Wednesday, 26 September 2007

OR to the aid of children

The world is full of areas in which people and especially children suffer from war or natural hazards like the Tsunami. The United Nations and other humanitarian organizations try and help these people. Of course the aid that is provided is the best possible, but much could be improved with the help of Operations Research, enabling to save more lives and give victims a better chance to build up a new future.

As an example of what can be achieved with the use of Operations research I would like to address a project that was set up by the World Food Program (WFP) of the UN. The UN World Food Program is the world’s largest humanitarian food aid organization. It provides food to about 90 million people in around 80 countries. These people depend on the aid that is provided by the WFP, since no other source for food is available to them. Additional to this aid, the WFP also uses supports 800 million malnourished people in the world with special food aid projects.

One of those special food aid projects is the food distribution to schools in Liberia. The project’s aim was to improve the food distribution to children. With the use of Operations Research the WFP distribution network in Liberia was optimized resulting in better locations for the depots from which the food was distributed. Also the distribution of the food to the 1,600 schools in Liberia was optimized, ensuring that 250,000 children receive their food. Initially the routing and scheduling was performed by hand. TNT (which takes part in WFP) together with ORTEC (the company I work for), changed that by automating the scheduling process with the use of state of the art routing software. The scheduling became less time consuming, also the dynamics of the scheduling process could be supported better. As you may guess the road network in Liberia is not that sophisticated. Due to the rain season and mines, not all the roads could be used at all times, even bridges may have collapsed. This introduces a lot of dynamics which is hard to incorporate when every thing is done by hand. Also we improved the distribution network by relocating the depots. The achieved improvements saved al lot of money that can now be used to maintain or further improve the aid that is provided to the children of Liberia.

To my opinion Operations Research professionals should offer more support to the initiatives of the UN and other humanitarian organizations to improve the effectiveness of these operations. This will result in more lives saved and a better future for all victims of humanitarian disasters, especially children.