Humanitarian logistics: as we are all in it together

I got to know WFP when I started as an aidworker for IFRC in Angola back in 1994. I remember the only way I could send my telecoms cargo to remote upcountry locations, was on planes managed by WFP and UNDPKO (UN peacekeeping). The only way I could fly to Ambriz, a totally isolated enclave north of Luanda, was with a WFP plane.

Kinda funny if you think about it: being a novice in the humanitarian world, back then, I did not know the “core business” of WFP – food assistance – but appreciated the organisation for the logistics services it provided to the aid community as a whole…

Strange sometimes how live goes. Two years later, I was on the other side of the counter: During the Great Lakes crisis, I started my job in WFP, and worked on the ‘service provision’ end of the supply chain. We assisted our colleagues from NGOs and UN agencies in air lifting their cargo amongst a dozen different bases in Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, DRC and Kenya.

Over the past decennia, WFP has developed a massive logistics capacity, which is needed to support our core activities: WFP Logistics delivers 3.9 million tons of food per year ( 2008 figures). Three point nine million tons of food. Line this up in bags of 25 kgs, 6 feet apart and you cover the distance from the earth to the moon. We move food aid by ocean vessel, trucks, river barges, train, air, and if need be, by yaks and mules. Our logistics network stretches from the sea ports in North America, Asia and Europe, all the way to the world’s most remote and hostile places.

Just like my reliance on WFP planes back in 1994, many partners and colleagues from the other agencies asked for our support in moving cargo for them. Be it water pumps for CESVI to Dungu in DRC or containers with supplies for UNAMID in Darfur. The support to our colleagues grew organically, and relied a lot on the local expertise and agreements between different agencies at field level. WFP has recognized the criticality of the interagency logistics services, but also saw the clear need to standardize the way we provide these services: how we track cargo for our colleagues, the service levels they can expect.

Eighteen months ago, we started a project to streamline all systems and procedures involved in the “Service Provision”. At the same time, we also adapted our financial support systems to cater for the invoicing of these services. This project has now come to fruition. Last week, a comprehensive support package went out to all field logistics officers outlining what services we provide to the aid community. And how we do it.

The package includes:

  • Standard templates for service level agreements
  • Forms for Service Requests, proform invoices and invoices
  • The “good practice” procedures
  • The internal financial rules governing the service provision
  • A cost calculation tool which will ensure all service charges are based on actual and “localized” figures (like local labour cost and truck transport rates).
  • Relief items management guidelines

Loads of things have evolved since the time I arrived at the WFP office in Luanda with my two aluminium IFRC crates to be sent to Ambriz fifteen years ago. One of the strengths of WFP is our ability to adapt to the demands on the aid community in providing humanitarian assistance faster, cheaper, more effective. It is something we are really proud of (did you smell this already?).. And within WFP Logistics, we are proud to be at the forefront of these changes. Not only for ourselves. We want to ensure the humanitarian community as a whole can benefit from our expertise. After all, we are all working towards the same goals. Eradicate hunger and poverty.

(Photos: WFP/Joakim Kembro & Peter Casier)