In the wake of the typhoon Haiyan which hit Philippines on the 8th November, leaving over 3,600 dead and affected 12.9 million and displaced more than 3 million, governments, donors and NGOs started to send out relief items to Philippines. As a result, a massive global relief operation was triggered.
Relief operations are extremely complex due to their unique features including huge uncertainty on the demand side and limited control over the supply side. There has been a growing interest in the research community to explore good practices that can be shared between commercial and humanitarian supply chains. Wal-Mart’s response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was as a prime example of the positive role of commercial supply chains in relief operations. There is an accumulated knowledge and best practices in commercial domain in the areas of logistics and supply chain management. These include soft skills such as strategic partnership, coordination and collaboration with suppliers as well as hard skills such as supply network design, capacity planning, inventory prepositioning, and distribution of products to customers.
One area that relief operations can learn from commercial supply chain management is logistics operations. Research has shown that humanitarian agencies do not consider logistics as a key strategic function to improve the performance of relief operations, yet good practices and accumulated knowledge of the commercial supply chain has the potential to improve humanitarian operations. One of the challenges for logistics in a disaster relief environment is uncertainty with infrastructure and facilities designed for relief operations themselves subject to damage and destruction. In the commercial domain there are established practices to manage disruption in the supply chain for example through business continuity management (BCM). Adopting some of these practices can help relief chains enhance their available capacities in the event of damages to some infrastructure.
Another key competence that can be learnt from the commercial world is in controlling the supply side of the chain. In a disaster relief setting there are often several organisations sending out resources which can sometimes create a bigger problem by having too many of one item in a particular area and not enough of another. In this instance a lack of coordination between organisations exacerbates the complexity of the issue whilst in the commercial supply chain coordination and collaboration is an established practice to ensure maximum efficiency.
More work needs to be done to raise awareness of the good practices that can be adopted from commercial supply chains amongst policy makers, local authorities and relief agencies. Improving relief operations will increase the resilience of societies affected by natural disasters and this improvement will translate into more lives saved, less suffering and quicker recovery. In the commercial world, efficiency and agility are key because they result in better service and more profits. Whilst the motivators are different in the humanitarian supply chain, efficiency and agility are still the ultimate goals because a more efficient and agile network can save more lives and speed up the recovery period.Dr Mansouri (PhD, MSc, BSc) is a Senior Lecturer in Operations Management on the MSc Global Supply Chain Management at Brunel Business School. He has several years of industrial work experience in production and project management areas. In 2005 he was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Tours in France. Prior to joining Brunel University in 2007, he has held academic and research positions at the University of Tehran and King’s College London. Dr Mansouri’s research on humanitarian supply chain management for disaster relief in Iran has been funded by ESRC. Afshin is co-investigator and leader of the scientific work package of the EU FP7 funded project MINI-CHIP which aims to minimise carbon footprint in maritime shipping. He has also received research funding from Brunel University to investigate the role of multi-objective optimisation as a decision aid in build-to-order supply chains. Afshin co-guest edited a special issue of ‘IEEE Transactions on Software Engineering’ on Search Based Optimization for Software Engineering.