Of debris and humanity

IEs make a difference in disaster response, but more help is needed on the front lines

By Michael Hughes

Özlem Ergun is passionate about debris in a way others aren’t.

“Debris is not sexy, so unfortunately not many people are obsessing about it,” said the industrial engineering professor and co-director of Georgia Tech’s Center for Health and Humanitarian Logistics. “But in a big way it’s really hindering recovery [in Haiti].”

Ergun is one of a small but growing number of IEs involved in the logistics of disaster response. As IEs build supply chains from scratch, use forecasting and modeling to project events and introduce standard operating procedures, humanitarian organizations realize they need more such expertise. And IEs working in that field, like Rigoberto Giron, agree.

Giron, associate vice president for strategic initiatives at CARE, said the complexity, growth and size of NGOs require skill sets not traditionally used in the past.

“Previously, it was enough to do good,” Giron said. “Now you need to be very skilled at how you do that because of the increased accountability by donors, increased accountability by the public at large.”

Large nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) need savvy individuals to manage revenues of $2 billion to $3 billion a year. While the typical NGO worker has studied arts and sciences, not many have been inclined to delve into engineering or business, Giron said.

Also, aid organizations have a tendency to get caught up in the day-to-day, which is understandable, said Owen Carroll. The industrial engineer for HM Wallace Inc. worked one year as a consultant for the United Nations World Food Programme, and he now is involved in starting another nonprofit.

“Obviously the present needs are the most pressing needs in the world,” Carroll said. “So it’s hard to kind of allocate resources aside for planning for the future. But I think they need more IEs, but they also need to, if they get those IEs, put them in the roles where they can be making operations improvements.”

A different world

Carroll noted that success is measured differently in the NGO world. There’s no profit motive. Managers can see how much has been spent, but they compare it to how many lives are saved or affected (difficult in and of itself), not return on investment.

“Then you get into comparing the marginal expense of making lives better,” Carroll said. “You run into a really difficult kind of moral dilemma once you start comparing the number of lives saved to the marginal costs to save those extra lives. It’s just really difficult to come to a conclusion on what balance to strike because with unlimited money, yes, you can save unlimited lives. But the reality is you don’t have unlimited money.”

That may put Ergun’s fascination with debris in perspective. She, like other IEs in the disaster response field, has to weigh the consequences of her actions. Her research focuses on the logistics of clearing debris in disaster areas.

Planning involves short-term and long-term goals, which often conflict. Debris clogs roads, keeping food, water and medicine backlogged in ports and airstrips. Immediately after disasters, workers aim to open the roads quickly. People need aid and access to hospitals, security services and the like. But if crews don’t do any sorting and careful disposal of debris, environmental hazards can crop up later.

Usually, things happen in stages. Relief agencies clear prioritized roads first, with a second stage of collecting and sorting debris. They try to figure out what can go in landfills, what can be used as biofuel. One of Ergun’s civil engineering colleagues is examining what can be used for rebuilding in Haiti. Some debris material could be strengthened structurally and reused.

The last stage is disposal. And the Jan. 12 earthquake in Haiti left much debris to dispose.

“The debris after [Hurricane] Katrina could fill a football stadium two miles high. And the one in Haiti right now is about five times more,” Ergun said. “We’re talking about a lot of stuff.”

In the capital of Port-au-Prince, the 7.0 magnitude quake destroyed an estimated 10 percent of the buildings. Six months later, only about 1 percent of that debris had been removed.

IE Tony Chan, Habitat for Humanity’s senior director for international programs, said logistical responses to disaster often face such difficulties. “A lot of times the normal infrastructure is either disrupted or has been destroyed,” Chan said. “So it’s really rebuilding and repairing that infrastructure and then really trying to work under those constraints and capacity.”

He called Haiti one of the most difficult recent supply chain problems. It took a long time to establish some stability in infrastructure before agencies could identify needs and resources properly.

Julie Swann, one of Ergun’s co-directors at the Center for Health and Humanitarian Logistics, is a fellow Georgia Tech IE professor. She said that when disaster strikes, there’s a lot of uncertainty. Traditional transportation routes may be blocked. Teams work with limited resources, sometimes limited entry into the country. They face a lack of communications and bandwidth, and some parts of the country might not have electricity 100 percent of the time.

“You have to be even more adaptable in the humanitarian sector than you would have to be in a traditional supply chain because you just have to figure out creative ways to get stuff where it needs to go,” Swann said.

Technology often is several generations behind, not just from working in Third World countries, but because of the nature of nonprofits. IEs can’t just adopt a solution that might work elsewhere, Swann said.

“NGOs are rated on how much of their donations they spend on overhead, where overhead includes not only how much salaries are for their employees, but overhead can also include things like software or technology,” she said. “And if they spend too much on technology, then they may get fewer donations from the public. So as a result [IEs are] working in organizations and environments that may not have the technological sophistication you might have in private industry.”

Forecasting is another area where IEs face challenges different from retail or industrial operations, Carroll said. Home Depot, Lowe’s and other retail organizations are affected by natural disasters, too, but Wal-Mart knows Florida and the Gulf Coast will face hurricanes during certain seasons of the year.

However, international aid organizations might have to deal with anything, anywhere. A few years ago Haiti faced cyclones; now it’s suffering from a devastating earthquake and its aftershocks. Being prepared on such a widespread basis with so many things that are perishable is a difficult challenge.

At the same time, that’s one strength of the aid sector. In many developing countries, a relief group’s logistics infrastructure is far superior to any private company’s. In much of Africa, the United Nations World Food Programme is the best suited organization to move products from one place to another, Carroll said. But it’s still not as efficient as supply chains in modernized countries.

The few, the proud welcome more help

Chan of Habitat for Humanity said he slowly has encountered more people with industrial engineering backgrounds working for international aid groups. Often, he finds that they’re not working in traditional IE roles. But they provide effectiveness and efficiency and systematically plan the work. And more are needed.

“Whether it’s ongoing work or in some cases in our disaster work, a lot of those IE skill sets are very useful and critical for NGO environments as well as your traditional commercial areas,” Chan said.

CARE’s Giron said aid organizations always will need IEs and IE skills for logistical operations. And more is better because sometimes NGOs don’t have the right people available at the right time.

For example, CARE had a large network of warehouses to distribute food and nonfood items in Sudan. Qualified logistics personnel were needed to understand how to replenish inventories, when to replenish inventories, how to develop distribution programs and schedules and how to provide inventory management capabilities so the warehouses could account for the distribution of items. The program needed to handle thousands of metric tons of food in a bare bones type of situation where you might not have Internet connectivity and might have to rely on handheld radios or paper trails.

Adding more IEs to the field also would yield more solutions like the ones Carroll came up with at the World Food Programme. He focused on access to data, an issue for any organization. “Nobody likes their ERP system,” Carroll said.

But relief groups often operate hundreds or thousands of miles from an Internet connection. “So sometimes you literally have to wait for a piece of paper to travel hundreds of miles before you can get that data into the system or find if that shipment made it,” he said.

While relief agencies are good at going into remote regions and establishing Internet service, they often still lack the continuous streams of data that private industry relies on. Sometimes data is packaged up at night and sent to headquarters, which distributes the information. Then everybody operates on that data for the next 24 hours before another update.

One of Carroll’s projects involved making it easy to access real-time data via an Internet connection. He developed a tool through Google maps that let people see, for example, shipments in a certain corridor through Africa, or stocks in a certain warehouse or expected vessel arrivals to a certain port. It seems simple, Carroll said, but in that environment it was a big deal to get that data access.

Swann said the need for more IE skills in the world of international aid helped drive the 2007 founding of Tech’s Center for Health and Humanitarian Logistics. It was sort of a culmination of an interest in volunteering that she has had for a long time. As an IE undergrad, she helped build a house for Habitat for Humanity. And she always has been interested in how science and technology can improve policy decisions. A few years ago she and her colleagues wanted to do something bigger in the humanitarian area.

Challenging rewards

That interest in helping others runs through Swann and other IEs involved in humanitarian and disaster response work. She said she, her co-directors at the center, and faculty and students at Georgia Tech were interested in having a positive impact.

“You want to give back to society and the community and do what you can to bring expertise or knowledge that you have and address important problems,” she said.

Swann attributes some of the dearth of IEs in humanitarian work to the fact that it hasn’t been promoted well. Often IEs make less money than in industry, so relief work takes a real commitment. IEs might have to work in countries that are more difficult to live in. And humanitarian groups often look for people who already have international experience with organizations like the Peace Corps.

But Giron said some NGOs have salaries and benefits comparable to the for-profit sector. In the nonprofit world, sometimes workers can find 401Ks where the organization matches 5 percent to 8 percent as opposed to the traditional 3 percent match many for-profits give. Giron sold his consulting company and started with CARE’s emergency team in 2004.

And IEs won’t find dull moments working for NGOs, he said. Such work is fast-paced, unpredictable and the challenges vary from disaster to disaster. Typically, officials know what will need to be delivered to a disaster area, but they might not know the full scope of the logistical problems. He cited the cyclone that struck Myanmar in 2008, where aid had to be staged in Thailand because the government wouldn’t allow international agencies into the country.

“The logistical challenges in the disaster site were even bigger because it was a huge delta,” Giron said. “Everything needed to be transported by small, either paddleboats or off-board engine type boats. And it was very difficult because there were very small canals, so you don’t have the big logistical infrastructure to work with. So we need to be creative about how to do that. And engineers are pretty good at that.”

Some IEs, like Carroll, approach humanitarian work as a mission field based on their religion. In Carroll’s case, it’s his Christianity and his desire to live by the example shown by Jesus Christ. In high school, he took mission trips to Guatemala, which inspired him to use his skills to benefit others.

For Chan, the families that Habitat has served motivate him. He recently returned from Sri Lanka, where he was reviewing work done there during the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami.

“At the end we have the opportunity to meet the families that we have served and are serving,” Chan said. “And their appreciation and their gratefulness and their happiness and also the differences that we have made to their lives, not only the adults but also the children, that’s really the main difference. We confirm why I’m here and why we need to continue doing the work that we need to do.”

Michael Hughes is managing editor for IIE.