Managing Disaster

School of Business Prof. Santos Mahapatra is part of an international team of researchers developing a disaster-management framework to help relief organizations improve humanitarian operations.

Natural disasters can strike at any time and, often, without warning.

In April 2015, an earthquake hit Nepal, killing 9,000, injuring 23,000 and leaving hundreds of thousands more without homes. Tsunamis, triggered by a powerful undersea earthquake in the Indian Ocean in 2004, took out entire coastal communities, killing more than 230,000. A year later, Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast. Levee breaches left 80 percent of the city of New Orleans underwater.

After a cataclysmic disaster, disturbing images of suffering people, flattened homes and flooded roads are shared on the Internet, social media and television, as well as in newspapers. The worldwide response — from governments to schoolchildren — is a genuine desire to help.

And that, says School of Business Professor Santosh Mahapatra, can lead to serious logistical challenges, despite the best altruistic intentions.

“Enormous numbers of people and organizations from around the globe get involved,” he says. “And all of these individuals and efforts must be managed effectively for relief operations to be successful. At the same time, the situation on the ground is often highly uncertain, and that adds to the challenge.”

Every humanitarian crisis is a logistics nightmare. Every disaster brings a demand for materials and assistance, but each has its own unique set of challenges — so each solution is different.

Unsolicited goods — from clothing to packaged food — typically come pouring into the affected region. But the clothing may be inappropriate for the culture or the climate. Millions of pounds of food arrive by air, but ruined roads prevent trucks from reaching the disaster zone. Medical equipment arrives on the scene, but there is no electricity to power it.

Meanwhile, lack of sanitation, clean drinking water and housing provides a fertile bed for the growth and spread of disease.

“Every humanitarian crisis is a logistics nightmare,” says Mahapatra. “Every disaster brings a demand for materials and assistance, but each one has its unique set of challenges — so each solution is different.”

For Mahapatra, an operations and logistics expert, the humanitarian supply chain presents an exciting opportunity for research. “Organizational approaches to humanitarian operations have not been adequately studied. It requires a very different application of the basic principles of supply chain management to balance costs with social responsibility.”

A Case Study

Mahapatra has been working with faculty and graduate students at the Amrita School of Business in Kochi, India, on the management of disaster relief operations. The researchers are developing a humanitarian supply chain model, utilizing the experience of Mata Amritanandamayi Math (MAM), an international relief organization that is based in India and has some 40 centers around the world, including the U.S.

Since 2001, MAM has been providing relief, money, supplies, medical personnel and other volunteers through all stages of a disaster cycle, from immediate response and recovery to long-term reconstruction efforts. MAM’s success has been recognized by the U.N., which conferred Special Consultative Status on the organization.

“We are interested in looking at the operational elements that make this organization so successful and seeing how it can serve as a model for large-scale relief and reconstruction,” says Mahapatra.

The Triple-A Framework

Recent research into commercial supply chains has negated the long-held notion that speed and cost effectiveness are the twin pillars of success. For organizations to achieve their goals, they must build supply chains that are agile, adaptable and aligned.

Mahapatra and his fellow researchers applied the AAA framework to their research into MAM and other humanitarian operations.

“Agility is understood as an ability to act and react quickly,” he notes, "while adaptability is the ability to adjust to contextual dynamics. Alignment relates to an ability to make one’s own interests correspond to the varied, and at times conflicting, interests of different stakeholders.”

The characteristics of a region — the geography, culture, size of the population, communication channels, infrastructure and political situation — also affect humanitarian efforts, as does the type and scale of the event. Researchers considered these circumstances in each of the four Indian disasters; conducted multiple interviews with personnel involved in managing and conducting humanitarian operations and collected information on response, recovery and rebuilding activities.

“What we found was that in each case and at each phase of the recovery, MAM was able to quickly develop and adapt successful responses to meet challenges,” says Mahapatra. “They accomplished this by working within the local culture and social structure and by being respectful of institutions and political structures.”

“This is absolutely essential to creating successful outcomes,” he says. “You can’t get the materials and resources you need to build shelters, provide medical attention, or transport and distribute food without the support of local government officials.“

Because MAM is involved in year-round charitable work around the globe, there are connections, communications networks and decentralized operations already in place. Perhaps most importantly, long-term MAM volunteers have built trust with these populations.

Unlike medical teams and many relief volunteers, who leave when the immediate dangers have passed, MAM is involved in long-term rebuilding efforts, such as providing earthquake-proof housing or redeveloping land and educating local farmers to improve agricultural yields.

“There is an emphasis on developing better warning systems, protocols and technology, such as remote-sensing systems that can monitor seismic activity, which will improve outcomes for future disasters,” says Mahapatra.

“Many of the strategies and principles that we are learning from our work with MAM can readily be applied to other NGOs. By solving problems with humanitarian supply chains, our hands can carry out the wishes of our hearts.”

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