INSEAD Humanitarian Research Group (HRG) encourages the science of development and relief operations through impactful practice-based research in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Specifically, we aim to do research that is:
Scientific: based on well-established, rigorous, and systematic methods
Impactful: insights, recommendations, and solutions that are broadly applicable and improve effectiveness and efficiency of humanitarian operations
Practice-based: in close collaboration with practitioners; based on thorough understanding of their contexts and challenges
Focused on cross-learning: focused on transferrable best-practices between commercial and humanitarian sectors in a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) world, and partnerships between different stakeholders
Luk Van Wassenhove
Professor of Technology and Operations Management
The Henry Ford Chaired Professor of Manufacturing
Director, INSEAD Humanitarian Research Group
In the Spotlight
It has been hard to miss INSEAD's “Business as a Force for Good” campaign in recent weeks. With the ultimate goal to “make a meaningful difference in the world”, the campaign strives to “fortify our academic excellence, drive breakthrough innovation and transform society on a global scale”. The INSEAD Humanitarian Research Group (HRG) has pursued this mission ever since it was created almost 20 years ago. In close collaboration with humanitarian organisations like UNICEF, UNHCR, WFP, Red Cross, MSI and MSF, we apply our business school knowledge to help improve disaster relief and development programs. Concurrently, we pick up what businesses can learn from humanitarian organizations operating in highly dynamic environments and use that in our teaching at INSEAD. In this article, we illustrate this fruitful interaction through five examples of current projects in Africa.
1. Data science for family planning
Contraception is out of reach for 225 million women worldwide, which has immense consequences for health and development. To address the problem of reach, NGO Marie Stopes International (MSI) deploys over 500 mobile outreach teams, mostly in Africa. Such teams visit hard-to-reach populations, e.g. in remote villages, several times a year to provide family planning services. Though 500 outreach teams may seem much, unmet need is overwhelming. It is therefore crucial to use them smartly for maximum impact. In close collaboration with MSI and helped by PhD students from INSEAD’s Technology and Operations Management Area, HRG builds upon existing theories and methods from the field of Operations and Supply Chain Management to improve the effectiveness of outreach teams. Through smart use of data science techniques such as machine learning and combinatorial optimization, we support decision makers on where to deploy the teams and how frequently to visit a village. Based on a thorough analysis for MSI Uganda, we estimate that this allows teams to serve 20% more clients. Given severe budget cuts this result is very timely.
2. Medicine supply chains in Africa
Availability of essential medicines such as antimalarials and antibiotics is very low in many African countries. The crude reality is that medicines are often available at a national level but do not reach the field in the right place at the right time. Inadequate supply chain management is often at the core of the problem. In collaboration with the WFP office in Senegal, supported by funds from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we contribute to mapping supply chains for family planning products in 9 Francophone West African countries and identify capacity gaps and opportunities to strengthen them. By providing such visibility, the project aims to foster improved coordination between all health supply chain stakeholders in the region. In a separate project with PharmAccess Foundation and the University of Nairobi, we try to understand lack of access to essential medicines from the perspective of health facilities. Why do they understock many drugs? Is it due to a lack of skills, supplier issues, budget constraints, lack of appropriate incentives, inadequate inventory control systems? A field trip allowed us to interview 40 low-income, private health facilities in slum areas of Nairobi. We are presently analysing the interview data to design better ways to manage these health facilities and improve access to essential medicines.
3. Strategic agility – learning from humanitarian organisations
We recently visited Djibouti to analyse how the Saudi-Arabian-led coalition’s bombing abruptly disrupted UNICEF’s vital supply lines into war-torn Yemen. Notwithstanding challenges like safety concerns, depleted fuel resources, damaged infrastructure, failing communication, and a limited staff, UNICEF orchestrated a successful response. By setting up a forwarding hub in Djibouti and using dhow vessels (small traditional ships) to reach less utilised and more strategically located Yemeni ports, UNICEF quickly redesigned their supply chain. We analysed the secrets behind UNICEF’s response and highlighted what other organisations can learn from this successful intervention. Much depends on having the right organisational and strategic capabilities in place, the study revealed. The key capabilities are strongly related to the concept of strategic agility and its three pillars: strategic sensitivity, collective commitment, and resource fluidity. Insights obtained from this project are of practical value in the humanitarian and commercial sector, since both are operating in a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world.
4. Large-scale procurement and supply management capacity building
We collaborate with Empower School of Health, UNDP and the Access and Delivery Partnership (ADP) to build procurement and supply management (PSM) capacity in Ghana. Lack of expertise in this area is seen as a major barrier to scaling up access to medicines and introducing new medicines or health products. Through a so-called “Big Learning Platform” – a blend of digital and physical methods for capacity building – we aim to scale capacity building efforts and train a large quantity of practitioners. As PSM capacity building is universally important across Africa, we try to understand “what works” in reaching large communities of practitioners by rigorously evaluating the program, using modern project management and performance scorecard techniques.
5. Fleet management in humanitarian organisations
HRG is working with several African country programs of UNHCR on improving fleet management. Transportation is one of the largest cost components of any humanitarian mission. Despite the immense costs associated with procuring, using, maintaining and disposing of vehicles, large inefficiencies exist. As every dollar saved on vehicles is a dollar that can be spent on beneficiaries, reducing these inefficiencies can potentially save lives and decrease suffering. Since 2007, INSEAD’s Humanitarian Research Group has engaged with many international humanitarian organisations to help them reduce major sources of inefficiency. Insights and methods from Operations and Supply Chain Management have been instrumental in these projects. In the coming months, HRG will perform in-depth analyses of in-country fleet management practices for UNHCR in Chad, Ethiopia, and Uganda, with the objective to develop a suitable method for right-sizing country fleets, ensure proper vehicle use and decrease asset and resource immobilization.
These projects exemplify the value of cross-learning. Business can be a force for good and analysing humanitarian operations can be a force for good business. Business school knowledge can make a real and concrete impact in the humanitarian relief and development sector. The commercial sector, in turn, can learn much from how the humanitarian sector operates under huge uncertainties, extreme complexities, very limited resources, and a multitude of stakeholders with sometimes misaligned incentives. Most of our projects are in Africa and they involve partnerships with governments, international humanitarian organisations, private companies, foundations and local universities. They intend to make an impact. HRG is dedicated to continuing this dual mission of cross-learning between the business and aid sector in the years to come. As INSEAD, the Business School for the World, looks to the future and to strengthening its engagement in Africa, the pioneering work of its Humanitarian Research Group offers a solid foundation upon which to build.
Many health facilities in low- and middle-income countries are still struggling with inventory management for essential medicines, which limits their availability. This is clearly harmful for both patients and facilities. Further, it poses a great barrier to reaching the UN Sustainable Development Goal of safeguarding “access to safe, effective, quality and affordable essential medicines and vaccines for all”. INSEAD Humanitarian Research Group (HRG) is collaborating with PharmAccess Foundation and the University of Nairobi to investigate what is hindering effective inventory management in private health facilities in Nairobi, Kenya.
In November 2018, HRG researcher Sarah Dewilde joined two researchers from the University of Nairobi to roam the fascinating roads of Nairobi County. They visited and interviewed 39 low-income, private health facilities in slum areas. Over the course of three weeks and more than 3000 minutes of interviews, they dove into the complex and multi-faceted problem of over- and understocking of essential medicines.
A previous study in 2016 on the same health facilities gathered 8 weeks of data on inventory control. This revealed substantial over- and understocking problems and hypotheses about their root causes. In 2018, the aim was to get the story behind the data by assessing these hypotheses through in-depth interviews with the facilities’ inventory managers. Each interview was a new journey along many whys and hows, frequently hindered by a lack of stock management knowledge and the absence of record keeping mechanisms. The researchers tried to uncover decision-making heuristics applied by interviewees and to map how they deal with systems (IT or manual). Incentives, skills, priorities, budgetary problems, supplier issues, and their impact on stock management were mapped for a clearer picture of the problem. The insights they gathered will be crucial to tailor solutions – e.g. policies at regulatory level, inventory control systems, and training modules – that will improve access to affordable quality drugs.
It is hard to overestimate the value of spending time in the field. Not only does it provide access to first-hand information, it also enables researchers to see and feel the bigger picture. The moments where you find yourself looking at how bin cards are filled out or order lists are scribbled on the back of an envelope, the look they give you when you try to grasp the reasoning behind their reorder levels and order sizes, and quotes such as “Inventory management: That’s not something you can call science!” or “Forecasting: That is impossible!”…. all of this makes you realize that nothing is obvious. It is safe to say that being on the road with local partners is a valuable learning experience on both a professional and personal level for our researcher. HRG will use the interview data in a collaborative research effort with University of Nairobi and PharmAccess Foundation to design better ways to manage health facilities and improve access to essential medicines.
On 28 June 2018, Professor Luk van Wassenhove, Academic Director of the INSEAD Humanitarian Research Group, received an Honorary Doctor Degree from the Department of Mechanical Engineering in the Polytechnic School of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece for his profound and enduring contributions in Management Science and Engineering.
The Department of Mechanical Engineering were unanimous in their decision, and stated that: “Professor Luk Van Wassenhove has repeatedly worked with all Industrial Management Teachers in research programs and has provided post-doctoral research and work at INSEAD with many graduates of our Department. In these ways he has contributed substantially to the international recognition of the Department and to the scientific and research development of academic staff and graduates”.
Following his recognition in June, Professor Van Wassenhove was named Fellow of INFORMS during the INFORMS Annual Meeting in November in Phoenix, USA. Professor Van Wassenhove was elected to the INFORMS Fellow Award because of his pioneering work on closed loop supply chains (sustainability) and humanitarian operations.
INFORMS Fellows are examples of outstanding lifetime achievement in operations research and the management sciences. They have demonstrated exceptional accomplishments and made significant contributions to the advancement of OR/MS over a period of time.
"Luk is one of the top academics in the world in the field of Operations Management. He is one of the most prolific scholars in the field, credited for being a pioneer in sustainable and humanitarian operations. Luk’s research stands at the intersection of high standards of academic rigor and deep practical relevance. The importance of his research has been well recognized… and he will forever be an inspiration to the coming generations of scholars at INSEAD and elsewhere."
Sameer Hasija, INSEAD Area Chair of Technology and Operations Management
The acknowledgement from INFORMS makes Professor Van Wassenhove the first professor to be recognized by five major professional Operations Management and Management Sciences societies. His other major professional society awards include a 2013 Honorary Fellowship from EUROMA, a 2009 MSOM Fellow Award, a 2006 EURO Gold Medal from the European Association of Operational Research Societies and a 2005 Fellow of POMS Award.
"With an extensive and growing body of work and record number of citations, Professor Van Wassenhove is one of the most impactful members of our exemplary INSEAD faculty. Luk is an innovator of sustainability solutions and consistently produces research that is remarkably rigorous and relevant. He collaborates with leading academics and mentors promising scholars. With his research towards a practical path to sustainable social and economic development, Luk has profoundly impacted the field of Operations Management – and helped set the world on course to a brighter future."
Ziv Carmon, INSEAD Dean of Research
Over the past four years, the INSEAD Humanitarian Research Group (HRG) has been a major academic partner of UNHCR, specifically on the topic of fleet management. Through rigorous research and evaluation projects, HRG has studied several aspects of UNHCRs Global Fleet Management (GFM) unit and its vehicle leasing program. This year, the scope has been extended to the field.
In September 2018, Twotwo researchers from our group (Olivier Guerinault and Joachim Mikalsen) recently travelled from Paris to Kigali to meet with the fleet management team in Rwanda. UNHCR Rwanda serves as a best case example in the way it manages its fleet, and we were interested in knowing why.. The overall objective of the trip was to observe and document the end-to-end process of fleet management in Rwanda. This includes ordering vehicles, importing vehicles, day-to-day operations in the country, and finally, disposal of vehicles. By visiting the field and having in-depth discussions with all stakeholders, we were able to see and experience best practices and challenges.
On our first day, we visited the UNHCR Branch Office in Kigali, the home of the fleet management team. A five-man team controls a reasonably sized fleet in the landlocked country. The transportation infrastructure in Rwanda is decent. However, driving to remote locations, such as refugee camps, can be strenuous, especially in rainy seasons. In the Branch Office, we got an introduction to all the processes the fleet team has in place for controlling the fleet in Kigali and six UNHCR field offices.
The term “Road trip” would summarize days two and three in Rwanda, as we were almost continuously travelling between various field offices. The second day we set the course north and headed towards Byumba. The Northern Rwandan city has 70 000 residents and hosts a refugee camp with 13 000 inhabitants. In the field office, we met with UNHCR personnel engaged with fleet, UNHCR drivers, and implementing partners. Day three was spent in the southern city of Butare and the UNHCR’s field office located there. After several interviews we headed for the Mugombwa Refugee Camp and witnessed the difficult driving conditions one can face in a country like Rwanda.
The final day was centred around maintenance services. UNHCR is in fact running its own garage in Rwanda. Regular maintenance of the entire fleet is conducted in this facility, which has three full-time mechanics. Vehicle repairs are outsourced to an external garage. We conducted interviews at both of them.
The field trip was a first step in enhancing our knowledge of fleet management operations on field level in UNHCR. By having in-depth discussions with people from all levels, we got a better understanding of challenges and needs from implementing partners, Branch Office, field offices, and external stakeholders. The final outcome of the project will help identifying best field fleet management practices, which will be disseminated to UNHCR country programs worldwide. By analysing both global and local fleet management practices, HRG hopes to assist UNHCR in better serving its beneficiaries.
What would you do if your long-standing and well-functioning supply chain stops working from one day to another? Would you be able to quickly reengineer it? The case study “Humanitarian Agility in Action” tells the story of UNICEF, one of the largest humanitarian organisations in the world, how the Saudi-Arabian-led bombing broke their vital supply lines into war-torn Yemen abruptly, and how the organisation managed to swiftly adjust.
In March 2015, a Saudi-led coalition initiated an air and naval blockade for the whole of Yemen, and simultaneously commenced airstrikes to hinder rebel groups in an on-going civil war. All of this in a country where 15.9 million people were in need of humanitarian assistance. Notwithstanding these challenges, and others like safety concerns, depleted fuel resources, damaged infrastructure, failing communication, and a limited staff, UNICEF orchestrated a successful response. By setting up a forwarding hub in Djibouti and using dhow vessels (small traditional ships) to reach less utilised and more strategically located Yemeni ports, UNICEF quickly redesigned their supply chain.
Written by Professor Luk Van Wassenhove, Charles Delagarde, and Joachim Mikalsen, the case study analyses the secrets behind UNICEF’s response and highlights what organisations can learn. Much depends on having the right organisational and strategic capabilities in place, the case study reveals. The key capabilities are strongly related to the concept of strategic agility and its three pillars: strategic sensitivity, collective commitment, and resource fluidity. The case study discusses how UNICEF (and other organisations) can develop strategic agility as a much needed organisational capability in a constantly changing and unpredictable environment.
The case covers all aspects of supply chain management, and is suitable for supply chain and strategy classes, as well as classes on organisational capacity building, change management and fast decision making processes. Insights are of practical value in the humanitarian and commercial sector, since both are operating in a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world.
Case website: https://cases.insead.edu/humanitarian-agility/
Supply Chain Design is breaking out of the modeler’s and analyst’s room. Supply chains are interacting in a complex world and therefore new supply chain design options, as well as significant supply chain changes, can only be accepted and effective if they are anchored and supported by all the stakeholders involved. This requires pushing the boundaries of the traditional models on supply chain design.
On October 23rd, on the occasion of the public doctoral defense of Stef Lemmens (who is now a post-doctoral researcher at INSEAD), KU Leuven’s Research Center for Operations Management organized a symposium on supply chain design. At this symposium, several international researchers from MIT Sloan School of Management, INSEAD, Politecnico di Milano and KU Leuven shared their findings on supply chain design for different industrial applications. These applications include vaccine, humanitarian, closed-loop, distributed manufacturing and additive manufacturing supply chains.
Prof. Dr. Luk Van Wassenhove (INSEAD) presented his critical view on closed-loop supply chains and circular economy. He postulated the relevance of closed-loop supply chains in modern times, but emphasized that the effort to make closed-loop supply chain systems work is often underestimated. Although many papers are produced about these subjects, there are still some important obstacles which prevent the development of successful circular economy business models, such as (1) customer preferences related to buy, lease and pay for use decisions, (2) uncertainty related to legislation and (dis)economies of scale and (3) complexity of the tools to evaluate circular economy business models.
HRG co-organized the third EURO HOpe mini-conference in Leuven on 13-14 September 2018. At this conference, Prof. Luk Van Wassenhove and Harwin De Vries shared their critical view on the relevance and applicability of the current optimization models for humanitarian operations.
The scientific interest and research output on Humanitarian Operations have increased last decade. As a result, this led to the foundation of an organization, i.e. the EURO Working Group, which purpose is to advance the development and application of Operations Research methods, techniques, and tools to the field of Humanitarian Operations. Its meetings and conferences encourage the exchange of information among practitioners and researchers in this area, and stimulate the work on emerging issues with solid scientific methods. Finally, the group also facilitates networking activities that are crucial for the proposition of successful international research projects.
Five Year Objective
Linking INSEAD’s deep knowledge with 20 years of collaboration with humanitarian organisations, we aspire to strengthen our world-leading research position in optimising operations underpinning the attainment of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Our main focus is on the following SDGs
Five Key Areas
Imagine the logistics of planning the Olympics. Now imagine planning the same event but not knowing when or where it will take place, the number of spectators who will attend or how many athletes will compete. This is exactly what disaster logistics looks like: trying to meet vast needs with huge uncertainty and under difficult circumstances. The next disaster could strike at any moment and humanitarian organisations need to be ready.
It is utopian to think that organisations can be prepared for everything and that response will be perfect. Yet, preparedness and response can be learned and scientific research can contribute to that.
At HRG, we analyse major challenges in preparedness and response and how they could be tackled. For example, how to build a network of warehouses storing essential disaster relief items or relief assets like 4x4 vehicles? And how to best determine inventory levels for essential medicines? Overstocking may result in substantial waste, but under-stocking may have significant impacts on people in need, making the issue hugely complex.
Building organisational capabilities presents another major challenge which HRG studies. The right capabilities (e.g. skills, knowledge and organisational structures) can mean the difference between a successful response and complete failure. Understanding key capabilities, and developing and exploiting them is vital. HRG has analysed the secrets behind UNICEF’s exemplary and swift response to the challenges generated by the Yemen crisis. Organisational capabilities are strongly linked to the concept of strategic agility and its three pillars: collective commitment, resource flexibility, and strategic sensitivity. Our insights are of practical value to the humanitarian sphere, but also to the commercial sector, which is also increasingly operating in a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) world.
Goal 3 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is to “Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages”. While much progress has been made in this area – global life expectancy has doubled over the past century, for example – substantial health challenges persist. In particular, much efforts is needed to provide universal health coverage, as targeted by SDG 3.8: “All people and communities receive the quality health services they need, without financial hardship”. The World Health Organization estimates that today nearly 2 billion people have no access to basic medicine and at least half the world’s population lacks access to essential health services.
The field of operations and supply chain management plays a key role in addressing these challenges. The causes of low drug availability are often not medicine prices and patents, nor a lack of access to clinics or pharmacies. The reality is that medicines are often available in sufficient quantities on a national level but don’t reach the right place at the right time. Insufficient supply chain management is often at the core of the problem. Similarly, access to health services is often constrained by scarcity of resources: health workers, money, infrastructure and so on. Instead of simply waiting for more resources to become available, one can optimise the use of available resources. This is exactly what operations management is about.
Our group has been one of the first to recognise this and put it top of the agenda. For example, we analyse root causes of drug stock shortages in clinics and pharmacies. Is it due to a lack of skills and knowledge? Do pharmacists have adequate incentives? How reliable are suppliers? We have also analysed how commercial organisations like Coca Cola manage to get their products in the most remote areas, whereas essential medicines are often lacking in those locations. What can health supply chains learn from the commercial sector? Other projects consider distinct challenges such as epidemic control, network design for healthcare providers, matching medicine donations with needs, active case finding (screening), family planning outreach optimisation, disease trend modelling and building effective partnerships between NGOs, health authorities and the commercial sector.
Though we primarily focus on access and equity challenges in the health sector, we have also worked with other areas, such as food, education, water, sanitation and hygiene.
Example: Family planning
Contraception is out of reach for 225 million women worldwide, which has immense consequences. Each year millions fall pregnant unintentionally and millions use very risky abortion methods. Multiple pregnancies in quick succession or getting pregnant at an early age can substantially reduce a woman’s chances for building a career and becoming financially independent.
Though, by far, the most important objective of family planning is to support having children by choice, not by chance, it also serves broader objectives. Birth control is regarded as a key priority for increasing development and avoiding problems related to population growth. Improving access to family planning therefore plays a key role in the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
HRG engages in several research projects on family planning, for example with NGO Marie Stopes International (MSI). We analyse how scarce resources can be utilised to maximize the scale and impact of family planning. Of particular attention is the (re)allocation and deployment of MSI’s 500 mobile outreach teams. The group also analyses the long-term development of family planning uptake and implications for resource allocation. In a seperate project, HRG has analysed supply chains of family planning products, specifically in Francophone Africa.
SDG 17, partnership for the goals, is not a standalone objective but rather a means to reach the other 16 goals. Partnerships are crucial. They are in a much better position to provide solutions than organisations or sectors acting individually. However, much is yet to be learned about how to unlock this massive potential.
HRG has studied public-private partnerships over the last 20 years. Examples include the TNT/ WFP "Moving the World" partnership, North Star Alliance, Agility, Tulipe, and Medicines for Malaria Venture. We study how such partnerships evolve, from planning to implementation and, sometimes, to separation. We also analyse performance of such partnerships. What makes a partnership successful? When is a partnership mutually beneficial? When can a problem only be solved by combining skills and competences from different partners? Our analyses yield transferrable best practices and provide solutions to key challenges partnerships cope with.
Did you know that transportation is the largest cost component of a humanitarian mission? Organisations use and/or own large numbers of expensive assets: planes, ships, trucks, 4x4 vehicles, etc. Despite the immense costs associated with procuring, maintaining and deploying them, large inefficiencies exist. As every dollar saved on assets is one that can be spent on beneficiaries, reducing these inefficiencies has the potential to save many lives and decrease suffering. Improving efficiency is, however, not trivial. Many challenges exist, including time pressure, demand uncertainty, difficult operating conditions, context-specific asset requirements, lack of access to maintenance services and spare parts, and lack of collaboration.
Since 2007, the INSEAD Humanitarian Research Group has engaged in many research projects on how international humanitarian organisations manage their assets and evaluate their major sources of inefficiency. We develop and analyse novel asset management systems. For example, we follow the implementation of UNHCR’s vehicle leasing program. The group also studies ways to efficiently stockpile reserve vehicles, e.g. by setting up temporary vehicle hubs after a disaster.
Improving the deployment of assets is another major research topic. Assets should be moving; a golden rule that led to much innovation in the private sector. Much is yet to be gained in the humanitarian sector: levels of asset sharing within and between organisations are often dramatically low. Room for improvement also exists for asset use and route planning.
Commercial organisations produce huge quantities of waste in the form of excess stock of food, medicines, etc., while many people lack access to such items. An obvious solution is to donate surplusses to the people or organizations who lack access to them. Though this idea is commendable, execution is challenging. Donations are highly volatile, causing instability in supply. They can also flood local markets, end up in the wrong hands and be handled inadequately.
HRG studies organisations that play an interface role between donors and beneficiaries for items like food (food banks), medicines, electronics and clothes. Managing these platforms is extremely complex, as uncertainty comes from all directions: supply, demand and capacity (volunteers). We analyse these challenges and how they can be dealt with from an operations and business model perspective.
Climate action (SDG 13) is another topic within the Environment & Waste area. Concerns about environmental impacts of humanitarian operations are rising and organizations are increasingly analysing and reporting such impacts (see, e.g., the Greening the Blue initiative). HRG analyses how organisations deal with concretising high-level sustainability objectives and how they make trade-offs between conflicting objectives.
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Who We Work With
Humanitarian and private sector
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