Humanitarian aid continues with new solutions

“Executing aid programmes hasn’t changed significantly - the main difference is that there are more and more disasters and finite funding.”

Humanitarian aid continues with new solutions
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Humanitarian aid by Dubai-based International Humanitarian City (IHC) in 2023 (till November) was nearly $115 million with maximum spending going on health ($35 million) followed by shelter ($29 million) and logistics ($28 million). As many as 114 countries have been reached with aid, according to data from IHC.

"Home to more than 80 prominent organisations and companies active in the humanitarian emergency response and development sector, the IHC is the first independent, humanitarian, non profit free-zone authority," says IHC in its 2022 annual report.

Flexport has delivered over 73 million pounds of aid, according to Founder and CEO Ryan Petersen. "We partner with more than 400 of the best non-profits and international aid agencies doing rapid response to humanitarian crises all over the world," says Petersen in the inaugural annual impact report of

"With this model, we deliver cheaper, faster, and more reliable international aid, which is critical when over 60 percent of all the international aid shipped to affected regions ends up in a landfill. The wrong stuff gets sent to the wrong place at the wrong time with nobody there to sign for it, so it doesn’t get into the hands of the people that need it."

Kristen Czapar Dohnt, Head, adds: "While may have been founded in the spirit of naive optimism in 2017, it’s matured into an effective, mighty team of logistics, technology and humanitarian aid experts that work tirelessly with our partners and donors around the world to make a positive impact. That maturity and reliability, couldn’t be more evident than in the responses, stories of cooperation and sheer impact achieved from January 2022 to July 2023. In that time, we delivered over $111 million in aid to help improve the lives of over 13 million people." delivered 16 million pounds of aid to Ukraine through 917 funded shipments to support nearly nine million Ukrainians. "The aid includes hospital beds, medical and surgical equipment, ambulances and clinics, firefighter equipment, hygiene kits, blankets and food. We are committed to a long-term response in Ukraine to help deliver aid to our partners on the ground to support people in need."

In collaboration with local logistics partners, delivered 192 shipments with more than eight million pounds of aid to 10 different humanitarian organisations on the ground in Turkiye/Syria that was hit by two massive earthquakes in February 2023. "These shipments included surgical supplies and equipment to treat the wounded as well as shelters, blankets, and tents for people who lost their homes during winter."

Airlink, in association with Flexport, recently shipped fortified protein meals and essential nutritional supplements, to displaced communities in Northern Ethiopia where the repercussions of the conflict in #Tigray continues to be felt. "Specifically tailored to combat malnutrition, the supplements are anticipated to benefit over 7,500 children at the Abiy Addi IDP camp in central Tigray," Airlink said in a LinkedIn post.

Increasing disasters, increasing aid movements
The only predictable element is the fact that we know Airlink will be needed, says Steve Smith, President and CEO, Airlink. "Over the lifespan of Airlink (nearly 14 years), we have developed considerable experience and deep partnerships with NGOs and airlines across the globe. Once a disaster happens, we can, with reasonable certainty, determine how long our response will last - months, weeks, and even years - and with our core +50 airline partners and +200 NGO partners, we then build a concept of operations. A response often expands over time, and we go out and get the additional airline and logistics partners and the funding that we need, whether from airlines and the private sector, private individual donations, foundations, or a mix of all three. But that core is vital to early planning and early response, whatever the disaster and wherever it is unfolding.

Airlink is increasingly responding to what are called complex crises whereby the disaster (earthquake, famine, disease outbreak, etc.) is just one element that, on its own, would be significant but is compounded by multiple other factors such as conflict, refugee situations, and political or economic instability: Steve Smith, President and CEO, Airlink

"Regarding natural disasters, cyclone seasons in the Asia Pacific region and Atlantic hurricane season are largely predictable periods of time, lasting months, over which we know we will need to respond. This allows an element of planning.

"Airlink is increasingly responding to what are called complex crises whereby the disaster (earthquake, famine, disease outbreak, etc.) is just one element that, on its own, would be significant but is compounded by multiple other factors such as conflict, refugee situations, and political or economic instability. Examples of this can be seen in events in Ukraine, the Middle East, Haiti, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, and Ethiopia. Getting aid to these places is increasing in complexity, and as a result, costs have escalated. As we found in our responses, the places most in need have the deepest political and socio-economic turmoil — leading to extra complexity and cost. In these situations, Airlink is making the impossible possible, often being the only option for our NGO partners, with all other routes closed or difficult to access individually. But we can make it happen through our experience and the deep commitment of our funding and aviation industry partners, which we cultivate year-round."

Air is the key for aid.. Or is it?
Air Charter Service (ACS) used its global coverage, with aviation specialists in offices around the world, to create different teams covering each region, says Ben Dinsdale, Director of Humanitarian and Government Services, ACS. "We call them our Humanitarian Task Forces, and each one is focussed on responding to the situation in, and responses from, their own regions. We have four in total: Asia Pacific, MEASA (Middle East, Africa and South Asia), Europe, and the Americas.

"For different reasons - the toughest aid project executed by ACS this year would be either the Türkiye and Syria earthquake at the start of the year or the Sudan conflict.

For different reasons - the toughest aid project executed by ACS this year would be either the Türkiye and Syria earthquake at the start of the year or the Sudan conflict: Ben Dinsdale, Director of Humanitarian and Government Services, Air Charter Service (ACS)

"The Türkiye and Syria earthquake was the largest humanitarian disaster we have experienced for some time, and the challenge came from the sheer cargo capacity required to deliver all the supplies needed by the local population. Over a six-week period, ACS operated in excess of 40 charter flights delivering around 2,000 tonnes of relief supplies. We had ACS teams on the ground in Gaziantep and Adana meeting incoming flights and liaising locally with the NGOs collecting their cargo.

"The Sudan conflict was a different challenge. Our commercial jet department was heavily involved with evacuating people as the conflict erupted. The Sudanese airspace was then closed, and after a few days we learned of a number of aircraft that had been on the ground in Sudan and ended up being destroyed. Eventually, Port Sudan airport was opened with the approach and departure airspace being opened up which allowed us to operate urgent flights bringing in medical supplies. Port Sudan Airport was fairly basic at that point in time with no main deck high loader to offload palletised aircraft so the majority of these initial flights used Ilyushin 76 aircraft."

There are two parts to disaster management - the coordination of the delivery of humanitarian goods, and logistics planning for suppliers, carriers and brokers involved in arranging the lift, says Pierre Van Der Stichele, Vice President, Global Cargo, Air Partner. "When a natural disaster strikes, the affected country will send out an official request for international assistance, usually via the United Nations World Food Programme, and selected brokers such as Air Partner will be invited to respond to tenders. Whilst the fundamental planning of aid delivery hasn’t changed, in the past few years, relief agencies have created strategically placed humanitarian hubs in various locations in the world with response teams and warehouses filled with first response freight to minimise the cost of long haul and costly chartering when a disaster occurs. Hubs are replenished by sea or road freight whilst aircraft charter operations facilitate aid deliveries from the hubs to the disaster zone.

Cargo aircraft charter comes at a cost which starts with aircraft operations costs and the knowledge of the experts who collaborate to put the mission together. The services must be sustained to provide a reliable solution and cannot always be free: Pierre Van Der Stichele, Vice President, Global Cargo, Air Partner

"The current crisis in Gaza is presenting challenges for relief agencies which has a knock-on effect on carriers and charter brokers. Political indecision is holding up negotiations on the establishment of a safe humanitarian corridor whilst the number of casualties increases each day. At the beginning of the crisis, Air Partner responded to multiple tenders which were never awarded or the date for a specific flight request was delayed because, despite the relief agencies being ready to ship relief goods, they were not given the green light from the governmental authorities in time. Consequently, we were ‘holding’ several aircraft options for days until we were given the go-ahead. These challenges are ongoing whilst we are in the midst of an unexpected cargo peak season elsewhere, so balancing needs and operational capacity is tough."

Cormac Osullivan, Global Director, Emergency and Relief, Kuehne+Nagel has a different view: “I would not say air freight is a preferred option for aid in general but there are cases where it needs to be used. The aim of UN and NGOs are always to spend the vast majority of funds on the people in need, and they always analyse the usage of air/sea/road and use the transport mode making the most sense. Air freight is mainly used for emergencies and fixed programmes/campaigns involving temperature-controlled orders. The shelf life of medical products (temperature-controlled items) is a priority, and using air freight minimises the usage of shelf life during transport from supplier/warehouse to the destinations allowing more time for the last mile distribution to the patient without jeopardising the quality of the product. Kuehne+Nagel’s Emergency & Relief teams has been providing logistical support for numerous emergencies throughout 2023.

"We take pride in delivering any item on behalf of the UN as they all contribute to the wellbeing of people in need. A campaign planned for months has the same high priority as emergencies, and through good planning and collaborations with customers, we work on minimising risk factors in the supply chain as on-time delivery makes a difference for the people in need."

Executing aid programmes hasn’t changed significantly - the main difference in the sector is that there are more and more disasters and finite funding, adds Osullivan. “This creates pressure to find streamlined and efficient solutions. If we look back at the number of disaster events as a consequence of climate change: when records on the number of natural disasters began in the 1940s, there were less than 100 recorded on average each year. In the last decades, this has increased to well over three hundred a year, on average. Unfortunately, there is likely to be a further increase in these numbers in the coming decades.

"Aid programmes, and the logistics networks that support them, remain driven by the urgent need to ensure that life-saving commodities are delivered on time where they’re needed. Often times this is a complex task due to limited accessibility in the aftermath of disaster events. With increasing numbers of emergencies, there are ever more increasing pressures on the humanitarian system, which means that all aspects of this system, including the logistics networks, need to continually evolve their service offerings to adapt to the changing environment."

Airlink has responded to 46 humanitarian disasters through 2023, says Smith. "We are currently responding to 14 emergencies including those in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Israel-Gaza, Libya, Mexico (in Acapulco and at the US-Mexico border), Morocco, Sudan, The Greater Horn of Africa (Ethiopia and Somalia), Ukraine, U.S. (Maui wildfire recovery), and Yemen. The first thing to note is that getting aid to the places most in need is increasing in complexity, and as a result, costs have escalated. As we found in our Türkiye earthquake response, and again currently in getting aid to Gaza, and earlier this year in Haiti, Sudan, and Yemen, the places most in need have the deepest political and socio-economic turmoil—leading to extra complexity. In the case of Türkiye, aid had to be consigned to the Turkish Red Crescent and Interior Ministry, which created challenges for NGOs seeking to act independently. A similar situation can be seen in Gaza where NGOs must have an MoU with the Egyptian Red Crescent — a process that takes time to complete as the country is understandably overwhelmed with aid. Upon identifying local partners, NGO shipments take up to two weeks to be accepted and three days to be screened before even crossing the border.

"Our aid movements to Haiti, Afghanistan, and Sudan probably best highlight our toughest missions and the increasingly complex nature of humanitarian logistics. Take Sudan; in October, we delivered aid to Sudan through our new Kenya-based partner, Astral Aviation. About half of Sudan’s population — 24.7 million people — requires humanitarian assistance and protection. Critical needs include access to healthcare and supplies; water, sanitation, and hygiene services; civilian protection; and nutrition support. Sudan’s health sector is dangerously close to collapse with at least 80 percent of hospitals non-operational. The only access point for aid shipments - The Port of Sudan - is not functioning properly, creating huge time delays for NGOs. As a result, some NGOs have decided to close local programmes because of the difficulty of getting aid in. However, Airlink delivered 11 tonnes of medical food aid to Sudan and 18 tonnes of food aid to Chad for Sudanese refugees through a multi-partner, multi-country operation. This is one of our core aid programmes precisely because it is so difficult, and NGOs have struggled to get any aid to the Sudanese people. This is just one example.

"Our Haiti Air Bridge programme, designed to flatten the curve on a cholera outbreak in Haiti, was a similar multi-partner, multi-country effort, lasting over six months, and was the only way to get aid into the country. The Haiti Humanitarian Air Bridge provided the aid community with access to fast, free transportation, and that saved countless lives. Ten aid agencies benefit from this multi-country, multi-partner air bridge, which helped deliver 277 tonnes of aid across 37 shipments through six charter flights. Over 137,000 people gained access to water, sanitation, and hygiene services and supplies including point-of-use water filtration devices and community-wide filtration systems, and nearly 45,000 people received treatment for cholera through IV fluids, testing, fortified meals, and medications. None of the NGOs assisted would otherwise have been unable to deliver aid supplies at the scale required for a successful response. It was a true private-public partnership that made the impossible possible. This year, that programme was nominated as a finalist in the Concordia P3 (Public Private Partnership) awards."

Persistent challenges
"I sometimes feel that a lack of decisiveness on the decision to deliver aid by aircraft charter results in availability being lost," says Dinsdale of ACS. "Most charter airlines do not rely on humanitarian aid as their main source of income, and therefore will not hold an aircraft indefinitely, which means that sometimes aircraft get sold elsewhere. As aircraft charter brokers, we try to keep everyone happy, which can be a tough job at times."

Competitive pricing does not necessarily mean the best performance, according to Stichele of Air Partner. "In a lot of cases, aircraft that are most closely located to the departure airport can be the least expensive but this doesn’t necessarily mean it is the best in terms of carrier performance. Our expertise as charter cargo brokers means we have excellent relationships with carriers and we are able to visualise a 3D mental map of where suitable available aircraft are located. Our daily challenge is to finely balance carrier performance and suitability with a commercial approach to respond to needs swiftly whilst maintaining our close network of handling agents, customs agents and local aviation experts so that we have access to knowledge and information. This enables us to operate in more challenging locations and to be a wholly dependable humanitarian aid logistics provider."

With increasing numbers of emergencies, there are ever more increasing pressures on the humanitarian system, which means that all aspects of this system, including the logistics networks, need to continually evolve their service offerings to adapt to the changing environment: Cormac Osullivan, Global Director, Emergency and Relief, Kuehne+Nagel

Many of the pre-existing challenges remain the same, says Osullivan of Kuehne+Nagel. "Aid programmes are implemented in complex contexts. Access can be difficult. On the flip side, finding solutions to bring vital commodities to impacted communities is a time-critical and crucial endeavour. To be able to do that, humanitarian logistics service providers still need to be able to flex between a comprehensive understanding of the global logistics networks and understanding the constraints and complexities at a local level, especially in the aftermath of a disaster event when conditions may have changed significantly. In this sense, the core challenges of delivering aid remain the same. You need to be informed as much as possible and ready to act quickly to save lives and alleviate suffering.

"We have seen a general improvement in terms of:

*Improved capacity for majority of carriers due to the increased number of passenger flights

*Improved communication between all involved stakeholders – carriers, LSPs and UN/NGOs; and

*Improved usage of technology."

Stichele of Air Partner also highlights another issue - many believe humanitarian aid delivery should be free of charge. "Cargo aircraft charter comes at a cost which starts with aircraft operations costs and the knowledge of the experts who collaborate to put the mission together. The services must be sustained to provide a reliable solution and cannot always be free. However, if you take an average scheduled passenger flight, not all flights are full and some carriers have started to donate lift to neutral relief organisations such as Airlink – Supporting Communities In Crisis - who will assist smaller relief and not for profit organisations to ship freight to the other side of the world to make a difference. I admire Airlink’s initiative, Air Partner is a great supporter and provides advice to them on a regular basis."

Smith of Airlink adds: “Despite everything we have achieved this year on behalf of our NGO partners and the communities they serve, challenges persist, notably in securing consistent funding, navigating bureaucratic hurdles, and ensuring access to hard-to-reach areas during crises. Additionally, geopolitical complexities and transportation constraints continue to pose significant challenges in executing aid programmes swiftly and efficiently. For example, there is a great need in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Horn of Africa. We are deeply grateful for our new partner Astral Aviation, and long-time partner, Qatar Airways, but we desperately need more regional coverage through local airline partnerships. That is a priority for 2024.

"More broadly, 32 active civil conflicts are unfolding across the globe; a staggering 117 million people are displaced (over half of them within their own borders), 363 million people need humanitarian support, and 333 million face acute levels of food insecurity. Only about two-thirds of the $55.2 billion in funding needed has been raised to support these people - according to the UNHCR. It is estimated that supply chain management accounts for 73 percent of the cost of any aid programme with transport being a leading and highly cost-volatile part of that. Growing Airlink’s logistical partnerships - airlines, sea freight, and trucking - is a critical challenge for us and will do untold good for the humanitarian sector. The more of that 73 percent funding gap Airlink is able to close, the more aid gets to people - and that need for aid is, as the figures show, huge. I would urge every business across the supply chain to ask themselves what they could do and how they can contribute."

Tech impact on humanitarian aid
"Within ACS we have found that the communication tools available to us nowadays have enabled us to source and share information extremely effectively," says Dinsdale. "During the early part of the relief effort, reliable information on the situation at the heart of a disaster can be difficult to access. We have found that our clients and even some of the airlines we work with benefit from our sharing of the information we are able to obtain by using our network of offices and aviation professionals.

"In recent years we have seen the rise of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology and its applications in certain parts of the humanitarian sector, in particular the large delivery project in Rwanda with Zipline. I think that as UAVs become increasingly capable, we will see their uses in more areas of humanitarian response.

"Looking further into the future, there is a lot of interest in the impact of AI on our lives in general. Up to now, aircraft chartering remains a people-centric activity as human intervention is required to solve many problems during the ad-hoc chartering process. I do not think, however, that the industry will be immune to the effects of AI, and we will see drastic changes at some point in the future."

Communication is generally faster than 10-20 years ago but when delivering goods to a remote location, the whereabouts of the freight becomes paramount, says Stichele of Air Partner. "Air Partner is currently researching new GPS technology on parcel and package delivery that enables tracking of items without the need for a mobile phone network. It is this kind of technology that will mean customers, particularly those in remote locations, can be reassured of door-to-door tracking as opposed to just airport to airport."

Osullivan of Kuehne+Nagel is enthusiastic when he says technology has played a majorly impactful role in revolutionising the humanitarian air cargo sector. "We operate at a different speed now – and this increased speed enables clients to articulate their requirements in a consistent and comprehensive way which can in turn be addressed much more quickly using progressive data tools to find competitive solutions as quickly as possible. In a real sense, the technology to enable this digital turnaround continues to be one of the most impactful changes for the aid sector. The role of AI in progressing this is one of the more compelling changes that we are likely to see in the coming years."

Innovations in data analytics, tracking systems, and communication tools promise dividends for enhanced logistical coordination but we must be realistic, says Smith of Airlink. "Some of Airlink’s most critical functions like vetting partners and their aid programmes and coordinating shipments across continents, airlines, freight forwarders and NGOs require personal interactions and oversight. But where it makes sense to bring in new technologies, Airlink is willing to do that. For example, we are thrilled to partner with American Express Global Business Travel and Both are creating tailored technology solutions for Airlink to manage the movement of responders and cargo better. This is not something we could necessarily fund out of our own resources, so we are deeply grateful and excited by the possibilities of these partnerships."

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