On 3rd July, the much-anticipated webinar titled Exploring protection challenges in humanitarian logistics jointly organised by HLA and the International Association of Professionals in Humanitarian Assistance and Protection (PHAP) took place. The well-attended event hosted from Geneva brought together professionals in the humanitarian logistics community and other areas of humanitarian practice who are based in some dozens of countries.

This webinar was a timely event that helped clarify some key questions humanitarian logisticians have about ensuring and safeguarding protection during response. PHAP Executive Director Angharad Laing co-hosted the webinar with HLA Chief Executive George Fenton, which was streamed via the PHAP webinar platform, with many others also listening in via YouTube.

The idea that the issue of protection in humanitarian logistics is underexplored across the sector, set off the discussions with George asking the ultimate question if the proliferation of humanitarian responses in recent years have in fact led to enhanced safety and security for the communities at risk. He noted that protection in logistics practice should indeed reflect the right capacity and a common understanding between humanitarian response actors and of course the affected communities, and that enhancing protection requires engagement between these communities. George further noted that the tools to aid these protection mechanisms require critical and continuous development, and as such the humanitarian logistics community therefore has a duty to recognise these challenges and address them accordingly.

Survey results

Findings from the pre-event survey of which 172 responses were received from across 45 countries were presented by Angharad prior to the open discussion and revealed that most respondents had in fact witnessed some sort of protection issue during the course of their work. The most common were issues related to logisticians not being sufficiently prepared to handle protection issues they were confronted with, which more than a majority of respondents revealed that they had in fact witnessed in the field. There were also various levels of reports of abuse with the procurement, recruitment, transportation, distribution of aid, and sexual exploitation and abuse.  Some respondents cited lack of awareness of principles and guidelines as a cause for the lack of capacity to deal with the observed protection issues.

Overall, corruption in procurement was highlighted, with the case of kickbacks in South Sudan cited by a respondent, and in Somalia collusion between logisticians and suppliers that divert aid elsewhere than the intended targets.  Recipients at risk from robberies by armed gangs following distribution and militia attacks during distribution itself were also cited. In the area of recruitment, child labour was mentioned as an observed problem, especially from sub-contracts. The area of safety for logistics staff themselves also came up and may require a separate webinar to effectively interrogate. Finally, the gap in existing guidance to deal with protection issues as a result of not being implemented, and not being localised enough to deal with contextual nuances was also highlighted.

Summary of discussions

The esteemed panel of facilitators who shared valuable insights from their considerable collective experience and perspectives with the audience consisted of Will Holden, Managing Director of the Emergency Logistics Team, HLA’s Africa Regional Representative Tikhwi Muyundo, Supply Chain and Communications Consultant Valerie Craigie, and former Head of the Protection Division of ICRC Pierre Gentile.

According to Will, there was a sea change in recent years regarding the interactions between the programs and support (logistics) functions of most humanitarian responses which is causing gaps in adequately dealing with protection issues as a result of the perceived separation. He noted further that sufficient duty of care must be in place for staff of humanitarian logistics organisations during the planning and implementation of the distribution, and also for the affected communities in particular the most vulnerable (i.e. women and children). In terms of the capacity of humanitarian logistician staff, Will called for more training to give logistics staff, at minimum, some basic understanding of what the protection concerns are and how to deal with them, and said this was a clear gap as their role is so key and fundamental to any humanitarian response.

Tikhwi, on the other hand, sharing first-hand experience from countries such as Somalia and Afghanistan, was of the view that most organizations would have mechanisms in place to identify and of course address the most predictable of protection challenges. She gave a whole range of such issues including harm from sub-contractors who are transporting or distributing on the ground. She also mentioned improper management of distribution centers, poor commodity management and certification, cultural insensitivities, as well as staff misconduct and the deployment of untrained staff, as factors that can result in affected communities suffering harm.

A specific practical example shared was of extreme protection implications where violence and demonstrations occur in opposition to unwanted goods making their way into certain communities where they are prohibited resulting from unsolicited donations.

Valerie shared some insights on gender-based violence (GBV) from interviews and interactions with humanitarian logisticians from camps in Liberia, Sudan and Greece in particular.  She tackled the issue of making these spaces safe for all, especially the vulnerable, and called for the immediate needs of these communities to be factored in during the response. She noted that while the guidelines call for communications, multisectoral approach, and shared learning in avoiding or dealing with these issues, it just does not happen in practice, leading to the observed protection challenges. She provided a good practice case study from Ethiopia where a logistician had a key role to play in planning the structure of the camp that made it more liveable and safer for residents.

Pierre on his part, gave valuable insights from both the field and head office (Geneva) experience. He identified three categories of note – the need for and adherence to organizational code of conducts, the attention to the principle of do no harm, and the capacity and ability to address directly or refer the abuse that is witnessed. He (as well as most of the other facilitators) noted the availability of a variety of guidance and guidelines to aid in the address of these incidents of protection challenges, though there are certainly issues with how they are utilized or implemented.

Key highlights

  • Guidelines need to be tailored in order to take into consideration local norms and cultures.
  • Too many strategies for addressing different issues targeted at the different groups of humanitarian actors (logisticians for example) can present problems for understanding and adherence. As such, an integrated approach is more useful.
  • There should be consistent identification and awareness of the particular types of protections issues that are prevalent in each area in order to plan for and address them effectively.
  • As humanitarian logisticians are not expected to be protection experts, there should be clear referral mechanisms in place for them to direct concerns to the appropriate channels to be addressed.
  • Some good practices are for staff to know the procedures and follow them, for example vetting suppliers, and for aid agencies to have an integrated approach to train and retrain staff which includes community leaders and involves security forces.
  • There is a need to draw from lessons learned in the past and apply those to mitigate these preventable risks to affected communities.
  • Have a code of conduct in place, which is well understood by all staff, both direct and sub-contractors (suppliers), and to have sanctions in place for misconduct.
  • Future efforts regarding this conversation should note that while a lot of guidance is already available, they may not necessarily be understood or followed by field logistician staff, who are often sub-contractors.

In conclusion, there was the agreement that the logistics function is at the heart of humanitarian response, and while this webinar’s discussion is a useful first step, the conversation does not end here and must be taken forward. As such, HLA and PHAP is looking forward to further collaboration that take these recommendations and takeaways forward through further discussions.

 “HLA should be commended for raising this vital issue and I look forward to future collaborations that explore this further.” Angharad Laing