Industry, research and humanitarian organisations join forces:
Optimising humanitarian response
What prevents help from arriving when disaster strikes? The objective of the innovation project Contribute is to optimise humanitarian response efforts, improve use of resources and develop a new business concept.
Millions of people in Japan have been affected by the ramifications of the earthquakes and tsunami of March 2011. The first reports from the International Red Cross show that more than 5.5 million meals, 3.2 million bottles of water and 125 000 blankets have been distributed.
Focusing on logistics
The challenges regarding logistics are formidable - and costly.
Each year the world spends NOK 90-120 billion on humanitarian response efforts in areas where disasters have occurred. Nearly 80 per cent of this is used for transport and logistics.
“We believe we can reduce the cost of humanitarian response logistics by 20 per cent, thereby freeing up a whopping NOK 18-24 billion for use in other areas,” says the project manager of Contribute, Professor Marianne Jahre at BI Norwegian School of Management. More effective humanitarian response efforts will not only save lives, they will also reduce the long-term impacts of a disaster.
The Contribute project receives part of its funding from the Research Council of Norway’s research programme on Intelligent Freight Transport (SMARTRANS).
Norwegian shipping giant involved
The Wilh. Wilhelmsen group, a global leader in the maritime industry, is Contribute’s contractual partner with the Research Council. Together with BI Norwegian School of Management, Everywhere – Humanitarian Response and Logistics Services, and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the Norwegian shipping giant is working to find better solutions for getting humanitarian relief to disaster areas.
“Our fleet operates in areas where natural disasters often strike. The vessels at Wilh. Wilhelmsen’s disposal have enormous load capacity and are unique in that they can be unloaded at ports without the special infrastructure that, for example, container ships require. The group also has land-based infrastructure and storage capacity all over the world in the form of terminals and warehouses. We have what it takes to make a difference in humanitarian response efforts,” says Vidar Hole, Business Director for Maritime Logistics Services at Wilh. Wilhelmsen.
Wilh. Wilhelmsen is a commercial player with offices in some 80 countries. Operations in many of these places are much more demanding than in Western countries. Mr Hole freely admits that the possibility of capturing new market areas in the future is a key motivating factor behind the company’s involvement in the project.
“Our aim is to develop a concrete concept that can be tested in collaboration with humanitarian organisations in the course of the project period. After that we will develop a business model. We expect to have our business activities up and running before 2013,” he explains.
Better tools yield better help
Although each disaster is different, the logistical challenges share many of the same features each time. Aid flooded in after the earthquake in Haiti. But the infrastructure broke down, and the humanitarian relief workers were not able to provide help to the hard-struck people quickly enough. The same problem arises when floods hit Asia or hurricanes strike the US. Regardless of the type of disaster or where it is located, victims primarily need the same things: clean water and medical help. The next priority is shelter and food.
“During autumn 2010 we compiled information on 63 disasters in the 2005-2010 period. Although we will continue to collect data, we are now focusing primarily on collating the material we have in a database. The database will provide an overview of the amount and types of relief needed, and the logistics that go into getting assistance to victims. It will give humanitarian response actors the basis for improving planning, designing appropriate preparedness routines and providing help more cheaply and quickly when disaster strikes,” explains Professor Jahre.
A wide array of actors are involved in humanitarian response operations. Humanitarian organisations, commercial businesses, military forces and other contributors, such as, for example, the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, will all derive considerable benefit from a tool of this type.
“The aim is to make the database publicly accessible so anyone and everyone can use it. No systematic overview of humanitarian response logistics currently exists,” says Professor Jahre.
Planning can save lives
The biggest challenge is planning. It is too late to start planning once a disaster occurs – humanitarian response efforts must be launched immediately. Adequate preparedness is crucial, and it must be developed in “peacetime”. It is essential that the various actors know about each others’ expertise so they can figure out how to cooperate.
The Wilh. Wilhelmsen group had a vessel moored nearby during the humanitarian response operations in Haiti. “We wanted to help, but we did not have the time to plan how the relief organisations could use our ship. With a better planning tool and contracts with the organisations in place, the vessel could have been used to transport supplies to the disaster area, or it could have served as a floating hospital or a secure camp for relief workers,” says Mr Hole. He envisions a variety of ways the company can help, for example in Asia, where there are areas that are often hit by flooding along the coast that are accessible by ship.
“If we have a field hospital stored in China, for example, and a flood causes a disaster in Thailand, we can easily transport the hospital in one of our ships. The field hospital can be set up on board during the voyage and be fully operative when the ship arrives. In other words, we can deliver a floating hospital and the necessary supplies to the heart of the disaster area. Furthermore, a ship can produce 20-30 tonnes of fresh water per day and has room enough to set up hundreds of tents,” he explains.
Today nearly all aid is flown in. But airports are often more affected by natural disasters than sea access points. What is more, air transport is expensive. It costs nearly NOK 2 million to transport 10 containers by air – versus under NOK 200 000 for transport by sea. The containers can often reach relief workers as quickly by ship as by plane.
Social responsibility, research and business
The Wilh. Wilhelmsen group has a long tradition in research and development activity. Its co-owned subsidiary Wallenius Wilhelmsen Logistics has become a leader in environmental technology for ships.
“We take our corporate social responsibility very seriously. And a measure such as the Contribute project gives us extra motivation internally,” says Bjørn Rud, the project manager at Wallenius Wilhelmsen Logistics.
Mr Rud explains that at his company corporate social responsibility, like research, is always linked to commercial activities.
“We’re not interested in publishing scientific articles. We want to develop new concepts and test new markets. Close contact with BI Norwegian School of Management has enabled us to gain access to the leading international research groups in logistics research, giving us very valuable scientific input,” he says.
Fruitful contact between the research community and industry
For Professor Jahre, on the other hand, scientific publication is an important component of the Contribute project – although not quite yet.
“In Contribute, research and documentation activities will mainly take place after the development phase is completed. Once we have collected the data and generated useful findings, we can then produce scientific articles. We find that many articles published today are based on poor empirical data. Contribute involves complex research, and we want to perform good analyses on the basis of sound data before we start publishing,” she says.
Collaboration between a commercial player and a research institution has its challenges. But, according to Mr Rud, the benefits by far outweigh the challenges.
“There is much to be gained from working with researchers for a company like ours that always tries to stay up and running. Researchers take a more long-term approach and their research activities are not necessarily tied to the needs of a single company. This means that they may have totally different ideas and see things from a different angle than we do. More companies should cultivate contact with academia, as it helps to ensure that the research community and the business community have a better view of the same reality. Research must not be carried out in isolation from industry,” he asserts.
An international logistics company on board
The Contribute project is part of a larger-scale research initiative to improve humanitarian response logistics. The company Everywhere – Humanitarian Response and Logistics Services is a key partner in the project. With its specialists in humanitarian response logistics, the company has played a leading role in coordinating logistics for most of the major disasters that have occurred in the past 10-15 years. According to Director of Everywhere, Ian Heigh, each participant in the project provides unique knowledge.
“Contribute is creating unique and valuable opportunities to bring together key actors to learn from each other’s area of special expertise. We are mapping challenges in the research phase, after which we will develop methods to solve the identified problems,” he explains.
According to Professor Jahre, Everywhere possesses unique expertise and experience that is essential to Contribute.
“The concepts and basis for the database we are working on come to a large extent from Ian Heigh and Everywhere. In many ways the database is the institutionalisation of the knowledge Heigh and other humanitarian response logisticians carry around in their heads,” she explains.
The company itself has very clear expectations for the project results.
“I expect that Contribute will result in a solid platform comprising strategies, innovative approaches and practical tools that can be used and further developed by the actors involved in humanitarian response efforts. The tools will improve the assistance provided and reduce the amount of time and money wasted. That means that an increasingly larger number of victims will receive help,” says Mr Heigh.
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