At the recently held Humanitarian Networks and Partnerships Week (HNPW) event in Geneva, the INSPIRE Consortium, in collaboration with the Humanitarian Logistics Association, once again put the need to develop a universal logistics standards (ULS) architecture on the agenda. The workshop, jointly facilitated by HLA’s George Fenton and IECAH’s Camille Nussbaum, presented the ULS project and explored broadly the theme of how local partners can be better supported to improve everyday humanitarian supply chain and logistics practice through access to easy- to-understand guidance.

It must be highlighted that, this workshop at HNPW Geneva is part of a series of steps to be taken following the development of an interim report about the process towards achieving the ULS. This has resulted in consultative webinars, key informant interviews, and desk review. A key reoccurring conclusion is that the development of best practice and standards that can be considered universal (i.e. applicable to all sectors – government, NGO, and private – as well as all geographical regions), is in everyone’s best interests.  

As such, the discussions in the first session of the well-attended workshop considered the justification for having these standards (i.e. the gaps to be filled), where existing standards can currently be found, who should be involved in the discussions, and consequently how to undertake this work and carry it forward in terms of information sharing and knowledge management. The main points are captured as follows.

  • Gaps & Solutions – Does the movement of humanitarian goods pose a problem for local markets, and coupled with identified customs challenges, can there be a more efficient and sustainable way to respond by fixing faulty supply chains and supporting this with a cash-transfer programme?
  • Existing standards – A lot of standards are currently being used, some organization-owned and others belonging to particular field clusters, including materials for training. Additionally, private sector actors (specifically those in transportation) all have standards that can benefit the non-profit sector. As such, it will be useful to identify how to incorporate these into the proposed ULS, and conversely how it (the ULS) aligns with these.
  • Building the ULS – What form will this product take? And if it is to be complementary to the Sphere Standards and the Core Humanitarian Standard on Quality and Accountability (CHS), how can it be used operationally, and how could we encourage its uptake among organizations and other stakeholders, particularly at the local level?
  • Participating stakeholders – Stakeholders that need to be engaged in the process of developing the ULS should be broadened to include not only (head office) aid organisations but also local staff and communities and private sector companies, to the extent that they are engaged directly in humanitarian logistics activities. However, a key consideration here is how to practically involve them, in the interactive workshops for example.
  • Information sharing – All stakeholders need to receive information about the ULS, but at what point does this need to happen?

One of the fundamental outstanding issues that need to be resolved is about the place of logistics within the humanitarian operations structure as historically there has been a de-link between programme design and logistics planning. It was agreed that the ULS architecture could help to support better linkages – particularly as it would complement existing humanitarian (as well as technical) standards.

The second part of the workshop sought to drill deeper into these issues raised and develop a collective set of solutions through identifying the specific channels to collaborate and communicate with these different stakeholder groups, and how to move forward with incorporating the different existing standards, and measuring uptake and impact of the project. These are highlighted below.

  • Composition of the ULS – It should contain only elements that support holistic supply chains, and should incorporate or reference the technical standards already employed by the various stakeholders. Further, any overlaps between them must be managed. However, it should also have specific strategies with utility for the various groups.
  • Metrics and Impact – It is important to set metrics for the project from the outset, in order to follow a consistent structure to arriving at the desired outcomes. This approach fosters collaboration, and prevents those leading the development of the ULS from working in silos.
  • Terminology – It is essential to use the rights words from the beginning to avoid ambiguity and confusion about what the ULS is. Some suggestions are for the use of Guidelines or perhaps Minimum Standards.
  • Scope of the ULS – The level at which the ULS should be applicable and the scope it should cover needs to be agreed. As it is intended to be used in different local contexts by different groups of actors, there is also the need to determine how specific the guidelines should be or whether they need to have broad application. This also relates to the types of resources to be referenced in the product and what that means for local contexts?
  • Use of the ULS – There are other considerations regarding the use of the standards as pertains to the needs and requirements of the various stakeholders, and consequently the standards already in place. A case in point is the specificities of say fleet management. And finally, there is the issue of what the standards propose and any trade-offs there may be, such as the use of local providers and/or the need to conform to local standards.

Concluding thoughts                                                     The workshop ended on these three main points that will serve as a guide to the project team as they work over the next couple of months in resolving these outstanding issues and progressing with the development of the ULS.

Firstly, local actors and contexts are vitally important, and so the issue of how the ULS applies at this level needs to be considered. Secondly, inclusion of all the relevant stakeholder groups at all levels is required in the trial and development of ULS standards. And finally, linkages should be made with existing standards from the private sector and other humanitarian organisations.