Supply Chain Matters features an additional update to the devastating typhoon that struck portions of the Philippines this past weekend.  In the aftermath, the world’s leading disaster relief agencies have swung into action in a bid to once again implement a globally-coordinated humanitarian response as quickly as possible. Tragically, the official death toll continues to rise while global media outlets give us all a visual sense of the overall destruction.

The UK’s Guardian has recently questioned whether an outside-in approach to disaster relief can succeed in saving lives. The newspaper editorial rightfully questions that the success of the aid mission will depend to a large extent on the capacity of local authorities and teams in the Philippines to respond to the disaster, while drawing on much-needed international aid resources. The Philippine government and its associated military forces are leading relief logistics on the ground in order to assess the extent of the devastation, restore vital infrastructure and ensure life-supporting aid reaches people in the worst-affected areas on the islands of Leyte, Samar and Cebu. The government has declared that the devastated areas are in a “state of calamity”, which should not come as a shock to those of us on the outside.

In its editorial, the Guardian questions whether the shifting the center of humanitarian action away from the western world to local and national control is the key to improving the efficiency of aid programs and ultimately, saving lives.  The argument is that first responders have a critical role to play in any major humanitarian response. “As on the ground coordinators of a multilateral response, they need to be as agile as possible – taking account of the type of disaster that the population is facing, capacity issues in terms of response and taking appropriate action to save lives as quickly as possible. Time is the enemy in this initial response phase, as this is what ends up costing lives.”

The flaw in that argument is that in the wake of devastating disasters of the magnitude that are occurring of late, the affected governments have massive challenges to overcome, and that regardless of size and resources, the security, infrastructure and other challenges are often beyond comprehension. Teams need to have permission of national of local governments in order to conduct any local efforts and that is unfortunately the reality of sovereign, politically based governments.

Looking back on our Supply Chain Matters commentaries regarding these significant disasters we note similar concerns. Past events included hurricanes Katrina and Rita that impacted the U.S. Gulf Coast, the massive earthquake that devastated Haiti, the earthquake and tsunami that impacted Northern Japan, and Hurricane Sandy that impacted the Northeastern U.S. coastal regions. Each event called for more immediate response, yet global agencies coordinated all in their power to transport and coordinate aide.  In the case of Haiti, a massive international effort managed to open up the island’s single airport, which was completely destroyed, in a manner of days utilizing coordinated international military resources.

While some may be frustrated by how long it is taking to get relief supplies to the affected people in the Philippines, the challenges of a destroyed infrastructure and a government that is taxing all of its available resources to coordinate the “last mile” of delivery are all compounding themselves. We noted in our January 2010 commentary that we often take the notion of “get it to me overnight” for granted, when global carriers and logistics networks make challenges so invisible to us.  Disaster relief is a specialized type of logistics problem. It is very heartening to observe how many different countries, and how many logistics teams are once again rising to the challenge of providing basic aid in the time of most need.

In his Guardian editorial, Michael Minall argues: “Delivering effective and efficient direct action in the face of Haiyan demands more than just disaster relief, it needs a well-organised, multilateral logistical response that is led locally and nationally, rather than internationally. Such direct action works best when those overseeing logistical delivery of the disaster response are equipped and trained to respond in an agile way.”  While Supply Chain Matters can acknowledge that argument, there are unfortunately certain realities to the magnitude of devastation and to the state of the national and local governments that deal with aftermath and attempt to return to whatever forms of normalcy that can be obtained.

Vast sums of monies were donated by international citizens to help in the aftermath of the quake in Haiti.  Similar aid and donations assisted the other impacted regions.  But the reality is that these events involve multi-year efforts of recovery.  Japan continues to deal with the challenges of the Fukishima nuclear meltdown. Haiti has yet to return many citizens to their original homes. In some regions, there may never be the same condition as before the disaster.

Global aide communities and we as global citizens must continue to try to help when such events occur. Supply chain, logistics and transportation professionals will always rise to the challenge, but, the effects of Mother Nature’s power cannot be immediately overcome.