Humanitarian Logistics

The scope and complexity of humanitarian disasters have greatly increased over the past years. The book ‘Humanitarian Logistics’, which was published in February, gives a clear overview of the challenges and developments in humanitarian logistics. Stefanie Vermaesen (Accenture Nederland) and Diederik Vergunst (State of Flux London) interviewed Professor Luk Van Wassenhove, director of the INSEAD Social Innovation Centre and co-author of ‘Humanitarian Logistics’, for Supply Chain Movement. Vermaesen and Vergunst both graduated from Erasmus University Rotterdam, with a research thesis about the logistics of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders).


‘Humanitarian Logistics’ gives an overview of the possibilities and limitations of collaboration both for the humanitarian sector and the business community. Van Wassenhove comments: ‘Companies are willing to help, but don’t always know where or how. This is why my book mainly focuses on giving a clear, accessible account of the specific context and challenges of humanitarian logistics.’ According to Van Wassenhove, companies and humanitarian organisations can learn much through collaboration and the exchange of knowledge and competencies. Because companies are increasingly active in parts of the world with extremely complicated local conditions, they are increasingly exposed to a dynamic, hard-to-predict context. This gives rise to questions like: how do you build the trust of the local community? How can you reach local or regional governments? Van Wassenhove points out that humanitarian organisations tend to have a great deal of experience dealing with just these issues.

On the other hand, humanitarian organisations often underestimate the importance and impact of proper logistics. Van Wassenhove: ‘It is customary to exchange product information via ERP in the business world, but the humanitarian sector at times suffers from severe confusion of tongues, with everyone using their own product codes and terminology. Standardisation of these terms through trainings, but also the active use of proven logistics concepts like vendor managed inventory and postponement might, for instance, very much improve warehouse management in the sector. In the past, humanitarian organisations did not have many opportunities to carry such measures through, because a lot of their funds were earmarked and they were only allowed to use them for specific disasters. These last few years, especially since the tsunami in Asia, the importance of building a logistical infrastructure with pre-positioned goods at strategic locations has been amply proven.’

‘Humanitarian Logistics’ pays a lot of attention to the partnership between TNT and the World Food Programme (WFP). Van Wassenhove: ‘TNT offers the WFP specific competencies, such as a mobilisable surge capacity for warehouse or air capacity, while TNT gains important experience in operating in countries that are difficult to access.’ This example, in Van Wassenhove’s opinion, illustrates the major progress made these last years. Humanitarian organisations are increasingly working together and with the business community to utilise benefits of scale and share knowledge and competencies. Van Wassenhove points out that this is just a drop in the ocean. ‘I would recommend companies that are interested in this sector to start with the countries in which they already have regular business activities. Through closing agreements with local partners and drawing up joint plans of action for such things as floods or other natural disasters, you as a company can play a crucial and strategic role in emergency aid.’

Recommended by Hau Lee
Hau Lee, Thoma Professor, Graduate School of Business, Stanford University: ‘I highly recommend this book to humanitarian logistics professionals as well as business supply chain practitioners. This is the first book that has integrated effective approaches in humanitarian logistics and business supply chain management in a most instructive and inspiring manner, and both sectors can learn so much from it.’