Share with your friends


Analytics Magazine

Supply Chain Management: Humanitarian Logistics

Spring 2009
Uncertainty, damaged infrastructure, politics highlight Humanitarian Logistics

Uncertainty, damaged infrastructure, politics highlight top-10 challenges facing analysts during a disaster.

By Ozlem Ergun, Pinar Keskinocak, Julie Swann and Monica Villarreal

Disasters are wreaking havoc on human lives and nations’ economies at an alarming — and rising — rate. According to the World Economic Forum, more than 180,000 deaths and more than $200 billion in economic losses occurred in 2005 alone. Whether it’s a tsunami in the Pacific or a national event such as Hurricane Katrina, governments, non-profit organizations and private industries need to be better prepared to respond and recover from disasters, offering timely and necessary aid to those in need through efficient humanitarian supply chains.

Supply chain management and operations research (SCM/OR) recognize this, modeling a systems approach with the use of analytical tools such as forecasting, simulation, optimization, game theory, etc. However, there is a need of extending the current, and developing new, SCM/OR models and methodologies to take into account the specific challenges of the humanitarian operations.

In order to achieve this, we must recognize and address the main challenges of humanitarian logistics:

1. High uncertainty in demand. Two earthquakes of similar magnitude may have entirely different outcomes if one hits a high population density area in a developing country, and the other hits a better-prepared city in a developed country. Relief demand is unknown both in size and type, and it is affected by dynamic and hard-to-measure factors such as disaster characteristics, local economy and infrastructure, social and political conditions, etc.

2. High uncertainty in timing. In general, it is difficult to predict exactly when a disaster is going to strike. This time frame could be relatively delimited as in a hurricane season or hardly predictable as in an earthquake. Therefore, one needs to be in a constant state of readiness and to plan during an uncertain time, which requires additional flexibility.

3. High uncertainty in location. We may know where the fault lines are, but we cannot predict either when or where an earthquake will happen. For other disasters such as hurricanes, we may have more information based on historical data and models that help us predict the path after it starts, but even a specific storm can change paths. Affected locations might also be dynamic as in the case of a pandemic influenza, so planning should account for this. Location uncertainty imposes additional challenges to preparedness activities such as relief supplies and equipment pre-positioning, infrastructure investment, etc.

Humanitarian Logistics

4. High uncertainty and challenges in supply. Donations may be variable or restricted in their use by donors, while in-kind donations may also be inadequate and unmatched with the demand. Building up relationships with local vendors, usually in a very short period of time, may be a difficult task as well.

5. Challenges in collaboration among the multiple players and decision-makers in a humanitarian supply chain. Each of the responders (governments, military, local authorities, etc.) may compete for limited resources to achieve their own goals, such as when many organizations needed the limited resources of the airports during the 2004 tsunami. Organizations and governments may also have different incentives that impair the effectiveness of collaborations.

6. The impact of the political, cultural and socioeconomic conditions of the region. Responders must have an understanding of the region as they are usually in a highly politicized environment. Unawareness of specific local issues may cause even the best stand-alone plan to fail or become impractical. For example, genetically modified food is prohibited in some Southern African nations such as Zambia, restricting food aid programs. The human factor is crucial in humanitarian operations, which includes language, customs, political views, etc. Also, every organization involved is under the public eye which put more stress on the response operation.

Humanitarian Logistics supply chain management

7. The strong dependency of last mile operations on the location and disaster severity. Transportation infrastructure might be disrupted and required equipment may not be locally available, affecting the supply chain responsiveness. This can be aggravated by a limited location access or poor construction. This was the case of the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan, where people lived in mountainous regions and had limited aid access because of obstructed roads.

humanitarian logistics

8. Limited telecommunications and information infrastructure. The Internet is still not widely available in some developing countries. Land-based phones and cellular phone communication towers might be down as a result of a disaster, as was the case after Hurricane Katrina hit. Also, since there might be more than one organization collecting data, it is common to find inconsistencies in the aftermath reports.

9. Long-term impact of the many activities carried out during humanitarian operations. This happens as cities are rebuilt, people are relocated, new products and vendors introduced to the local market, etc. This is the case of the food aid monetization from the U.S. government, which starts with a donation of food to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) around the world, and then NGOs get funds for other aid programs by selling the in-kind donations in the local markets. There are tradeoffs between short-term effectiveness of the response and a long-term impact on the communities that guarantees their sustainability.

10. The success of humanitarian operations is hard to measure. Economic success is the standard performance measure in the pro-profit world. For non-profit organizations this evaluation is more complex, considering difficult-to-formulate elements such as unmet need fulfilled and more tractable ones like cash flow. Keeping complete track, control and accountability of the humanitarian programs and their outcomes is challenged by the high urgency and pace of this type of operations, and time for analyzing and recording is usually tight.

Ozlem Ergun ( is an assistant professor, Pinar Keskinocak ( is an associate professor and Julie Swann (jswann@isye. is an associate professor at the Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering, Georgia Institute of Technology, where Monica Villarreal is a grad student. Ergun, Keskinocak and Swann are codirectors of the school’s Center for Humanitarian Relief Logistics and co-organizers of the 2009 Humanitarian Logistics Conference (see accompanying story) recently held in Atlanta.

Global Response to Humanitarian Logistics Conference

Amer Daoudi, director of the World Food Programme's Logistics Division, makes a point at the Humanitarian Logistics Conference.Amer Daoudi, director of the World Food Programme’s Logistics Division, makes a point at the Humanitarian Logistics Conference.

More than 180 participants converged on the Georgia Tech Conference Center in February with the common goal of enhancing humanitarian logistics. Stewart School of ISyE Professors Ozlem Ergun, Pinar Keskinocak and Julie Swann organized the 2009 Humanitarian Logistics Conference that addressed pressing challenges in humanitarian relief and development, and inspired new ideas and practices towards positive change.

Plenary speaker Amer Daoudi, director of the World Food Programme’s Logistics Division, presented a riveting talk on feeding the hungry during emergencies and the challenges that come with reaching beneficiaries in remote and war-torn areas.

Participants came from across the globe representing a variety of organizations interested in disaster relief, including academia, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), government, private companies and the military. FEMA, American Red Cross, CARE USA, INSEAD, the United Nations and the International Medical Corps sent speakers and panelists, as did several universities and other organizations, private and public.

The conference presentations outlined various humanitarian efforts and focused on building new collaborations and synergies across many different organizations. Topics included disaster preparedness and response, long-term development and humanitarian aid, and intra- and inter-organizational collaboration in disaster planning and long-term humanitarian aid.

“We cannot continue business as usual,” Daoudi said, summing up a common theme of the presentations. “We have to change; we have to adapt. … Today, the humanitarian communities are talking to each other. We are getting better at complementing rather than competing.”

For more on the conference presentations and workshops, visit:


Related Posts

  • 33
    Natural and man-made disaster swept through various parts of the world and received much attention over the past decade. Meanwhile, many parts of the world suffer from the lack of basic necessities, including shelter, water, food, education, access to basic health care and safety, which have been identified among “humanity’s…
    Tags: humanitarian, logistics, operations, conference, organizations, disaster, challenges
  • 33
    Georgia Tech will offer a professional certificate program in Health & Humanitarian Supply Chain Management on May 14-19 at the Georgia Tech Global Learning Center in Atlanta. The three-course, six-day certificate program is designed for practitioners in private industry, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), government, military and others who are active participants…
    Tags: humanitarian, supply, chain, management, organizations
  • 30
    As the world’s population continues to grow, the role of analytics and O.R. in developing effective new approaches to food production is becoming increasingly important. From more efficient distribution of water resources, to better management of meat and dairy production, to smarter crop cultivation, analytics is having a significant impact in the fight against global hunger
    Tags: management, efficient, food, supply, chain, operations


Using machine learning and optimization to improve refugee integration

Andrew C. Trapp, a professor at the Foisie Business School at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), received a $320,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to develop a computational tool to help humanitarian aid organizations significantly improve refugees’ chances of successfully resettling and integrating into a new country. Built upon ongoing work with an international team of computer scientists and economists, the tool integrates machine learning and optimization algorithms, along with complex computation of data, to match refugees to communities where they will find appropriate resources, including employment opportunities. Read more →

Gartner releases Healthcare Supply Chain Top 25 rankings

Gartner, Inc. has released its 10th annual Healthcare Supply Chain Top 25 ranking. The rankings recognize organizations across the healthcare value chain that demonstrate leadership in improving human life at sustainable costs. “Healthcare supply chains today face a multitude of challenges: increasing cost pressures and patient expectations, as well as the need to keep up with rapid technology advancement, to name just a few,” says Stephen Meyer, senior director at Gartner. Read more →

Meet CIMON, the first AI-powered astronaut assistant

CIMON, the world’s first artificial intelligence-enabled astronaut assistant, made its debut aboard the International Space Station. The ISS’s newest crew member, developed and built in Germany, was called into action on Nov. 15 with the command, “Wake up, CIMON!,” by German ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst, who has been living and working on the ISS since June 8. Read more →



INFORMS Computing Society Conference
Jan. 6-8, 2019; Knoxville, Tenn.

INFORMS Conference on Business Analytics & Operations Research
April 14-16, 2019; Austin, Texas

INFORMS International Conference
June 9-12, 2019; Cancun, Mexico

INFORMS Marketing Science Conference
June 20-22; Rome, Italy

INFORMS Applied Probability Conference
July 2-4, 2019; Brisbane, Australia

INFORMS Healthcare Conference
July 27-29, 2019; Boston, Mass.

2019 INFORMS Annual Meeting
Oct. 20-23, 2019; Seattle, Wash.

Winter Simulation Conference
Dec. 8-11, 2019: National Harbor, Md.


Advancing the Analytics-Driven Organization
Jan. 28–31, 2019, 1 p.m.– 5 p.m. (live online)


CAP® Exam computer-based testing sites are available in 700 locations worldwide. Take the exam close to home and on your schedule:

For more information, go to