What I do – Humanitarian Logistics in a Nutshell

My friends and family sometimes ask me what I do, and the answer is “humanitarian logistics.” The next question is almost invariably, “What’s that?” and my usual answer is that I don’t really know. However, with the help of a few photos maybe I can try and explain a bit.

Logistics in general can be explained relatively simply: getting the right stuff in the right place at the right time for the right cost. Apply this to the complicated world of humanitarian aid operations and the simple explanation can make for a complicated reality. Getting it all right can be extremely difficult and at times impossible, but achieving success on a challenging logistical project can make a lot of people really happy.


Let’s take the example of oxytocin: getting oxytocin (a drug used to contract the uterus for prevention and treatment of postpartum haemorrhage after giving birth) from the UK to a field hospital in Haïti — without breaking the cold chain required for the oxytocin to be useable** — in time for the first emergency caesarian section. This involves finding a trustworthy supplier of the drug if it’s not held in stock in the UK by the aid organisation, and organising delivery either to the aid organisation’s office/warehouse in the UK or sending it directly from the supplier to the Dominican Republic or Haïti.

Once the oxytocin is en route, it needs to be kept within a certain temperature range – if it heats up too much it won’t be useable. This means the supplier must package it with icepacks in a coolbox in such a manner that the drug will remain within the required temperature range for the entire time between leaving their warehouse and arrival at the destination airport. Once received by the aid organisation, the ice packs would need to be changed or the drugs put into a fridge to maintain this cold chain, something which is not easy to do when there is no ready source of electricity or fuel for generators.

There are several components of humanitarian logistics. Some aren’t technically logistics, but usually get assigned as part of a logistician’s responsibilities in the field, so I’ll include them. The components are, in no particular order:

  • Transport
  • Fleet Management
  • Water and Sanitation
  • Radio, satellite, and phone communications
  • Energy
  • Warehousing
  • Construction

In the next few posts, I’ll put up a few photos of each of these things to show how they fit into the big picture working in a humanitarian or development organisation in the field.

**When this blog post was originally published in 2010, oxytocin still needed to be kept refrigerated. However, since that time a temperature-stable version has become available so that oxytocin no longer requires a cold chain.

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