Philanthropy & Logistics for Flood Relief
(Published in The Express Tribune, August 20, 2010)
KARACHI: Many independent organisations and individuals have taken to relief efforts but it is not uncommon to hear about attempts being hampered due to insufficient logistical planning. Organisations load up trucks and head towards camp sites that may have already received the same supplies. While the military is attempting to regulate relief activities, much more effort is required.
Duplication of efforts is bad for any business, including philanthropy. Worse still, behavioural economists confirm that it is also bad for morale. Showing up with tents not needed and being turned away can lead to dejection and even anger. Distribution routes also get clogged as trucks backtrack and reroute.
Given that most of us are not purchasing managers, donations are often wastefully utilised. Lack of responsible spending leads to economic problems like inflation and hoarding on the part of suppliers speculating even higher demand. Just as important is the purchase of the right kind of goods. If a tent is not waterproof, it will only compound the problem when rains hit again.
A perfect marketplace exists only when there is perfect information sharing. Similarly, relief efforts can be improved tremendously if there is close collaboration and information sharing so that everyone is aware of what is needed, where it is needed and the best means to acquire the supplies.
Online mailing lists provide a quick and easy collaboration platform and have been used for decades with great success. SMS broadcasts through Twitter and GPS tracking also help in sharing up-to-the-minute reports. Tools similar to Wikipedia are also freely available for building a knowledge base.
Supply-chain managers aim to reduce inventory costs and achieve high turnover rates. At their best, corporations may even set out to achieve just-in-time inventory management where orders are placed with suppliers only after customer orders are received. The same rigour is required for flood relief.
Accountants armed with laptops and spreadsheet software can tally up incoming supplies and share the results via email or wikis. Basic forecasting methods can also be employed to predict needs for the next few days or months.
Distribution of food, medicines and similar goods presents the problem of fairness. Certain families will try to game the system by double dipping into supplies. Others may not be in a position to line up in long queues or compete with mobs.
An efficient supply-chain system will allow goods to be warehoused at a safe distance from looters. Fingerprint scanners, now quite affordable, can be used to identify victims, track the amount of aid they have received, link them to family members and track their profiles. Businesses usually use identity cards or credit cards for customer profiling, the idea here is the same but uses fingerprints instead.
Identification, quantification and coordination can help build a better knowledge base and a systematic solution that is repeatable. Once a platform is in place for coordination and quantification, it also becomes possible to iteratively improve this entire system.