“A cargo plane managed to make an emergency landing at the Banda Aceh airport on January 4, after running into a buffalo on the runway. The landing gear of the Boeing 737 was damaged by the collision, leading to a temporary shutdown of the airport that affected the arrival of humanitarian aid for victims of the tidal wave. Nevertheless, American military helicopters continued to operate. The airport remained closed all day. The incident forced the delay of an inter-agency mission in which the World Food Program participated. Its goal was to evaluate possible logistical channels and long-term needs along the Western coast of Aceh province. Even before the airport was shut down, its air space was approaching capacity limits because of a rising number of humanitarian flights aimed at helping more than 10,000 people in the region affected by the earthquake and tsunami of December 26.”


This press release from the United Nation’s World Food Program describes the problems confronting teams of workers sent to the area to distribute humanitarian aid. In the same document, dated January 6, the WFP requested $256 million in order to feed more than two million victims of the tsunami.


Because of the vast scale of destruction and the high number of deaths that resulted, people are calling this the largest humanitarian disaster since World War Two. More than 170,000 people have perished, and that figure could go higher. To prevent a repeat of this tragedy, many international teams are working to rebuild the region. However, it will not be easy. The killer wave demolished infrastructure, and destroyed hospitals, homes and schools. It also eliminated communications networks, leaving conditions that make it difficult for humanitarian workers to develop plans of action.


“The biggest challenge, which makes it harder, involves the speed of response,” explains Luis Solís, professor of business operations at the Instituto de Empresa business school. “Most of the infrastructure in these places has been damaged, which means many decisions cannot be made quickly. They have to improvise, for example, when it comes to locations where they must coordinate their funds. Also, not of all the money being sent is actually getting to where it is needed the most.”


Solidarity Well-Managed

“This is more than merely a disaster for the countries directly affected,” said James Morris, executive director of the WFP. “We are also facing disaster on a global scale. There are a lot of victims in both rich countries and poor countries. Billions of people throughout the world are witnessing a human tragedy that involves ten countries in Asia and Africa. Fortunately, this tragedy has generated the fastest and most generous response in world history within the donor community.”


The spirit of international solidarity awakened the very moment when the world recognized the tragedy, and it has grown along with the rising toll of victims and injured. In addition to economic aid from governments, organizations and ordinary citizens, many companies have supplied their services. For example, Siemens, the German company, will send medical technology and experts on reconstructing telecom and electrical networks. TPG/ TNT , the logistics and postal firm, is collaborating directly with the WFP. Boston Consulting Group has also put itself under the control of that international organization. Meanwhile, Unilever is supplying logistical support.


“Given the size of this event and its complexity, the logistics have been handled very well, or at least as well as one can reasonably expect. Humanitarian logistics has made great advances in the last five years,” says Luk van Wassenhove, p rofessor of manufacturing at INSEAD business school. In his view, logistics plays a basic role, especially considering the destruction caused by the tsunami. “People do not understand the complexities of logistics once things have happened. It is easy for politicians and media to scream that the aid does not arrive in time. Politicians make sweeping statements and promises that they will forget as soon as the cameras are gone. Media will turn to other events in a few days or weeks but that won’t stop the people from suffering, or worse,” says Wassenhove.


He emphasizes that, too often, the media flock to these tragedies. In his view, people should ask themselves if the tsunami would have generated so much interest if hundreds of tourists had not been among its victims. “I believe they would have devoted much less attention. Have you noticed that no one talks about Darfur any more? Are people no longer dying there because the cameras are on Asia now?”, Wassenhove asks.


His comments underline the need to avoid getting carried away by momentary euphoria. What is really important, he says, is to coordinate efforts, leave nothing to improvisation, and draw up really effective contingency plans, even if they don’t suit the needs of the media. Solís agrees. “At this point in time, it is not important to be efficient, but to be effective. The important thing is for the aid to arrive; the speed of response is what counts. Considering the circumstances, the efforts being made are very good.” Solís compares the way things are going in the distribution sector, where “very different quantities of merchandise arrive, and they have to be assembled or prepared in order to be sent to their final destinations.” The additional problem is that “in disaster locations, this sort of infrastructure is non-existent at these times.”


“Probably one of the biggest logistical challenges is not sending aid to each country, but going that last mile; figuring out how to get help to the last town or place where there is no infrastructure or transportation,” says Solis. “For example, whenever there were earthquakes in Central America , a large amount of aid would accumulate but there was no way to get it to those sorts of locations. That kind of distribution can be one of the most important logistical challenges because most of the infrastructure has been destroyed or damaged.” The problem can be overcome to some extent by “relying on communications and information to make the highest-priority aid arrive at specific locations where it is required.”


Coordination and Effectiveness

Because of the problems involved in managing all this aid, and the importance of adjusting efforts to specific needs, Doctors Without Borders, the non-governmental organization, has requested that people not send any more aid to the region. The most important thing is not an explosion of solidarity during these first weeks, but during the months and years that it will take for the region to recover completely. International aid will continue on a gradual basis.


On January 7, the Financial Times published an article, “How to Deliver the Promises,” which criticized the fact that food and medicine sent by humanitarian organizations sometimes winds up expiring on shelves before it can be used. That happens when coordination is lacking. As a result, “humanitarian organizations insist that people send money, not goods.” However, even monetary aid must be managed with care. “The problem here is not to give more money when the television cameras show the events. First, for a sexy disaster like this — as opposed to a creeping disaster like Darfur – (not my terminology, but that of some humanitarian organizations) there is usually too much money coming in, whereas creeping disasters are typically under-financed,” says Wassenhove. The appeal by Doctors Without Borders provides the best proof that money is not the real solution. Rather, the solution is to be prepared with contingency plans. He adds, “When the disaster has happened, it is simply too late to respond properly. Only better preparation can lead to a better response.”


Solís cites Japan as an example of a country where good contingency plans reduce the impact of disasters. “In Japan , where earthquakes and tidal waves occur more frequently, people are always busy, analyzing disaster contingency plans; they know that these things can happen at any moment, and the topic keeps coming up.” Solis adds, “In risk management, it is recognized that when you do not prepare a contingency plan, many decisions you wind up making are not necessarily the best decisions. There is no time to analyze if this is or is not the best thing to do. A contingency plan tends to minimize the negative effects when events of this sort take place.”


However, if a disaster has already occurred, and the contingency plans either failed or did not exist, the great challenge is to coordinate information about specific demands. That is because, above all, detailed information “is not available about each place where the disaster has occurred. In addition, in the place where people are making decisions about what to send where, there is not a lot of concrete information. Beyond that, there also is the problem of coordinating shipments from each country. Each country sends money or materials or aid, depending on what it has available. Bringing all this to the place where the demand exists requires a lot of coordination among different organizations.”


Common Sense Needed

Despite all the mistakes made in this case, Wassenhove believes that, generally speaking, “the logistics response, so far, has been great.” He insists on the need for using common sense, rather than getting carried away by sentimentality. “Giving more money now is not a solution that is going to help, nor is it a good idea. Nor is going as a volunteer. For every inexperienced person, you need to almost put an experienced person in, so you waste their time. Sending stuff is not helping either, especially if it is not well packed and identified. For example, [it is a bad idea] to mix chocolate, clothing and toothpaste, which occurs too often. There is nothing worse than a shipment of unsolicited goods blocking a landing strip because no one knows what to do with it.” Finally, Wassenhove criticizes public figures that travel to the disaster zone without realizing that they can become obstacles to aid efforts. “Much needed resources like vans and trucks are occupied 25% of the time giving guided tours to politicians, rock stars and other VIPs.”


The succession of media events can only become an obstacle to relief efforts, according to Wassenhove, who calls them a grave obstacle in the reconstruction process. The best way to provide disaster relief is to rely on earlier contingency plans, and let international organizations do their work, rather than pose for photos. “In natural disasters, you cannot put a price on human life,” says Solis. “There is a lesson to learn: Specific processes have been prepared that can minimize improvisation and maximize the efficiency of aid efforts, and the time required to respond to the people who are suffering.”