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Sun 1 Apr 2007 12:00 AM

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Logistics lifesavers

The partnership between logistics companies and humanitarian aid organisations has proved invaluable in transporting relief to countries ravaged by natural disasters and wars. Now, with the launch of Dubai International Humanitarian City, the Middle East is preparing to become an international superhub for the sector.

Humanitarian logistics has come a long way since its first came under the media spotlight with Live Aid during the 1980s. A network of hubs across the world has emerged, as charity organisations bid to keep supplies and vehicles evenly dispatched in order to respond with greater speed and clarity to emergency situations anywhere in the globe.

A shining example of the current shape of the humanitarian logistics sector is found in Dubai. With conflict continuing in the surrounding gulf countries, it is vital that the stock and flow of supplies is maintained. At the heart of the operations is International Humanitarian City (IHC).

Formerly known as Dubai Aid and Humanitarian City, IHC has recently been given a new corporate identity following a merger in October 2005. Providing facilities and services for the local and international relief and development sector, IHC supports the operations of UN agencies and local and international organisations.

Located in Dubai's Business Bay, with future plans to relocate to Jebel Ali Airport, IHC currently comprises of four office buildings and more than 21,000m2 of warehouse space. Many commercial companies are incorporated into the umberella organisation, most notably logistic providers.

"Logistics is a key element of what we are building with Humanitarian City. A majority of the world's crises occur within seven hours flight from Dubai. This means that the emirate, by virtue of its location alone, is a critical link in emergency response. Add to that, Dubai's proven logistics infrastructure and the procurement opportunities available, and emergency response becomes a natural activity for the city," says Walid Hareb, chief executive officer, IHC.

"International Humanitarian City has relationships both with logistics companies in the region, and logistics industry players, to ensure that speedy and effective emergency response can be undertaken. Responding quickly in emergency situations with limited red tape is essential," he adds.

Interest from logistics companies in this sector appears to be reciprocated. As professionals in supply chain management, logistics companies can undoubtedly benefit the UN and other organisations in matching the demands of crisis. Yet, as non profit organisations, where is the benefits for logistics companies in the business sense?

Al-Futtaim has been associated as a humanitarian sub provider for the past four years, but has recently focused its attention towards offering a specialised service for the sector. Launching ‘Aid Service', a supply chain solution for humanitarian aid, the company encapsulates the growing trend of logistics companies wishing to specialise in catering to the transportation of relief supplies.

"It was always at the stage where the humanitarian aid companies were coming to us with their requirements, and we would react to that, but as of last year we decided we needed to be more proactive and actually go out in the market and develop products alongside them," explains Prakash Rochlani, operations manager, industrial, hospitality and aid services, Al-Futtaim.

"The way Dubai is growing as a central hub of this region, with most the multinational corporations starting to move their bases from Geneva to Dubai, means it is also becoming a hub for humanitarian aid customers. We have a lot of aid coming into our central hub that caters for the African region where you find most the droughts and emergency situations, this caters across to Asian countries like Pakistan and some areas of Eastern Europe and the Middle East of course," he adds.

It is the unique needs of the humanitarian aid sector that made Al-Futtaim first realise the need to provide a specialised team of eight men. Dedicated storage space is allocated for supplies in the company's warehouse and a fleet of relief vehicles is stored in its open storage area.

"Within the humanitarian organisations there are many divisions. Some of the departments look after war zone areas, some the relief areas and we are trying to run through them what sort of requirements they need during the emergency and non emergency periods. We are coming up with relevant time lines to cater for them," elaborates Rochlani.

"We are developing procedures, service level agreements and so forth where as soon as there is a crisis they know what to expect from the logistics side of things. For example if there is an emergency in Africa, they will know which providers to call and how long it will take them to deliver, they have the different options of air sea or sea road, and can work out the time by that - it allows the decision making process to speed up. They will understand the feel of the market," he continues.

Immaculate planning of a supply chain is part of the logistics business, but the responsibility lays that much sterner when the cost involved could be human life. The burden is on both the charity organisation and logistics companies to have complete understanding with one another.

TCS Express was involved in the process of supplying disaster relief following the Pakistan earthquake of 2005. From the collection of relief goods to the transportation and distribution to affected areas, the logisticians faced a real race against time. Again planning was identified as the key component in the operation, especially considering the inaccessiblity of certain areas.

"Unfortunately the number of natural disaster continues to increase and humanitarian logistics must be developed further to cope with the situation, perhaps learning a lesson or two from corporate logistics, which has flourished in recent times," says Jamil Janjua, group chief executive, TCS Express Worldwide.

"In fact, creating partnerships with experienced logistics companies, rather than handling such things inhouse, could provide disaster relief organisations with access to better expertise, especially for larger scale incidents such as the earthquake. This would allow them to concentrate on other areas, such as providing first aid or searching for survivors," he asserts.

Such is the unpredicatble and volitiale nature of working in crisis conditions, preparation must be quick and constantly subject to change. Providing either or a combination of road, air and sea transportation is a demanding task in the short time scale often required in times of emergency, and it therefore requires immense flexibility.

Chris Leach has been involved in the air charter industry for the best part of three decades, and is very much a veteran of the humanitarian logistics sector. Currently chairman of Air Charter Service, Leach identifies his first big contract as the Live Aid project. As director of Sudan Airport in 1985, he was in the thick of the relief projection assembled to aid the famine in Africa. A broadcast of the devastating effect of the famine by BBC reporter Michael Burke, sparked a global awareness to the issue of humanitarian relief, a historical moment that has much to do with the modern day response to periods of disaster. As a volunteer he worked with a number of pilots from across the globe in collating knowledge of the air charter industry to respond to the desperate need for food and medical supplies.

Today, Leach continues his work in the humanitarian sector as a consultant for UK aviation, providing them free consultancy for relief charters. "We have won the tender for several years now, to be the multiyear exclusive provider of aircraft for British Aid. The British government has taken on board our expertise and has been doing a lot more," says Chris Leach, chairman, Air Charter Services. "During last October, the government said to the Red Cross they would pay for all the aircraft, so we did every single flight from the UK. We are very big in humanitarian work."

The issue of cost is a delicate one for such a line of business; the client is after all a non profitable organisation. With more and more professional logistics companies becoming involved in the sector, it is of relevance and a topic that must be approached. "We are not in it to make a fortune from them, but we do like to cover our costs and get a bit back. We do work very closely with them in trying to keep costs at a minimum. It is a very sensitive topic, a sensitive area considering they are non profit organisations," says Rochlani of Al-Futtaim.

The nature of humanitarian logistics means it will forever be undergoing improvement and strengthening. Enhancing networks and ensuring supply hubs are evenly dispatched throughout the globe is a constant goal, but the situation is not merely that black and white.

"There is always room for improvement in any situation. For the region there are several areas, which can be improved. First is the availability of cheaper aircraft. In regards to air cargo transport, it is the 15-20 year old aircraft which provide the cheapest flight options, and these aircraft are currently not readily available in the region. To improve regional cost efficiencies, relocating a number of these planes to the region would help," says IHC's Hareb.

Hareb also identifies the need for dedicated customs terminals and runways at airports that can be mobilised for humanitarian response in times of crisis, alongside exclusive e-customs clearance mechanisms. Examining details such as these, it becomes clear the depth of considerations involved in supply chains of this kind. "We are putting in place mechanisms to create networking, both between humanitarian players, but also between these players and donors, governments, individual volunteers, and commercial companies. Sharing knowledge and best practices will improve international aid and development operations and their ability to supply aid and relief," believes Hareb.

"We also believe in education, and at IHC are working with several recognised educational institutions that specialise in humanitarian issues, operations and logistics, to improve the training and education opportunities available to players in the humanitarian community." he concludes.

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