Today Africa is divided into forty-six states, more than three times the number in Asia (whose land surface is almost 50% larger) and nearly four times the number in South America.[i] These boundaries cut through 177 cultural areas and this is a major seedbed for the informal economy. Despite these facts, few rail or roadways cross borders and there are no commercially navigable rivers to facilitate the movement of goods either. Add in the infrastructure that has been ravaged by war, the often rife corruption and poor governance and the picture is clear. There are few means in place to move whatever is extracted or generated from the vast natural resources of Africa to any place else. This is the key. If you can’t move what you produce cost effectively, you are physically and economically trapped. Logistics is key.
Against this backdrop, the lack of Infrastructure and Logistics capacity sets in train the vicious cycle whereby poor economic performance does not generate the surplus to import or deliver vital supplies such as food or vaccines to where they are needed. Heavily in debt, many African States are just about surviving. However, if the infrastructure to make things move effectively and efficiently can be put in place the future looks more productive. Logistics can transform economic outcomes at the macro and micro level.
Humanitarian Logistics is receiving increasing attention from logistics academics and practitioners as disasters and how to deal with them become an increasingly significant issue. For example, after the Asian tsunami in 2004, delivering substantial humanitarian aid was seen as a vital but highly complex industry whose time had come. According to Log and Wood (1995) food aid alone accounted for $5 billion worth of food in 1991 and this number has risen considerably. In 2004, the combined total of the top ten aid agencies exceeded $14 billion (Thomas and Kopzak, 2005) and almost every government in the world is now involved as either a donor, a provider of services or, a recipient.
There is much to be learned from this area. However, we will leave this until further desk research and interviews can assist in drawing the lines between humanitarian logistics and the informal economy more clearly. At this stage, we can learn from how the term “humanitarian logistics” became an umbrella term to describe all of the various activities and resources involved in preparing for and responding to disaster. Drawing from many disciplines it has acted as a catalyst and, this could be the same with “transformational logistics” and the informal / formal economy debate. [ii]
Humanitarian Logistics is a growing field and has much to say on Africa and those places, even in the developed world, prone to natural disasters. Cf. Kovacs & Spens (2007) and, Van Wassenhove (2005). We cannot do justice to this body of work here but, the potential learnings are worth highlighting at this point.
[ii] Van Wassenhove, Blackett Memorial Lecture, Humanitarian aid logistics: supply chain management in high gear (2005) and, Kovacs and Spens, Humanitarian logistics in disaster relief operations (2007).