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Logistics: more than pizza delivery

The author of this article Geoff Loane spent 15 years involved in humanitarian assistance in east Africa, four of them in Somalia. This article arises from Geoff's experiences whilst involved in the provision of food assistance to the Somali population in 1992 and 1993.

Logistics play a central role in the provision of emergency assistance. The logistics machine includes the procurement, transport, storage and delivery of emergency, and possibly life saving material, to areas affected by disaster. Very often it is the ability of a country or community to support their own logistical infrastructure which is affected early on in a crisis. This in turn exacerbates, or in some cases, gives rise to increased crisis casualties. Thus the use of external resources, such as airlifts, prefabricated warehouse tents, and procurement in neighbouring countries is set up. In view of the humanitarian urgency this process must be quick and it must be accepted politically and operationally by the host community.

The success or failure of an operation is very often determined by the effectiveness and efficiency of its logistic services. Examples of undisputed success can be seen in the city saving air bridge into Berlin after World War 2. The airlift during the Biafran war (Nigeria, West Africa, 1969) is also recalled as a mark of success when hundreds of thousands of civilians fleeing the fighting were able to receive life saving food. A less glamorous example is Somalia in the early nineties; assistance arrived late and hundreds of thousands of people died of hunger and disease. Today we cannot fully qualify the success of that intervention. A great deal was achieved in circumstances that were almost impossible; looting, fighting, desperation and (as the Western world would see it) a breakdown of law and order. Many lessons can be learnt from this experience. The following essay seeks to identify the role food logistics played in this context.

The Context

The Somali civil war, which had its military origins in the armed struggle of the Somali National Movement (SNM) of the then north west of Somalia, quickly spread during 1990 throughout the country, and by New Year 1991 the country was in collapse. When the former President, Mohammed Siyad Barre fled Mogadishu, the capital, in January 1991 all institutions of the State broke down. The public service ceased to exist, the armed forces realigned themselves around their clan leaderships, and schools ceased to function. Law and order was assured, but only in part, by clan militia and individual security personnel. Customs, immigration, revenue, postal services, education, health care, communications and most, if not all other government services, disappeared overnight. The reality of the Somali context at this time was that humanitarians, like the military that were to follow, could create their own agenda for what had to be done.

The war continued, pitting community against community, dividing towns and cities, and leading to hundreds of thousands of conflict-related deaths. Certainly, the response by the Somali population in bringing relief to their own people was tremendous; hospitals reopened privately, those who could, gave shelter, protection and food, and an extreme crisis was temporarily averted. However the dimensions of the catastrophe soon overran the capacities of local communities to provide relief and protection.

The international response

The initial reaction of the international community was to limit intervention in Somalia. There was no functioning government and many exploratory teams that went there recommended non-intervention. They felt that (in the absence of government), security guarantees for humanitarian operations could not be met.

By mid 1991, the effects of the conflict were creating a medium, if not long term, disaster. Thousands of people were going to die, alone, unsupported, and victims of a conflict that consumed the passions of a nation, yet surrounded by an indifferent, frightened and non-reactive international community. So extensive were the dimensions of this tragedy, that by early 1992, one of the four organisations who had remained in the country throughout - the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) - argued that the whole population were victims of conflict and therefore potentially in need of protection and assistance.

The ICRC then launched an enormous food logistical operation, involving at its height 20 ships, a fleet of Hercules aircraft, hundreds of trucks, and up to 1000 community kitchens, that provided hot food twice daily to up to 1.2 million people. An estimated 20% of the population received hot food at kitchens. Each kitchen provided food for approximately 1000 of the most destitute people.

UN Intervention

By the time the UN forces arrived at the end of 1992, the tragedy had been all but played out. Hundreds of thousands had lost their lives through starvation-related deaths. The UN military mission (UNITAF) that landed on the beach in Mogadishu on 9th December, 1992 to provide security for humanitarian convoys, came late. The protection of humanitarian interests had been necessary since early 1991, and in the meantime, they had been able to establish a working network of security arrangements with local security to provide emergency food assistance. That is not to say that the UN forces did not have a role to play. However the majority of deaths took place before their arrival.

ICRC Intervention

The means whereby agencies collaborated with their host population and with each other to try and bring basic protection of life through provision of health care and food was an intricate one. It was achieved through: transparency of relationships, the complementarity of different efforts, and through an understanding that the humanitarian assistance was not in isolation of the society it targeted. Any deviation from this approach would have, and at times did, heighten tensions and conflict and led to greater numbers of victims. Logistics played a key role in the overall response because of the scale and dimensions that were involved in the operation.

The additionality of logistics expenditure?

If we analyse the disbursement of financial resources during a humanitarian emergency it is apparent that a significant percentage goes on logistics. At the height of the emergency assistance in Somalia, upwards of 15-20 million USD were being spent monthly inside Somalia by the humanitarian agencies. Most of this expenditure was on logistic related costs; personnel, transport, (un)loading, warehousing, security, distribution and fuel. Logistics-related expenditure generates substantial economic activity and influence. This expenditure has an additionality for the overall humanitarian response. In other words its benefits do not simply reside in ensuring the movement of resources from A to B, but also from the very fact that it injects additional cash resources into the affected country. It is often reported that significant amounts of aid money are manipulated by corrupt leaders and go to support war efforts. However, the bulk of this money does find its way quickly onto the local market - where it is a stimulant for economic activity. Furthermore, the extent to which aid money is manipulated by corrupt leaders and go to support war efforts can be reduced if disbursed as widely as possible so that it finds its way quickly onto the local market.

Measuring the impact

In Somalia, during 1992, it would be inadequate to speak of the operation of kitchens and food distributions, without the added value of employment, looted goods, indirect benefits, security apparatus and general market stimulation. Regrettably, evaluations give only scant attention to these programme effects/impacts which should be explored more deeply as a matter of course.

The humanitarian industry could acknowledge and quantify the impact of assistance that is created, purely by having a logistics structure. It is part of the assistance and cannot be separated from it. In short, its impact requires analysis and account.

The economic and market impact of the food logistics programme was particularly significant in the Somalia case in 1992, when the whole population of the country, was being targeted with humanitarian assistance. Thus, the food logistics programme provided employment for, according to some estimates, 25'000 persons, business for hundreds of truck owners and drivers, and cash income for thousands of security staff . It's true that this did not prevent the diversion nor looting of food, but these issues are beyond the ambit of this essay. In brief, food aid was by far the biggest employer of the era.

The role of logistics in political affairs

Logistics programmes also clearly have an impact upon, and are integral to, prevailing political forces and processes. The experience of keeping the port of Mogadishu (the logistical entry point to the country) open during the Somalia conflict is enlightening in this respect. Mogadishu is located in the southern sector of the city but was well within the range of artillery from either side. It had been effectively closed since hostilities broke out. The point of negotiation with the various armed factions was on the basis of parity of assistance. The ICRC argued that the port should open to let neutral aid be brought to the whole population wherever they were in need. As part of the negotiation, it was agreed with both main factions that port workers could be brought in equal proportion from south and north Mogadishu.
The political reality to the parties in conflict is quite transparent. Each was interested in appeasing his own constituents - and what better way than the "offer" of jobs and food within an impartial humanitarian operation.

At the same time, however, the factions wanted to use the port negotiations to be able to sit together as political factions and negotiate. This was not agreed to, as it was felt that the political factions would quickly turn the discussions onto the geopolitical playing field. This would force humanitarians to confront the politics of the context - clearly not their mandate. Shuttle diplomacy was therefore used and this resulted in acceptance by all parties concerned.

Logistic programmers must be careful to use politics and not be used by it. There is a tendency to identify political affairs as separate from technical/sectoral interventions such as logistics. The reality is that all sectoral interventions take place within the political context, and they affect or are affected by it. An understanding of the political impact of logistics is therefore essential for successful programme planning. We must realise that logistics draw down the largest resources in an operation, whether they be human, financial or material. Therefore logistical programmes are likely to be of greatest interest to politicians, whose over-riding concern is, by definition, the maximizing of political advantage and capital. This is even more the case in situations of conflict where resources are the key to influence, and the difference between winning and losing.

The need for flexible and context specific criteria for evaluating logistic programmes

Logistic programmes should be evaluated in such a way that consideration is given to the overall appropriateness and effectiveness of the system, given the prevailing context. Thus, in the Somalia context, evaluation would have required an examination of the extent to which decisions were made on the basis of what was best for the overall community. For example, the organisations which remained in Somalia during this period, out of necessity stumbled on an intervention of renting all logistical resources in-country as opposed to importing them from neighbouring countries and countries of manufacture. Thus the money was spent in the country at risk, contributing to the market economy, and at the same time in global terms, it was less expensive. This strategy was stumbled upon, not designed because of the positive impact it might have on the community, but because use of agency-owned logistical resources would have led to instant looting by the many bands of armed persons in the country at that time.


The 'responsibilisation' of local resources is also a key to the successful implementation of any logistics chain. This means that local communities and their leaders actively feel accountable for what happens. In much the same way, we say that governments are responsible for the security of humanitarian agencies and their workers. This accountability, the interaction between communities and organisations, and the strength of the assumed responsibility, is proportional to the confidence and trust given by the organisation to local people. At the time of the Somalia operation, it was extremely important to the ICRC, that the Somalis assumed responsibility for the day to day running and direction of the kitchens and the logistics behind it. Consequently, it was the Somali logisticians and the kitchen managers who defended the running of the food programme. When difficulties were met, because of their ownership of the programme, it was the staff and the beneficiaries who defended it.


Logistics is becoming a humanitarian science, and clearly some organisations not only specialise in it, but are extremely competent and professional in it. Logistics enables, and is part of, emergency assistance which offers hope and protection for persons caught in a disaster. It is the mechanism by which emergency assistance is provided in times of greatest need, and therefore comes to represent the solidarity of the world community in the face of disasters. As we continue the work in providing this support and assistance, let us remember to put it in a context. This context is always, by definition, better known by those who are victims of it. Let the victims play a central role in the provision of support for themselves. At the same time let us not be tempted to see logistics as the Friday night pizza delivery. It is humanitarianism in action.

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Geoff Loane (). Logistics: more than pizza delivery. Field Exchange 4, June 1998. p12.



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