NGO Logistics Fill a Critical Gap

By Jim Lanning (pictured) – Director of Acquisitions and Logistics at International Relief & Development (IRD).

The logistics operations established to facilitate today’s global supply chains are such a part of life most people take them for granted. But step back and place them in historical perspective and they’re a wonder to behold. The rapid movement of goods we see today, movements that coordinate the activities of dozens and even hundreds of organizations across different continents could, until relatively recently, only be accomplished by large states operating in wartime.

But decades of economic, technological and political changes have made for-profit companies the hubs of a continuous movement of huge amounts of goods across the face of the globe. What are less well known are the logistics capabilities of the global non-profit, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that are as much a feature of our globalized world as are transnational corporations and central governments.

A good example of these capabilities is the current response to the Ebola virus in West Africa. Every day we read about medical supplies and equipment transported to the region and distributed to hospitals and clinics in even the most remote rural areas. These much-needed supplies are provided by public and private organizations. Actually getting the supplies to the countries and distributing them to where they will do the most good is primarily the work of global NGOs.
jimLanningFor instance, we recently organized the transport and distribution of essential medical supplies and equipment to Sierra Leone. The goods were collected by one of our domestic partners, Hands of Hope NW. from hospitals in and around Nampa. Idaho. They were then trucked to Seattle and, from there, shipped to Sierra Leone’s capital Freetown, where they will arrive in December. From Freetown, our local partner the Sierra Leone Development Foundation will truck them to Magbenthe Community Hospital in Ma ken!, one of the country’s poorest rural areas. This single shipment of goods could mean the difference between life and death for hundreds of people.

On the face of it, there’s nothing very unusual about this story. It’s simply one more container of goods moving quickly and smoothly from one country to another. What makes it unique is the motivational ‘glue’ that holds it together. Governments in war exercise the power of command. Market-based production and distribution is driven by the profit motive.

NGO logistics networks are built on a philanthropic impulse. Unique among global enterprises, NGOs’ logistics networks are purely and wholly voluntary. That’s not to say theres no mutuality Involved. Non-profits working together, and with for-profit companies and government organizations, help all parties by building capacity and increasing one’s appeal to donors. But that takes place within a very different institutional reality than that in which those who run global supply chains operate.
Over the past twenty or so years, the percentage of global NGOs’ revenue composed of medical supplies and equipment, pharmaceuticals, building materials, and other goods and services has significantly increased. For Instance, a substantial portion of our organization’s revenue is now In-kind donations. We transport to and distribute goods within dozens of countries on every continent, working with hundreds of private and public partners.
Most importantly, the NGO logistics model has proven its value by the difference it has made in peoples’ lives. The devastating Impact of HIV/AIDS in Africa has been greatly reduced through the transport and distribution of advanced pharmaceuticals. Medical equipment and supplies-and the training to use it-has greatly strengthened or even built health care systems in countries from Jordan to South Sudan.
Food grown in and shipped from the US has been used to fund long-term development projects in Indonesia, Cambodia, and dozens of other countries. Logistics powers the modern globalized world. NGOs play a significant and growing part in getting goods to those whose needs aren’t always adequately met by either governments or markets.

Based in Arlington,Virginia, IRD specializes in meeting the needs of communities emerging from conflict or natural disaster.


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