News focus: Throwing a lifeline to Haiti

2 February 2010

2 February 2010 | Helen Gilbert

International hubs pre-stocked with essential supplies and pre-agreed vendor deals are just two of the ways charities are coping with supply chain emergencies. Helen Gilbert looks at how the life-saving measures are working

The devastating earthquake that hit Haiti last month is believed to have killed as many as 200,000 people and left an estimated 1.5 million homeless.

Since the quake charities have been working overtime to distribute basic commodities including food, blankets, plastic sheets and tents, with emergency supply chains an essential component of the relief process.

An estimated three million people had no access to food, water or sanitation immediately after the quake so aid agency Care International quickly set about dispatching 600,000 sachets of water purification solution from one of its hubs based in Panama.

The charity has three of these centres – in Dubai, Panama and Kuala Lumpar. Each houses essential items that can be used in an emergency. According to Kate Akhtar, the charity’s senior emergency programme officer, the hubs’ locations mean aid can be distributed speedily.

Care International also uses local suppliers who sign pre-agreements to provide goods in the event of an emergency. “In normal circumstances, for a large order, we can do tenders or get three quotes and compare prices,” says Akhtar.

“You can bypass all of that with emergency pre-planning. You can place an order without having to tender to other companies, it just speeds up the process. And you can try to negotiate discounts pre-agreement.”

The international hub approach is also adopted by the Red Cross, which uses the centres to stockpile relief items such as mosquito nets and kitchen goods. Richard North, head of logistics, international at the British Red Cross says: “We go through framework agreements. The Red Cross, as a whole, sets pre-emergency agreements for a two-year period. The supplier will guarantee to offer a specification of blankets at this price.”

But disasters of this magnitude can put a strain on suppliers.

“We [charities] can all end up chasing the same stock,” explains North. “Sometimes we look at changing the specification to see what else is available. We look at what’s available on a local procurement level to try to avoid flying stuff thousands of miles.”

As SM went to press, Oxfam had sent 90 tonnes of materials to Haiti – about 50 per cent from stock items held in an Oxfordshire warehouse
and the other half sourced from existing suppliers.

Charl van der Merwe, UK
co-ordinator for Oxfam GB’s Haiti response says the materials purchased by Oxfam GB are sourced from suppliers across the world, with a “notable concentration based in Europe and the UK”.

He says: “We have supply agreements for the majority of our non-stock items, though as one can appreciate, every emergency brings new non-stock items we need to find appropriate suppliers for.

“The benefit of supply agreements - as opposed to stock holding or no agreements - is the ability to rapidly deploy materials at short notice.”

North from the Red Cross adds there are many considerations buyers have to be aware of when examining new sourcing arrangements.

For example, buying food locally might be a better option in terms of air miles and quick distribution, but purchasers must also consider the possibility of causing inflation and pricing local people out of the market. Meanwhile, swamping a country with emergency goods could damage its economy. “Every operation should be reviewed critically and we should look to see how we did it,” he adds.

Medical relief charity Merlin opted to ship 4,800kg of equipment including two-interagency emergency health kits with enough drugs and health supplies for 20,000 people for three months. The goods were purchased from a medical export company in the Netherlands, shipped to the UK and then Port Au Prince in just five days.

As with any emergency, speed is vital. Buyers will be reminded of that when reviewing their procedures as the dust settles in Haiti.

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