In the lead up to our annual Health and Humanitarian Logistics Conference, 16 & 17 November, we hear from key people from around the HLA's network and the humanitarian aid sector.

Today, Prof. Luk Van Wassenhove reflects on 20 years of humanitarian logistics.


“It was 20 years ago, today…”, goes the famous opening line of The Beatles’ magnum opus Sgt. Pepper’s. It is indeed some 20 years ago, today, that we saw the birth of humanitarian logistics as a necessary and respected discipline in practice, and a subject of study in academia. Sure, there were plenty of excellent and experienced humanitarian logisticians or “loggies” before that time, but the rest of the organization often viewed logistics as the rather simple (but too expensive) operational task of bringing stuff from point A to point B. Clearly, given the sometimes-rough field context, the delivery of supplies was not always a piece of cake and many loggies were guys (yes, sorry, almost all guys) who could entertain you endlessly with strong cowboy-like stories late at night at the bar. These very motivated professionals had mountains of experience but little training and systems to support them. Improvisation (“doing miracles” ) was probably the right word to describe a lot of behavior. Humanitarian organizations, including the big ones like the UN sisters, did not consider logistics to be a crucial function in which investments were badly needed.

Consequently, little management attention and resources were allocated to develop logistics and the function was hidden somewhere very low in the hierarchy. Not surprising that at some point the humanitarian world would face reality, that is: be faced with the fact that logistics is a crucial function. This realization indeed happened after the response to a few major sudden-onset disasters, such as the Indian Ocean tsunami, had been below par and strongly criticized, and people realized change was necessary.  

Adapting logistics to a changing world

Today, logistics is a well-respected function, relatively high in the organizational hierarchy, with full attention to the need for expert professionals (i.e., hiring, training, and retention) and adequate systems for preparedness and response (at least in most organizations). Of course, a lot remains to be done but there is a solid bedrock to which further progress can be systematically added. Logisticians today are well-trained experts, capable of adapting and applying concepts (e.g. from the commercial sector) to their specific context. We have seen the emergence of professional logistics associations like HLA playing an important supporting role, as well as many training programs, be they internal or at academic institutes. Researchers have developed methods and insights to support system design and decision making. 

It is truly amazing how much progress was made in two decades. Humanitarian logistics has become a mature function with plenty of expertise. Humanitarian operations have become “Better, Faster and Cheaper” like the IFRC slogan used to say. Of course, this does not mean there is no room for improvement, especially in smaller organizations that lack the resources to develop a full-fledged logistics function. There is a clear role to be played here for bigger organizations as well as for professional associations like the HLA.

But beware; to not take the time to evolve the sector correctly would mean going backward. While logistics has progressed enormously within the humanitarian sector, the world has also fundamentally changed: technology, funding, long-lasting contracted disasters, pandemics, war, climate change. Feel free to add many other elements as you see fit. Once again, there may be lack of management understanding of the key role logistics needs to play. This is no time to rest on our laurels since we could easily find ourselves in the same situation as 20 years ago. 

Just take the change vectors mentioned above and ask yourself if logistics sits at the table where key strategic decisions are made. I am sure you will agree that we are not quite there yet. The next logical question is: what is required? Well, just like in commercial companies, logistics needs to be strongly connected to the other managerial functions and responsibilities within the organization and be onpar with them. It should not be isolated or inferior. Second, one needs to realize that one cannot possibly do things alone, i.e. there is a strong need for partnerships and specialization in the supply chain. E.g. why should every organization have its own fleet? Can’t we think about mobility and set up excellent sharing systems, at least for some of our needs? Third, how to think about efficient and effective use of technology? The first thing that comes to mind is that data is still in many cases the beast. Effective data gathering (and sharing in some cases) would truly help since modern data analytics can provide useful insights. Similarly, AI types of techniques can help forecast future needs which is particularly urgent in the context of climate change. I am sure you can easily add to this short list. 

The importance of supply chain management

The key point and common element, however, is that all of these require a strong supply chain management function to transfer from a largely internal system optimization view to an external influencing view where input from excellent supply chain analyses drives important decisions on funding, technology, partnerships, collaboration, specialization, etc. Supply chain management, anchored in logistics, should become a driver, not an add-on to decisions taken elsewhere. Of course, this requires attracting and developing supply chain experts with the managerial skills that can help leverage logistics know-how by influencing important strategic organizational decisions, without having the authority to impose them. 

My major point is that logistics today finds itself at an important junction, just like 20 years ago. It needs to change its perspective and take the next step in becoming a driver of important strategic decisions within the organization. E.g. how do we invest in data analytics, technology, sharing platforms, partnerships? How do we decide which key competencies to focus on so that we can provide (sell) services to others, and how do we decide what we should outsource? 

Covid-19 has clearly shown that the world is a very complex and heavily interconnected system. This system complexity also hits the humanitarian world in the face. Complex systems require a different outlook and willingness to align many stakeholders. We can’t do it alone and we heavily depend on what others decide to do. Moreover, the problems are so huge that we cannot even dream of having sufficient resources. There is simply no other solution than to collaborate/exchange/partner with others, be they humanitarian, commercial, or academic.

Our challenges for the next 20 years

Continuing to evolve and progress probably also means that it would be wise to pay more attention to diversity, e.g. women in leadership positions and empowerment of locals. It should also be noted that collaboration with other external as well as internal stakeholders can be strongly enhanced by technology. Finally, one cannot ignore the importance of reducing the environmental footprint of humanitarian action.

Just like 20 years ago, I am strongly convinced that the current logistics/supply chain departments and their experts are ready to tackle the new challenges. It is no longer about logistics (often considered to be an operational execution function) but rather about supply chain management, with the emphasis on management (a more strategic integrative perspective).  Logistics has built the expertise. It is time to leverage this expertise to better manage supply chains and help drive important change in our organizations.


Professor Luk Van Wassenhove currently focuses on aligning business models and new technologies with the UN Sustainable Development Goals, e.g. closed-loop supply chains, circular economy, and disaster and health logistics.  He recently co-edited special issues on humanitarian operations for the Journal of Operations Management, the Production and Operations Management Journal and the European Journal of Operational Research.

At INSEAD Professor Van Wassenhove holds the Henry Ford Chair in Manufacturing, as emeritus. He currently leads INSEAD’s Humanitarian Research Group.


Our 2022 Health and Humanitarian Logistics Conference is taking place on 16 & 17 November at the Aidex Expo, Brussels. The theme for this year is 'Strengthening Local Crisis Preparedness and Response Plans through Effective Logistics Networks', where challenges and potential solutions will be discussed over two days.

Register now for free in-person or online access