Humanitarian Logistics

van Wassenhove, Luk
Tomasini, Rolando
Palgrave Macmillan
Reviewed by or other comment: 

van der Merwe, Charl

Luk van Wassenhove and Rolando Tomasini
Humanitarian Logistics
Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009, ISBN: 978-0-230-20575-8, 192 pp.

Humanitarian Logistics is an exciting addition to the knowledge base of the humanitarian sector. For many years, humanitarian supply-chain and logistics specialists have provided exceptional (though often understated) services to the delivery of aid. These professionals often operate in volatile and changing environments where day-to-day operations are unpredictable and unplanned. Humanitarian Logistics provides readers with a comprehensive overview of the sector, and the environment in which supply chains are planned, managed, and delivered.

The book is structured in seven chapters, covering topics that include logistics, humanitarianism, preparedness, co-ordination, information management, knowledge management, and partnerships. A large part of the book's success is due to its coherent structure and effective choice of language. The first chapter provides an excellent foundation to the structure and content of the rest of the book by introducing the 'five Bs' - boxes (materials), bytes (information), bucks (financial), bodies (people), and brains (knowledge and skills) - as part of the 'Supply Chain Flows' (p. 5). These concepts are used throughout the book to provide a coherent and accurate picture of humanitarian logistics.

The authors explain the complexities associated with planning and managing humanitarian logistics, and the demands that they place on the professionals who operate in this sector. It is widely recognised that although commercial supply-chain industries are perceived to be leading on innovation, it is humanitarian logisticians who are often delivering innovative solutions and solving problems under pressure. Van Wassenhove and Tomasini successfully epitomise the complex nature of humanitarian logistics, and this results in a book that can be read and mastered not only by sector specialists, but also by an interested public.

The book offers a simplified but effective explanation of how established commercial best practice can be combined with the experience and innovation continuously demonstrated by humanitarian professionals, to develop humanitarian supply-chain management and logistics as a recognised entity. Research and development concerning supply-chain best practice (processes) and technology can reduce the gap between commercial and humanitarian logistics. Research and development requires collaboration between agencies, commercial industry, and academia to be relevant and innovative. Humanitarian Logistics is a good example of the quality of research and development that such collaborations can produce. Publications such as this are required to help to define and steer development efforts in humanitarian supply-chain management and logistics.

The fact that this book only presents the reader with a comprehensive overview illustrates that there is still a great deal more to explore. While the book provides very good case studies (for example, IFRC Case Study, Gujarat Earthquake, Box 3.3, p. 54), these represent only a small proportion of the agencies that operate in the humanitarian sector. A more inclusive range of case studies would have highlighted the many different supply-chain models that exist to deliver humanitarian assistance. This is best illustrated through the multiple supply chains that Oxfam GB uses in delivering a diverse portfolio of international projects; ranging from delivering traditional humanitarian aid, to more recent developments in supply chains to globalise fair trade and local markets. To deliver the wide range of projects, Oxfam GB has to demonstrate agility and flexibility in designing its supply chains, and this in turn requires a more innovative approach to supply-chain management and logistics.

The authors successfully describe ambiguous objectives, limited resources, high uncertainty and urgency, and politicised environments as the characteristics in humanitarian supply chains (p. 10). The key concerns in humanitarian logistics - Information Management, Knowledge Management, and Co-ordination - are discussed in chapters 4-6). As the authors explain, knowledge management is a growing concern in the humanitarian sector as a whole (chapter 6, pp. 115-29), and hence leads to substantial research efforts for the majority of humanitarian topics. However, this is not necessarily the case for supply-chain management and logistics, where relatively little progress has been made to explore research and development opportunities. It is true that many interagency initiatives exist today, although the majority of these collaborations focus on current operational concerns. Very few of these initiatives look ahead to try to influence the future shape of humanitarian logistics; but one project that is focusing on innovation is the HELIOS Foundation for Supply Chain Management. A recent case study completed by Microsoft1 supports the view of van Wassenhove and Tomasini that information management is a key function that assists in developing visibility, transparency, and accountability (p. 90).

The authors briefly touch upon the impact of cultural diversity on planning food aid (p. 20), and explain the humanitarian ideologies (humanity, neutrality, and partiality) that shape the aid sector. Given the potential impact of diversity (as a broader concern) on the design and delivery of projects, and the complex challenges that this can pose for supply-chain design, there is a need for more attention to be paid to this topic. Managing supply chains that incorporate a sound understanding of diversity is a defining element of successful supply-chain delivery.

It is to be hoped that this book will prompt greater investment of effort and resources in increased understanding of the complex nature of humanitarian logistics, and ultimately the development of supply-chain management as a key foundation to the delivery of aid. I would recommend it to any individual, team, or organisation that delivers both humanitarian and development assistance, as it provides a standard knowledge base from which we can all learn, develop, and excel.