Sunday, 5 February 2012

A Billion in Need

A red cup makes the difference between life and starvation for one billion people every day. One of every seven people on earth suffers from chronic hunger, every 10 seconds a child dies of hunger.  These are horrifying facts, which become even worse when we realize that there is enough food and technology available to feed everybody.  Last November I was in Rome, at the head office of the World Food Program (WFP), the world’s largest humanitarian agency fighting hunger worldwide.  My visit coincided with the 50th anniversary celebration of WFP. I listened to Josette Sheeran, Executive Director of the World Food Program (WFP), and several other officials talk about the work and the challenges of WFP. At that meeting my already strong belief (see my earlier posts) that Operations Research can contribute to fighting global hunger became even stronger.

WFP manages a global supply chain for food aid, moving food to where it is needed most. This can be emergency response due to manmade or natural disasters or instances of chronic hunger.  Every day WFP fills the red cups of over 90 million people in more than 70 countries.  It is a complex task, in which decisions need to be made fast and with confidence since lives are at stake. The complexity of the WFP operations is, as Van Wassenhove describes in Humanitarian Logistics, comparable to planning an event like the Olympics. But imagine planning the event not knowing when or where it will take place, how many spectators will attend or how many athletes will compete. The near impossibility of this task gives some insight into what the WFP is up against.

During my visit, I talked with several WFP officials and learned in more detail the challenges they face in managing their supply chains.  WFP recognizes that logistics is the part in their supply chain that can mean the difference between a successful or failed operation.  It also is the most expensive part; in emergency relief 80% of the cost is due to logistics. WFP must design and manage its logistics in such a way that they get the right goods to the right place and distribute to the right people at the right time. These decisions are more complex than in private sector logistics, because WFP operates in a highly uncertain environment and has many stakeholders (Donors, Military, NGO’s, local government, etc). Things become even more complex; road infrastructure can be a serious problem. In South Sudan (a country as large as France) no more than 4,100 km of all-weather roads are available. For comparison, neighboring Kenya has 160.000 km’s of roads. The absence of all-weather roads can be a serious bottleneck when transporting food into a country, especially when the country is land-locked and no other modalities are available to get the food in.

To feed a billion people WFP needs to be successful at designing and managing its supply chain. It has to act fast, make decisions in a complex and uncertain environment with scarce resources. It is an environment in which Operations Research is at its best. With our analytical skills we Operations Researchers can develop and apply tools and techniques to solve the decision problems WFP faces with the rigor they require.  From past projects I already know that this is true. Following my visit to the WFP head office we started a project to support the South Sudan operation of WFP.  Our aim is to increase the decision power of WFP in the supply chain design for South Sudan, working towards a generic model that will support decision making in organizing aid in land-locked countries.  With support from the Operations Research society WFP can become better, smarter and faster in providing aid to those who need it most. Let’s get to work and make sure that there is no need to celebrate the 60th anniversary.


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