Humanitarian logistics systems must improve to be effective, UN panel says

13 August 2001

Humanitarian supply logistics systems must be effectively coordinated in order to better help people in disasters or emergency situations, a panel of experts assembled by various United Nations relief agencies has concluded.

"The ability to share information on what relief items are arriving into a disaster zone will not only facilitate improved planning by agencies for the receipt and dispatch of these items at key entry points, but also help identify and address logistics bottlenecks, which commonly arise in emergency operations," said David Kaatrud, Chief of the UN World Food Programme's (WFP) Logistics Service and one of the participants in last week's workshop on improving logistical coordination between relief agencies, governmental and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and donors.

The meeting in Geneva, which was sponsored by the UN World Health Organization (WHO), the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) and WFP, attracted over 50 logistics experts from international organizations who agreed to use the experience and philosophy of SUMA, a system developed by PAHO and the Foundation for the Development of a Supply Management System, as the base for development of this common platform.

SUMA software - which can be used on laptop computers to track and sort incoming donations and their destinations, allowing disaster managers to see what they have and send it where it is needed - has been used successfully in the last 10 years mainly in the Americas, during and after large disasters such as Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and the El Salvador earthquakes earlier this year.

A common system should be useful not only for UN agencies and humanitarian assistance organizations, but also for national authorities in disaster-prone countries, which often lack logistics software to manage incoming supplies in an emergency situation, according to Dr. Claude de Ville de Goyet, chief of PAHO's Emergency Preparedness and Disaster Relief Program.

"From experience, we know that the availability of a logistics information system in a disaster situation helped countries like El Salvador and Honduras quite a lot in efficient management of international assistance," he said. "It also improved transparency and accountability for the management of donations, which is very important."

Frequently, countries that experience a disaster are flooded with tonnes of supplies, putting a great burden on already stretched relief staff who then must categorize and dispose of the material. Systems like SUMA aim to correct this problem.

 

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