Global crises test humanitarian supply chains


Supply chain burst upon the scene as a suddenly familiar topic to the general public with the global COVID-19 pandemic, as illness and lockdowns stymied companies large and small in their efforts to get commodities and parts to make everyday products from toilet paper to cars.

But supply chains, with their stringent demands for tight coordination, planning, scheduling, and execution, are not just the concern of the private sector; they also are critical to humanitarian aid and relief. In a world as big and varied as ours, there always seems to be a crisis demanding emergency response — perhaps today more than ever.

The war in Ukraine, the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria, flooding in Pakistan, an Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo, drought conditions in South Sudan and Somalia, and civil unrest in Myanmar are merely a few of the current or recent global crises requiring humanitarian aid. And it’s not only a question of securing the funding and goods to provide that relief; even when there is a great supply of donations, there always are vexing challenges in developing the right supply chain to deliver crucial goods and services to the people who need them.

We recently convened a panel, hosted by LASER PULSE (a program funded by the United States Agency for International Development to create research-driven solutions for developing countries) and the Institute of Industrial and Systems Engineers (IISE), to focus on a variety of disruptive innovations in humanitarian supply chains that are aimed at overcoming these hurdles.

Experts representing the viewpoints of the donor (The World Food Program); the implementer (Catholic Relief Services); and the private sector (NTELX, a trade, supply chain and logistics company, and Premise, which specializes in data analytics to support decision making) discussed the complexity of coordinating stakeholders, partners and communities to support and manage the supply chain for humanitarian missions.

During the panel discussion, we talked about the current state of such operations and their challenges. We surveyed the areas in which we need more research to support evidence-based practices and program design, through new collaborations in problem solving among donors, practitioners, the private sector, and academia. Ideas and topics explored included:

  • Supply chains are not a linear process but a cloud or mesh of different activities.
  • The need for better interoperability and visibility from the bulk-pack container down to the individual item, or what is known as the stock-keeping unit (SKU).
  • The necessity for improved field data collection, to obtain signals from the chain to have visibility of what’s happening.
  • How critical it is to mix the sourcing of supplies between local and regional market providers and between global procurement and donations.
  • Engaging with border partners for warehousing and distribution.
  • How to provide humanitarian support for refugees who have fled to border countries.
  • Texting people far from assistance distribution locations when supplies are available.
  • The need to collect a mix of physical supplies, cash, and vouchers.
  • How to serve both camp and non-camp groupings in border countries.
  • Building more national capacity and resilience prior to crises.
  • Greening humanitarian supply chains, through both sustainable, non-toxic production processes and waste management at the end of the chain.

In my research, I focus on system design and innovations to build a robust, responsive and sustainable global supply network. These networks are complex systems involving multiple actors and stakeholders from different regions, as well as various supporting sectors, from manufacturing to technology, healthcare, humanitarian groups, and others. My work is targeted at identifying and addressing the gaps that hinder supply network performance and the quality of services.

While technology is vital, I approach solving real-world problems a little differently. I don’t focus on the solution or technology until I fully understand the structure and dynamics in the system, including human factors and organizational operations, in order to pinpoint critical gaps that can guide the sustainable system/structural change. Often, I find a great solution would sit on the shelf if we missed the stakeholder engagement, local context, or organization/human capacity. We need to pay more attention to who, when, where and how in implementation, as well as the unintended consequences in the community.

In humanitarian assistance, each actor operates in an environment that is fluid and challenging in the midst of wars, natural disasters, pandemics, corruption, and regulations. There is an especially significant data gap in first-mile tracing and last-mile distribution of the supply chain for humanitarian relief.

Yuehwern Yih, LASER PULSE academic director and Purdue industrial engineering professor, in a Ugandan health center’s supply room, leads a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Grand Challenges project to strengthen medical supply chain.

I partnered with Catholic Relief Services to consider the operating conditions for humanitarian aid. We developed an innovative application called Electronic+TRAnsparent tracking system (ETRA, formerly known as E+TRA) that assists organizations in coordinating and managing aid commodities throughout the supply network. The app enables emergency responders to track supplies all the way from purchasing to distribution. ETRA is now in use at a food security program in South Sudan, benefiting over 70,000 people for the last 10 months, and it is being adopted to coordinate 21 humanitarian centers, supporting 60,000 people in Ukraine.

ETRA helps close the data and local capacity gaps in the last mile to manage supply chain operations more effectively, and it provides a platform where multiple organizations can work together as a coordinated cluster. This is a unique feature that probably couldn’t have been implemented without the impetus of the urgent needs in Ukraine. I would like to see this level of coordination achieved for all humanitarian relief efforts.

There are many opportunities for researchers to rethink and redesign the future humanitarian supply network. For example, two questions to examine are: How do we balance the outside donations of commodities and cash for emergency response, while boosting local economic recovery and supporting local needs? What policies or strategies need to be in place to foster, at scale, green humanitarian operations and products?

Finally, how do we mitigate risks and build a robust supply network that is resilient to shocks, especially as a global crisis (such as COVID) hits all critical players in manufacturing, logistics and distribution simultaneously, all over the world?

Yuehwern Yih, PhD

Academic Director, LASER PULSE (Long-term Assistance and SErvices for Research, Partners for University-Led Solutions Engine) Consortium

Professor, School of Industrial Engineering

Director, Smart Operations & Systems (SOS) Lab

College of Engineering

Purdue University