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November 20, 2017
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Public-private partnerships are essential to improving humanitarian supply chains

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A recent paper from the World Food Programme says that NGOs, governments, and the private sector need to form collaborative partnerships to prepare for and respond to humanitarian crises.

There are far too many stories of humanitarian relief efforts that have been hobbled by poor supply chain management—from aid stuck in warehouses and on docks far from those in need to beneficiaries flooded with inappropriate supplies while lacking some basic necessities.

It doesn't have to be this way. During the Ebola outbreak in western Africa in 2014 and 2015 logistics service provider UPS, the nonprofit World Food Programme, and the Cologne Bonn Airport in Germany worked together to create a well-coordinated supply chain that successfully delivered 932 metric tons of health-care supplies directly to affected regions. The European Air Cargo Staging Area, as the initiative was called, consolidated air shipments for 37 relief agencies, providing free warehousing, air cargo services, and air transport.

This example illustrates one of the key points discussed in a recent report on humanitarian supply chains: The private sector can play a significant role in working with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to improve the outcome of humanitarian aid efforts. "Delivering in a Moving World," currently published on the World Food Programme's Logistics Cluster website, was presented at the World Humanitarian Summit and represents the views of more than 40 humanitarian organizations, such as Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), the International Red Cross, and World Vision.

The European Air Cargo Staging Area example is notable for the high level of coordination that occurred among relief organizations, a for-profit company, and an airport facility. But the help that companies can provide to relief organizations is not limited to providing logistics assistance during a crisis, the report says. The private sector can also provide advice on how to leverage innovative technology and tools to better forecast demand and share information. Companies that sell or produce supplies that often are needed during a crisis, such as medicines and medical equipment, can help by providing priority access to production information, stockpiles, and service capacity, say the report's authors.

Advance preparation makes a difference
Perhaps most importantly, the report says, private-public partnerships need to focus on emergency preparations before a crisis actually occurs. Research has shown that relief efforts have a greater chance of succeeding if a strong preparedness program is in place before the event. For example, organizations such as the Nepal Red Cross began working on local disaster-response programs two years before the 2015 earthquake struck. Preparedness programs can involve creating local response teams and staging areas, improving local infrastructure like bridges and roads, and strengthening local supply chains.

What role can private companies play in disaster preparedness? They can help connect humanitarian organizations with local suppliers and logistics service providers that could help them respond to a crisis. They also can work with NGOs and government agencies to enhance local storage, transport, distribution, and equipment operations as well as provide access to credit and business-skills training for small business owners in the area. Strong local businesses will be able to provide supplies needed at a local basis. Furthermore, both the humanitarian and for-profit supply chains need local supply chain and logistics talent; the two could combine forces to create training and development programs in the supply chain, the report suggests.

It's clear that humanitarian supply chains can benefit from forming long-term relationships with the private sector at the international, national, and local levels. These partnerships will also be beneficial for private companies, as many emergency-preparedness efforts and efforts to develop supply chains for business needs share the same goals.

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