or so.

Identifying Risk

Beyond the exercise in Southeast Asia, there are preparations to operationalize LETs worldwide in or close to regions of high vulnerability. To this end, the group has identified a correlation between vulnerability to climate change and hydro-meteorological natural disasters, based on research by advisory firm Maplecroft, of which I am the founding director.

The research identifies certain countries that are particularly at risk, including Bangladesh, Bolivia, Botswana, Chad, Niger, Nepal, Laos, Malawi, Mali, Mongolia, Mozambique, Papua New Guinea, and Sudan. Indeed, in its annual natural catastrophes report released Jan. 1, 2008, Munich Re (MUVGN.DE), the world's second-biggest reinsurer, said total losses from natural disasters rose by 50%, to $75 billion last year, as climate change had caused more extreme weather events.

Due to these issues, UPS International President Daniel Brutto has said: "In the face of the increasing impact of international disasters on humanitarian organizations, private-sector support can be more effective if it is collaborative. While not the easiest path, by working with each other and with the humanitarian community we can be better prepared when the need is greatest."

For Deutsche Post/DHL, which has been active in contributing to humanitarian disaster relief over the last few years (most recently through its partnership with the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs), the main value of the Logistics and Transportation Industry Humanitarian Workstream is to share best practices. Klaus Zumwinkel, CEO of Deutsche Post World Net, says: "Doing the right thing in the humanitarian area can be difficult for a commercial company, so it's important to work closely with and learn from the humanitarian community, as well as to share best practice across the industries. Hopefully, our disaster-response experience has not only improved the way we now get involved, but is a useful example for other companies."

He's not the only one interested in the area. Agility's Tarek Sultan says: "It is an exciting time. The Logistics Emergency Teams initiative is the first partnership of its kind: a multistakeholder agreement between major companies that will interface with another multistakeholder partnership, that of the Global Logistics Cluster. It leverages new types of organizational relationships for scale and effectiveness—with a view to bringing better, faster, and more relief to people on the ground."

At the Heart of It: Innovation

TNT's Bakker, who is serving as chairman of the governors of the logistics and transportation community for 2008, underlines the collaborators' sense of purpose and sets the tone for this year: "The focus is preparedness and showing we mean business. We must have in place the means to measure and evaluate the impact of our work. In particular, we need to be aware of how climate change expands the vulnerability of those most at risk from humanitarian disasters."

Innovation will be the name of the game—and that is what logistics and transportation companies do best. This partnership is only beginning and any future mega-catastrophe will test its strength. The good news is the relative lack of major disasters has provided all parties with time to focus on preparedness and to test the "what-ifs."

The bad news is that the number of humanitarian disasters is growing—they are relatively smaller and lower-profile but have worryingly soaked up resources. At the same time, climate change-related droughts and floods seem guaranteed to increase the vulnerability of certain regions of Africa and Asia to natural disasters. The concept of an ever-ready, fully trained, and willing private force to step up to the plate is one of the most impressive and effective corporate social investment programs that I have observed this decade.

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