It’s anybody’s guess as to why the Pacific region seems to be experiencing more than its fair share of natural disasters in recent years. Graham Kenna, logistics adviser for community-focused non-government organisation Oxfam Australia, says he’d rather leave the theories and explanations for the scientists and focus on how to help people when disaster strikes.
“We found that we weren’t able to respond to emergencies as quickly as we’d like to because the things we’d need to buy came from the other side of the world. The lead time to get them shipped here is weeks and to get them flown here is very expensive because of the bulk and the weight,” he explains.
Oxfam discussed the issue with fellow members of the Australian Council for International Development and together they conducted a supply chain assessment on 18 countries in the Asia-Pacific to find out what supplies were available in the region, and what needed to be bought from elsewhere.
“We came up with a list of the important items that would have to be shipped in an emergency and decided that the best way to go about that would be to have a pilot to pre-position [the supply of kits] in some of the more vulnerable countries,” says Kenna.
A conglomerate comprising Oxfam Australia, World Vision and the Australian Red Cross decided to follow through with the project, and approached the Federal Government via AusAID for funding, which secured them a Brisbane warehouse. The three organisations share the warehouse for the moment, and provide mutual assistance if required, although no formal partnership has been created.
The pilot for pre-positioning entails collating and stocking emergency kits containing hygiene products, kitchen utensils, tarpaulins and other domestic essentials at a number of locations in the region: Brisbane, the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea and East Timor.
“In each of the sites we have enough for 5,000 beneficiaries,” says Kenna. “We’ve also developed a close relationship with the Australian Defence Force, which will assist in transportation of emergency supplies from Brisbane, or between the countries.”
One of the challenges was putting together a kit that was both culturally suitable and adequate for survival needs. Kenna says they asked their local staff and potential beneficiaries before coming to a final list: “We put a lot of the responsibility for these kits onto our local staff, some of whom had been involved in disasters before. The contents vary slightly, culturally, but I had to put my foot down to be realistic.”
Further refinement of the kit’s contents will occur post-disaster, says Kenna: “We’ll do post-disaster distribution monitoring.”
All kitted out
The procurement process also involved determining the availability of products—”I don’t want to buy soap from Pakistan, bring it to Australia and ship it to Timor when we know we can buy soap in Timor”—as well as setting a standard for the quality they’d accept. This meant assessing the quality of every item.
“We do research each and every product, and we do research each time we procure. Each time we have to replace these items we’ll do the research again because we want to make sure that what we give out is exactly what’s required,” says Kenna. “We’re strict on this.”
Tarpaulins handed out by Oxfam, for example, aren’t just any old tarpaulins. Kenna recalls visiting the Solomon Islands a year following the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004. “Our tarpaulins were still being used, still perfectly new after a year in the tropical sun, whereas other tarpaulins were frayed and destroyed,” he describes. “You can’t give them inferior products, it’s embarrassing to the organisation and it’s cruel.”