Working with CARE to Decrease Human Suffering
Marco A. Gutierrez is a 4th year Ph.D. in the Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISyE) at Georgia Institute of Technology. ISyE Professor John Vande Vate piqued Marco's interest in the field of humanitarian relief logistics and since then Marco has been working with CARE USA to more fully explore the field. He is also writing his doctoral dissertation on humanitarian logistics. Here Marco discusses the impact of his work with CARE USA.
By Marco A. Gutierrez
In 2005, at the beginning of my 2nd year in the Ph.D. program in ISyE, I heard that Professor John Vande Vate was interested in exploring the area of humanitarian relief logistics. The more I read on the subject, the more captivated I became by this field of work, and since it is an area that is in critical need, I saw a tremendous opportunity to make an impact by utilizing my industrial engineering skills. As a result, I approached Dr.Vande Vate and told him that I wanted to be involved. He responded immediately by connecting me with CARE USA's Emergency Unit, which is based in Atlanta and supports emergency responses in more than 65 countries around the world. Since then, I have been collaborating in various capacities with CARE, both inside and outside the classroom.
During my first year working in this field, my objective was primarily to become familiar with the context in which humanitarian logistics operations are conducted. I worked directly with the senior logistics advisor for CARE's Emergency Unit to more fully understand the supply chain processes that take place during an emergency response situation. Examples include determining the specifications of relief items, procuring them, setting up warehouses and inventory control systems, etc. Also, as part of my initial orientation, I traveled with the unit to various CARE country offices located in Central America. The goal of these visits was to support the country offices to adopt a new Emergency Preparedness Planning (EPP) methodology. This methodology aims at improving the various country offices' emergency response capacity and preparedness. During these trips, I learned that humanitarian relief organizations are not as prepared for emergencies as they could be. One of the main reasons is the type of funding they receive. Funding is typically earmarked for specific responses or projects and is more difficult to obtain for preparedness, infrastructure and systems development. CARE is trying to overcome this problem by obtaining funding at a headquarters level for the EPP methodology and offering support for its implementation to the different country offices.
To further my understanding of the enormous complexities involved in humanitarian logistics work, I also supported a team from Professor John H. Vande Vate's class, Transportation and Supply Chain Systems. The team conducted a project for CARE in which we studied the feasibility of designing both an emergency shelter and its supply chain with the goal of reaching its beneficiaries within 48 hours (maximum) after the onset of a disaster. The initial idea was to design a high-quality, rigid prefabricated shelter and stockpile it in various strategic locations across the globe. The shelters would then be airdropped to a given disaster site, as needed. In our research we found that with this approach, a response becomes slower and more expensive as the quality of the shelter increases (assuming cost and size increase with quality). We realized that there is a tradeoff between the quality of the shelter provided and the speed and scale of a response. Basically, the problem is that given a budget and a target response time, a relief organization can provide assistance to a lot of people with a lower quality shelter, such as tents, or to fewer people with a higher quality shelter, such as rigid prefabs. This problem eventually led to my doctoral dissertation topic.
During my second year working with CARE, we began conducting an assessment of CARE's supply chain capabilities and developed an improvement plan. This continuing assessment has led to several initiatives to improve CARE's global supply chain. One of the initiatives initially proposed was the pre-positioning (or stockpiling) of common emergency supplies in key locations around the world to reduce emergency response times. To study the impact of pre-positioning and the effect it would have on CARE's emergency response performance, I participated in a project in Professor Pinar Keskinocak's class, Humanitarian and Health Applications of Operations Research and Management Science (OR/MS). In this study, we determined the number of warehouses to open, their location, and the type and quantity of supplies to hold in each of them. The results of the study helped CARE to design an implementation plan, and they are currently pursuing this effort.
Over the past two and a half years, I have learned a lot about humanitarian logistics, and I will continue to be involved in CARE's supply chain continuous assessment and improvement plan, both directly and indirectly, as I complete my doctoral dissertation. In my dissertation, I will try to illustrate how to prioritize different relief items during an emergency response. In the emergency shelter example mentioned earlier, I will try to illustrate how to decide what quality of shelter to provide at different points in time during a response, given that there are funding and supply network constraints. With a better understanding of how to make this decision, relief organizations can better guide their preparedness efforts (e.g. stockpiling the "right* kind of shelters) and better utilize resources during a response (e.g. avoid flooding delivery channels with the "wrong* supplies), ultimately increasing the performance emergency responses.
As I look back, I realize this journey has been difficult at times but very rewarding as well. It has been difficult because humanitarian logistics is still a relatively new field for both practitioners and researchers. As such, at times it has been difficult to communicate with practitioners to understand the challenges of humanitarian logistics and identify ways in which researchers in OR/MS can have an impact. Despite the difficulties that have risen, it has been very rewarding because I have had the opportunity to work on a real-world problem that affects millions of people every year. With CARE, I have had the opportunity to see the influence that our work has had in starting to transform its supply chain practices, and it is very gratifying to realize that the potential impact of our work can translate into decreased human suffering around the world in addition to dollars saved.