‘We don’t have too many direct logistics problems,’ says Birgitte Stalder-Olsen. ‘But there are a lot of areas around logistics that create problems. There are issues internal to our organisation and to our relations with the rest of the humanitarian community, but there are also external pressures. It seems that humanitarian crises are becoming more frequent for whatever reason, or perhaps we are simply more aware of small and medium scale disasters. We have increased expectations from our donors and there is always the call for greater accountability.’
The expectations and accountability the federation can do something about. More surprisingly perhaps, Stalder-Olsen claims that the federation can also begin to predict the likely needs and logistics requirements, even though earthquakes, tsunamis and other natural disasters don’t operate to the sort of schedules that an ERP programme would recognise. But the federation itself is a lean structure and one of Stalder-Olsen’s biggest concerns is the recruitment and retention of some uniquely-qualified staff.
‘We have a management and support team in Geneva of just 14 staff,’ she says. ‘There are three regional units in Panama, Dubai, and Kuala Lumpur, which between them have about 38 logistics people. And then there are the delegations around the world, some of which have logistics capabilities and staff. There is a big problem attracting logistics professionals. The core positions in Geneva and in the regional hubs aren’t so difficult although it is still hard to find the right people. We are competing with other nongovernmental organisations for specialist staff. When it comes to putting 50 professionals into six countries as we did for the tsunami response, it’s not easy.
‘And for emergencies, we have to consider – what do these people go back to after three or six months? Many have given up their normal careers to join the aid effort but where do they go after that?’
The first half-year is important. For crises with longterm commitments, the federation tries hard to recruit and train local people to take over but training may take six months or more. Even when locals are trained and the majority of expats leave, Olsen says ‘they will continue to receive support so that we can demonstrate accountability’.
Precisely because the federation’s logistics establishment is lean and flat, there are relatively few
promotion opportunities or natural career paths.
Practically, the federation has in recent years reformed its logistics capability significantly. The three regional units have the warehousing and other resources to each deliver immediate aid to 5,000 families within 48 hours. The goods are in stock in federation warehouses or held by suppliers under a framework agreement. The same system can support 15,000 more families within two weeks.
This is a fairly new system, and is due to be reviewed at the end of this year. Olsen explains that the cycle of a disaster starts with assessment, appeals, and operational planning – and only then can mobilisation start. This takes some time, not least to correlate requirements with other non-governmental organisations, governments and so on. Regionally-held stocks are designed to hold the field and give assessors time to evaluate what the longer term requirements might be.
Also, Stalder-Olsen’s team can call on large stocks held by national Red Cross societies – Turkey, Iran, Indonesia being examples.
When it comes to international transport, there are many commercial organisations able and willing to assist, even to the point of setting up satellite airfields if a major airport is too congested. Transport problems are more intense locally, as it is the nature of earthquakes, tsunamis, typhoons to destroy roads and bridges. Where possible, the federation relies on locally rented trucks and other transport resources. In extreme conditions, there is a fleet of five tonne six-wheelers held by the Norwegian Red Cross. These were successfully deployed in the recent Pakistan earthquake but carry their own penalty in needing to be transported around the world.
Similarly, says Stalder-Olsen, helicopters can be used, but as a last resort as they are so expensive. The federation used helicopters to airlift other relief vehicles to remote Indonesian islands after the tsunami. One of the biggest strengths of the federation’s response capacity is the way it can call on the resources of its member organisations.
‘Nobody knows what the next disaster will be or what will be needed, but we can standardise the initial survival response and give victims the best chance of surviving into the next, much more complex, recovery and rebuilding phase,’ says Stalder-Olsen.
Birgitte Stalder-Olsen is head of the logistics and resource mobilisation department at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (the International Federation). She manages the federation’s global supply chain function and set-up including a headquarters-based office in Geneva, regional logistics units in Dubai, Kuala Lumpur and Panama and a global fleet base in Dubai. In cooperation with the Fritz Institute, she has managed the development of Humanitarian Logistics Software (HLS).
Field delegate missions
Her professional background includes 27 years’ logistics experience in supply chain management, international procurement and the development of logistics tools and standards. Her previous employment record includes logistics positions in ICRC, the Danish Red Cross and the International Federation. She has concluded field delegate missions in Thailand, Poland, Lebanon, Cyprus and Uganda.
In November 2006, the federation’s logistics service won the European Supply Chain Excellence Award under her leadership.