Factoring in Neutrality Costs - Logistics Response to the 2002 Food Crisis in Southern Africa

The 2002 food crisis in Southern Africa was the worst to hit the region in the past 10 years. In this case study, Luk Van Wassenhove focuses on the implementation of a humanitarian logistics operation for the distribution of food donations. It illustrates the complexity of operating in a humanitarian crisis context, further impacted the HIV pandemic.

by Luk Van Wassenhove, Rolando Tomasini
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

The economic situation and unprecedented demographic ramifications of the HIV pandemic made the 2002 crisis in Southern Africa much more complex with greater impact on the population. In this case study, Genetically Modified (GM) Food Donations and the Cost of Neutrality: Logistics Response to the 2002 Food Crisis in Southern Africa, the questions posed regard flexibility and neutrality in an emergency situation. Thus, INSEAD's Luk Van Wassenhove, the Henry Ford Professor in Manufacturing, together with Rolando Tomasini, Research Associate, focus on the flexibility of the supply chain in the context of humanitarian emergencies, and more specifically this 2002 crisis.

The World Food Program (WFP) had responded early to the crisis by setting up a regional logistics centre in Uganda, then in Johannesburg, making preliminary logistics preparations: reinforcing port capacity, setting up transportation agreements, storage and distribution arrangements.

Yet, the unexpected happened when Zambia decided to reject food donations when traces of genetically modified organisms (GMO) were detected in the whole-kernel corn shipments. The other nations eventually accepted the GM maize as long as it was milled but Zambia stood firm in its position. Milling enabled distribution of the donated grain even though it had earlier been rejected and actually reinforced its nutritional value. While costly, these were positive benefits and the process illustrated a high level of flexibility in order to finally get the goods through to the people in need.

Neutrality is the second major issue raised in this case, since decisions by the different players set the boundaries within which the humanitarian activity had to operate. Zambia had the right to decide, as a sovereign state, what it wanted to admit into its territory. On the other hand, the WFP, like other humanitarian agencies, was bound by the humanitarian principles of impartiality and neutrality.

It had to respond to the urgent need of a crisis without taking sides in the operation and at the same time, respecting the will of local governments and cultures. As a rule, these principles are to be observed throughout all coordination activities. This can mean incurring additional costs and redesigning operations as quickly as possible to meet the needs of the people and comply to the conditions of the recipient countries.

Looking at the problem more closely, one may reflect on whether a country can refuse food help under an emergency situation or if should it be imposed, even if genetically modified. A good example of a real situation where the humanitarian agency's skills in negotiation and problem solving are tested.


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