Since last decade, humanitarian supply chain and logistics have gained considerable momentum. Although it is somewhat similar to commercial supply chains, they are fundamentally different from several perspectives.
In humanitarian context, time and location are unpredictable and final customers are called beneficiaries in humanitarian supply chains. Furthermore, humanitarian supply chain management is often subject to high time pressure.
All these characteristics relate to the function of procurement and supply management in humanitarian operations. The procurement department has to face all the unpredictability of demand by ensuring the location and storing prepositioned inventory to be used for emergency first response.
Sustainable humanitarian procurement, although currently limited, is growing. Looking to sustainability, the social aspect is present in humanitarian supply chains by default. Humanitarian supply chain's prime objective is alleviating the suffering of vulnerable people.
Their core task is to identify the needs and engage in fundraising, procuring, distributing and transporting service to beneficiaries. Procurement of products such as food, non-food items, medicines and other services (distribution, transportation and warehousing) is critical activity for humanitarian organisations.
A study report showed that humanitarian organisations spend 65 percent of total expenditure in procurement activities, whereas 15 percent is allocated for transportation and 20 percent for personnel and administration. In 2018, international humanitarian assistance was over $22 billion.
According to the UNICEF annual report, in 2018, they alone procured $3.5 billion in supplies and service out of a $5.2 billion budget for operation in 150 countries. In the same year, Danish Refugee Council (DRC) spent 82 percent in procurement, which is $378.2 million out of 460.4 million of its annual budget.
Have they taken into consideration the environmental or social adverse impact during procurement? Are they procuring biodegradable products? Are they considering recyclability in procurement?
For instance, mosquito nets are common humanitarian items procured and provisioned to the areas impacted by a disaster such as refugee camps. These mosquito nets are treated with insecticides to repel mosquitos. After the nets are torn, sometimes they are used as fishnets by the local population, causing the release of the hazardous chemicals into the aquatic environment.
Another example, with regards to social sustainability, is provisioning of cookstoves to beneficiaries by humanitarian organisations without proper consideration about the fuel. For the stoves using charcoal and wood fuel, if the fuel is not supplied properly and sufficiently, beneficiaries are forced to collect wood from around their camps, leading to ecological disaster.
Due to climate change, Bangladesh is already facing the challenges of environmental degradation but the refugee influx has made it worse. It generated excessive demand for natural resources with long-term challenges for a sustainable environment.
The Rohingya presence has caused the stripping away of thousands of acres of forest areas which in turn resulted in the reduction and pollution of water sources, soil erosion and lowering of the water table. Refugees initially cut trees for fuel and to construct their shelters, leaving barren earth, where there were once trees and fruit plantations. Of course, every refugee family is now supplied with LP gas cylinders in a bid to stop further degradation of adjacent forest land.
Funding and donations are the lifeblood of humanitarian organisations that allow them to survive and sustain their operations. Donor requirements are considered as important mandates in humanitarian context. When donors have limited awareness or require little sustainable procurement, it is often difficult to take sustainability into account for the humanitarian organisations. Sustainability typically comes with a cost and when donors do not allow funds to be spent for sustainability, it is near impossible to achieve sustainability in procurement.
At the beginning of procuring aid items, there are more opportunities for integrating sustainability as compared to later supply chain stages. When an aid item with environmental harmful material in the packaging has already been purchased, distributed, and disposed of in the field by beneficiaries, there is little chance to deal with the waste in a region impacted by disaster and limited recycling facilities.
If proper consideration of such issues are taken through procurement, this could address the root of the problems.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.