If ever the world needed reminding of the importance of Logistics then, Haiti has been a brutal wake-up call. Media coverage of the earthquake and the after shocks has generated graphic illustrations of shattered buildings; wrecked infrastructure and, thousands of dead – though a bitter irony saw the main prison left intact save for fisures that provided easy exit for hundreds of criminals to roam free amidst the chaos.

Logistics is a vital lifeline and yet, an already creaking infrastructure has been exposed as utterly useless for any mobilisation of efforts to deliver vital rescue, food and medical supplies. Bluntly, this was a logistics nightmare waiting to happen and begs the question: when are we going to invest on disaster preparedness; kick the tyres and deal with constraints on a regular basis.

Now, in Haiti, a massive logistics effort is underway to sort out the mess. The USS Carl Vincent has been deployed as an offshore port to replace the hopelessly unfit for purpose port of Port au Prince – it is fitted with water purifying equipment capable of making 1.8 m litres of fresh water per day; Santo Domingo is being used as a staging area for inbound logistics and a second logistics platform at Barahone on the South coast of the Dominican Republic is being set up. Have a look at this overview of the seaport of Port au Prince taken by the Logistics Cluster.

What next?

One of the most skilled operators in this type of effort was New York Fire Chief Downey – he died at 9/11 – who coined the term “read the wreckage” for that crucial assessment of the fault lines in chaos that can accelerate retrieval of survivors in a horrendous race against time to clear out the dead and respond to those clinging on. Then, a realistic needs assessment has to be made and this should have the mandate to block entry to things that are NOT needed and focus on what is essential. As many as one-third of Haiti’s 9 million people are believed to be in desperate need as a result of the quake, which flattened poorly constructed homes and other structures across the densely populated capital and surrounding areas. The death toll could be anything between 50 and 100,000.

“I don’t know how much longer we can hold out,” said Dee Leahy, a lay missionary from St. Louis, Mo., who was working with nuns handing out provisions from their small stockpile. “We need food, we need medical supplies, we need medicine, we need vitamins, and we need painkillers. And we need it urgently.” It has taken five days for the aid effort to be able to distribute meaningful levels of water to distressed areas.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the World Food Program has provided high-energy biscuits and ready-to-eat meals to around 8,000 people “several times a day,” but he admitted it was “a drop in the bucket in the face of the massive need.” Even worse – there are significant problems mounting from looting and a breakdown of public order as frustration and desperation sets in. Have a look at these UN pictures of the context to deal with.

Tracker dogs and adequate material movement equipment has to be deployed fast and, as the survivors drive runs out of time – there is only so long that survivors can last without medical treatment, food and water – the push to clear the way for longer term solutions kicks in.

Humanitarian Logistics is an umbrella term for any number of disciplines needed by disasters on this scale. Most of these disasters happen in places where government ability to deal swiftly with this urgent new reality is severely restricted by poverty and, plain bad governance. Haiti was already judged to be one of the worst run countries on earth so, there is little hope of the government – or what survives of it – being able to provide the leadership required. And yet, what can be done to lay the grounds for a viable future and make something sustainable out of ground zero? Here’s the agenda:

  • Governance. The US has moved swiftly to fill the vacuum of leadership. It is hoped that the full force of the UN will be deployed to shape the future on behalf of the International community as a whole. This is a global issue and should be dealt with accordingly. However, how effective is the UN at making things happen AND ensuring that government on the ground pays the price for urgent assistance – that they clean up their act. Haiti is a case study in corruption and poor governance. What can be done to put a stop to that and supply the stability that is the only way recovery can happen – and a mass migration that will sweep neighbouring countries avoided?
  • Technology leapfrog. In several countries the opportunity has been taken to by pass legacy system options and move straight away to stae-of-the art solutions. For example, mobile phone networks instead of a landline network. What else?
  • Infrastructure. After the great fire of London, grand designs were hatched – notably by Christopher Wren – with etoile like squares and wide avenues that pre-date Hausmann’s 19th century boulevards of Paris. What can be done to ensure that  any plans to simplify road, rail and utility networks are not wrecked by vested interests? I recall the Hull caravan industry responding immediately to the Naples disaster in the 1970’s for the local Camora underworld to hike prices to accomodate their own cynical rake off.
  • Connectivity. Haitis communications have been pitiful before now and just became worse. This is where advanced mobile and wireless technology can provide vital support in a solutions vacuum. Collaboration with neighbouring countries is being forced. Can this be sustained?
  • Transparency. The Aid effort could act as a catalyst for greater openess and sharing of information. What can be done to ensure that this becomes a real behavioural shift?
  • Affordability. Fast track response does not come cheap. Looking ahead, the relative importance of cost will re-align with Haitis underlying realities. The state is bankrupt. Is it possible to anticipate needs and work on affordable solutions going forward? Michael Keizer mentions the 5 rights – the right goods; right quality; right place; right time and right price. A clear and useful insight.
  • Green agenda. What can be done both to integrate green options into future projects and explore ways in which carbon futures can generate sustainable business opportunities on the ground?
  • Skills. From quayside to warehouse to factory to store to homes – things move and materials handling equipment is a vital part of the solution. What is the skills gap? How can this be closed and, as part of trying to keep youth on the island and deter mass migration how can meaningful jobs be created and sustained?
  • Mentored clusters. Is it possible to accelerate recovery by developing a mentoring programme to connect Social networking sites could play a useful role not just in galvanising the Aid effort but in laying the groundwork for skills back up and training. This is the time for the skills of the developed – but fragile – economies to help out AND provide a stimulus to their own economy.For example, replacement utilities and factory equipment will need maintenance support. What about mobile phones linking to central support and diagnostics elsewhere? What about a major focus on the second hand machinery market? Because of the current down-turn there must be a massive park of kit out there.

Over time this huge humanitarian effort will wind down as roads and buildings are re-built. It is time to explore ways in which these disasters can be anticipated and steps taken to fast track the response and, the sustainability of what are, for now, interim solutions. In our view there is real scope to develop Transformational Logistics as a second umbrella term – a fresh cognitive map – to cover the skills and services required for the vital transitional steps to a sustainable future. As illustrated elsewhere on this blog there is a major gap here. We need to prepare for these major systemic (and governmental) failures. Humanitarian effort to a market solution in one leap – no way. And incremental moves to get there will fail unless a transformative agenda is put in place.

World population is rising from 6 to 9 billion by 2050 and, this growth will see up to 75% of the population living in no more than 50 City Regions. Places like Mumbai and Sao Paulo will become even more congested and, other areas will grow exponentially to join the agenda. What are we learning about the shape of urban spaces as we move to this scenario? What are we doing to shift world design from a focus on those that have to those that need it – and there is business for the developed world out of this.

Right now, places like Dharavi are hardly going to survive epidemics and disasters on this scale and, any impact will generate serious collateral damage on a hinterland that – as global population grows – will take in even the most stable of nations. This means a tough agenda of:

  1. Futures. The Royal Society of Civil Engineers have published a stuy of the impact of a rise in temperature on coastal towns in the UK. Places like Hull will end up on stilts. Several developed economies are looking into their crystal balls. What is being done to envision  impacts AND OPPORTUNITIES for the developing world? See elsewhere on this Blog.
  2. Food security. This is the elephant in a lot of rooms. Last year saw food riots in Italy over the price of pasta; unrest in Japan over rice and wider concerns in more predictable places. What is happening to enusre that there is a strategic set of options in place for a quantum leap in needs?
  3. Fuel and energy security. This means a massive focus on the green agenda beyond the recycling habits of the urban middle class. It means designing new city spaces and transforming whole industries. For example, when will the Detroit model of making the full car and moving it to market end and a full scale postponed manufacturing option be fully deployed?
  4. Financial security. Micro finance will not be a solution to any major collapse of a banking system and, recent events demonstarte the scale of response within the developed economies. Imagine something wider.
  5. Skills. Humanitarian Aid sees the urgent deployment of skilled operators across an array of services – engineering; medical and food logistics. How can this be susutained?The fact is that most of these locations lack skills pre-disaster and, what is being done to understand the skills gap at the vocational level and deal with it? Without this dimension the rest will stack up on a dockside and rot. Experts in the field can give us many examples of equipment that rusts because of a lack of maintenance skills on the ground. When is skills gap analysis and vocational skills training going to be taken seriously? And on a scale that matters.

Can a disaster like the Tsunami and now, Haiti become a forcing house of change and transformation for a better future? Or, will we deal with the symptoms and move on before the root causes are tackled? Only time will tell.