Making Humanitarian Response More Sustainable

Published by Hoffmann Global Institute for Business and Society on 03 Dec 2019

Recognizing the leadership and legacy of Professor Luk Van Wassenhove.

Driven by the will to solve complex problems, Emeritus Professor of Technology and Operations Management, Luk Van Wassenhove has dedicated 20 years of his professional life to establishing and improving humanitarian operations and health supply chains. His research and findings have found their way into more than 41,000 publications, cited for their relevance and impact. The first professor ever to be recognised by five major professional Operations Management and Management Sciences societies, Van Wassenhove also founded the INSEAD Humanitarian Research Group (HRG) and Social Innovation Centre.

To celebrate his retirement and valuable contributions in a manner as insightful and unconventional as the Van Wassenhove himself, his colleagues and peers organised a workshop that brought together two main strands of his research; humanitarian research and closed looped supply chains. The workshop was aimed at exploring ways to make humanitarian response more sustainable and was held on the INSEAD Europe Campus in Fontainebleau on 11 September 2019.

The full day workshop on How to Make Humanitarian Response More Sustainable was attended by over 100 participants, the majority of whom are experts and leaders in the fields of humanitarian aid, logistics and supply chain management. The day began with an introduction to sustainable operations, followed by a panel discussing the challenges of making humanitarian responses more sustainable. The multiple breakout sessions, panels and working groups shed light on various existing challenges and emerging themes in the field.

It was shared that 50%-60% of supplies that arrive at a disaster site are considered non-priority, which can serve as a major factor in delaying aid. For example, the Haiti catastrophe of 2010 saw an estimated 3 million people affected by the earthquake. With the delay in distribution of aid, it worsened situations, resulting in lack of coordination, increased appeals by various agitated aid workers, and even bursts of violence and looting by rebels and local mafia. Through discussions, it was revealed that failing to integrate the local context perpetuates the lack of coordination, even if the relief team consists of highly trained and experienced researchers and volunteers. Without any knowledge about the local conditions and culture, even the best logistics humanitarian team will be unable to deliver.

The suggested solution was to recognise that the lack of coordination and local context will never be a new or unique situation. The focus should be on designing the response that integrates accurate and reliable on-ground situations. For example, if there is an outbreak of violence with the local mafia or rebels, it is vital to find an avenue to include and communicate with them on the issue, in order to increase coordination and minimise disruption in providing aid to those who need it most. Finding common ground with such groups is usually possible, due to their desire to want to look favourable in the eyes of their communities.

The other takeaway was of corporates and CEOs wanting to contribute financially for aid in catastrophic events, but not entirely knowing where and how to do so. In 2015, 90% of the world’s largest 3,000 organisations had donated to disaster relief, as compared to only a third of them in 2000. With the increased desire for involvement from corporates, it is a smart decision to collaborate with them. One solution was to leverage on the research to have the academic community directly advise the C-suite professionals, and commercial organisations on how best to respond and help.

As the robust discussions of the day drew to a close, the workshop ended with a short introduction about the HRG. With over seventeen years of research on humanitarian operations management, and 40 pedagogical case studies, the HRG is a pioneer in practice-based research in the field. They focus on five key areas – disaster logistics, access and equity in healthcare, public-private partnerships, asset management and deployment, and environment and waste. The research group recently ventured into new topics like sustainable cocoa supply chains and gender-based issues in developing countries.

The workshop also highlighted two of a series of vignettes that the HRG team has recently produced. The first shed light on the repercussions of a focused vertical response in relation to Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The second deadliest epidemic in history, Ebola claimed more than 11,000 lives and infected more than 28,000 people in 2013. However, the attention and medical aid directed to contain the virus came at the cost of decreased attention and resources to respond to other diseases like Malaria, Cholera and Measles. This increased the number of victims affected by Ebola indirectly.

Lessons learned in the 2013 response were applied to the 2018 DRC outbreak, which reflects better preparation. In spite of the situation on-ground still being difficult with violence, lack of trust, and accessibility issues, the vaccines were readily made available and distributed with the help of new cold chain technology. In addition, to ensure continuity of this immunisation, multiple vaccination campaigns are being carried out in North-Kivu and Ituri. HRG is closely involved in the application of new technologies to improve disease surveillance and rapid response to outbreaks.

The second vignette covers the 2018 Sulawesi earthquake and tsunami, which resulted in over 2,000 deaths and 200,000 people in urgent need of humanitarian relief. With the airport severely damaged and debris and landslides making road travel difficult, choosing Balikpapan airport seemed to be the next best option. With its proximity and large cargo capability, relief supplies were shipped to the Balikpapan airport, prioritised and then transferred to Palu by an air-bridge, allowing aid to reach those in need. The air bridge allowed for careful selection of relief items transported to the disaster site, avoiding congestion due to arrival of non-priority items.

By researching humanitarian operations and extreme situations, HRG continues to spread new concepts and solutions needed during a crisis. Their practice-based research enables them to carry out efforts in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, while delivering positive, real-world impact in humanitarian operations. As HRG continues its efforts, what does Emeritus Professor Luk Van Wassenhove hope for the future?

“You have to hope that the next generations look at things differently, and realise that at the end of the day, it’s their planet. I think they will have different demands on business and different views on society, and hopefully that will lead to a generation that will push companies in terms of products, services and behaviour, and push governments to do things. That’s a big hope.”

Category:  Walk the Talk

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