Coordinating Aid Efforts - The Genesis of a Humanitarian Relief Coordination Platform

When a major crisis strikes around the world, UN agencies and NGOs spring into action to mobilize relief efforts. The next crucial step is getting the aid where it needs to be. This job is significantly more complex in scenarios involving refugees, military conflict, and major infrastructure damage. Such efforts, say Professor Luk N. Van Wassenhove and Researcher Ramina Samii, require highly coordinated logistical processes.

by Luk Van Wassenhove, Ramina Samii
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

After any major humanitarian disaster, often more than a dozen groups – from the World Health Organization, the World Food Program, and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees to UNICEF, Oxfam, the International Federation of Red Cross & Red Crescent Societies, and Medécins Sans Frontiers – spring into action to provide durable goods (food, water, blankets, tents, medicine) and personnel (doctors, nurses, engineers, technicians). Whether responding to a natural disaster or a civil war, humanitarian organizations need to act fast, and, most importantly, get the right aid to the people who need it. In these two Case Studies, Luk N. Van Wassenhove, The Henry Ford Chaired Professor of Manufacturing, and Ramina Samii, Research Associate, review a fairly recent concept, the United Nations Joint Logistics Centre (UNJLC), which was established to deal exclusively with logistics issues in complex environments, and show how it was used to respond to the crisis in Afghanistan that unfolded after the events of September 11, 2001.

In the first Case, The United Nations Joint Logistics Centre (UNJLC): The Genesis of a Humanitarian Relief Coordination Platform, the authors take us back to 2000, when a series of four cyclones ravaged Mozambique, producing the worst floods in the country’s recent history. With airstrips, roads and bridges under water, airlifts were the only feasible means to rescue victims and deliver basic relief. But which of the many UN organizations were equipped to provide the kind of logistical support required to make efficient use of limited and expensive (aircraft) resources? The Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance, the UN body mandated for coordination, turned to the idea of a joint logistics centre, which was first used in 1996 during a major humanitarian crisis in Eastern Zaire.

The concept behind a UNJLC is to bring together specialists in logistics on an as-needed basis to quickly provide on-site, inter-agency logistical support during a crisis. Working in conjunction with UN agencies and NGOs, a UNJLC will gather, collate, analyze, and disseminate key information that allows these groups to optimize their activities, helping to avoid wasteful competition or duplication within the humanitarian organizations.

In addition to providing updated information on airfields, airport warehouses, fuel depots and fuel availability, availability of trucks, and the conditions of roads, bridges, railways, ports and barges, the UNJLC provides crucial information on border crossing points, customs clearance procedures and visa requirements.

By early 2001, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (composed of representatives from 200-250 UN and NGO humanitarian agencies) formally endorsed the idea of the UNJLC and determined that it would serve under the custodianship of the World Food Program. The group was in the process of drafting a Field Operations Manual when the attacks of September 11, 2001, occurred.

The ensuing crisis in Afghanistan would prove to be the UNJLC’s first official, and, perhaps, most difficult, action to date. In this second Case, the authors trace the UNJLC’s activities during the first six months of its Afghan effort – from its ramp-up through its efforts to address bottlenecks affecting transportation and warehousing, to its key role as an ‘information broker’. It is this role, say its supporters, that UNJLC offers the greatest value. Through its website, for example, the UNJLC kept humanitarian organizations abreast of airlift schedules and operations procedures, often providing early warning of potential bottlenecks, such as petroleum shortages.

The Cases offer students a concrete example of the key role played by logistics in a humanitarian conflict, as well as an understanding of some of the obstacles facing humanitarian organizations in carrying out their missions.


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