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Journal cover: Journal of Humanitarian Logistics and Supply Chain Management

Journal of Humanitarian Logistics and Supply Chain Management

ISSN: 2042-6747

Online from: 2011

Subject Area: Operations and Logistics Management

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Building humanitarian supply chain relationships: lessons from leading practitioners

Downloads: The fulltext of this document has been downloaded 2858 times since 2011

DOI (Permanent URL): 10.1108/20426741111122402

Article citation: Ron McLachlin, Paul D. Larson, (2011) "Building humanitarian supply chain relationships: lessons from leading practitioners", Journal of Humanitarian Logistics and Supply Chain Management, Vol. 1 Iss: 1, pp.32 - 49




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The Authors

Ron McLachlin, Asper School of Business, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Canada

Paul D. Larson, Asper School of Business, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Canada


Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to advance thought and practice on supply chain relationship building, in the context of humanitarian logistics, drawing on lessons from leading practitioners.

Design/methodology/approach – The presentations were treated like data, enabling grounded research concerning practitioners. The presentations were recorded, transcribed, vetted, and imported into qualitative software (NVivo8) to facilitate further analysis, which led to testable propositions.

Findings – Three themes emerged, centered around relationship benefits, challenges, and advice on relationship building. Advice from the practitioners led to 11 propositions.

Research limitations/implications – While the presentations were treated as interview data, there was no opportunity to probe statements made by the speakers. Also, speakers were the sole representatives for their organizations. Finally, the findings cannot be generalized beyond the types of situations and organizations represented at the conference.

Practical implications – The propositions represent advice from experienced humanitarian practitioners on building supply chain relationships.

Social implications – Supply chains are economic entities. They are also social entities. Humanitarian supply chains involve people working together to help other people in need.

Originality/value – There are few published articles on supply chain relationship building, and only several pieces on humanitarian partnerships or relationships. This paper contributes to the literature in a novel way, by drawing on expert speakers at a humanitarian conference.

Article Type:

Research paper


Channel relationships; Humanitarian logistics; Narratives; Supply chain management.


Journal of Humanitarian Logistics and Supply Chain Management









Copyright ©

Emerald Group Publishing Limited



1. Introduction

In the first few days after the January 12, 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the United Nations Office of the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) announced, “Logistics and the lack of transport remain the key constraints to the delivery of aid”. By the fourth day, the World Food Programme (WFP) had reached 13,000 people with food, jerry cans, and water purification tablets. The United Nations Disaster and Assessment Coordination (UNDAC) team and OCHA teams were on the ground in Haiti; and the following announcement was made, “Coordination of assistance is vital” (OCHA, 2010). The importance of logistics and critical need for coordination inspire our ongoing research in humanitarian supply chain relationships.

On October 15, 2009, the authors, in collaboration with others from the HumLog Group (, held a conference on relationship building in humanitarian relief supply chains. The event focused on building relationships among and within non-governmental organizations (NGOs), as well as between NGOs and various other organizations. The conference featured a diverse group of expert presenters.

The purpose of this paper is to advance thought and practice on supply chain relationship building, in the context of humanitarian logistics, drawing on lessons from leading practitioners at the conference. The paper is organized into four more sections. The next section provides some conceptual background on supply chain relationships or partnerships, from both the commercial and the much smaller humanitarian literature. This is followed by a short section describing the methodology for analyzing the conference presentations, and then a section presenting lessons from the conference. Finally, the paper closes with a discussion, including implications for practitioners, limitations, and suggestions for future research.

2. Background

A scan of the ABI/Inform database reveals a growing literature on supply chain partnerships over the last 20 years. Figure 1 shows number of articles published from 1991 to 2010, in four five-year blocks. The chart reflects a search of scholarly journals for articles with the following terms in their citations or abstracts: “supply chain” and “partnerships”. While the first piece appeared in 1991, a total of 379 articles were identified, including 26 during the first eight months of 2010. Searches with similar terms (e.g. supply chain integration; relationships) reveal similar patterns.

If “humanitarian” is added as a third search term, the number of published articles in ABI/Inform is only three. The literature appears to be overwhelmingly focused on business or commercial supply chain relationships. Searches with similar terms (e.g. relief; disaster) reveal similar patterns. This section sets the stage with a selection of the commercial supply chain relationship literature, with emphasis on implications for humanitarian logistics and supply chain management (SCM). It also includes a more thorough review of the much smaller literature on humanitarian supply chain relationships.

2.1 Commercial supply chains

The literature on commercial supply chains contains many articles describing relationships or empirically testing interrelationships among constructs (e.g. commitment, trust, coordination, loyalty, shared resources, information sharing, and performance) conceptually linked to close relationships. For instance, Nyaga et al. (2010) found that collaborative activities (e.g. information sharing, joint efforts, and dedicated investments) lead to trust and commitment, which, in turn, lead to greater satisfaction and performance.

In another recent article, Autry and Golicic (2010) examine dynamic linkages between relationship strength and supply chain performance in a longitudinal setting, using a spiral model. Relationships enhance performance, which inspires even closer relationships, and so on. Cao et al. (2010) conceptualize supply chain collaboration as seven inter-related elements:

  1. information sharing;
  2. goal congruence;
  3. decision synchronization;
  4. incentive alignment;
  5. resource sharing;
  6. collaborative communication; and
  7. joint knowledge creation.

They also empirically demonstrate a positive, significant relationship between supply chain collaboration and performance.

Jayaram et al. (2010) found a significant link between the scope of supply chain integration (narrow – i.e. involving only first-tier partners v. broad – including second-tier partners as well) and type of SCM efforts (information sharing, joint decision making, proactive planning). Braunscheidel et al. (2010) study the effects of organizational culture, measured by the competing values framework, on both internal integration and external integration, with suppliers and customers. As expected, they found that culture influences the extent to which firms adopt internal and external integration practices.

Whipple and Russell (2007) found three types of collaborative relationships during exploratory interviews of business people:

  1. transaction management;
  2. event management; and
  3. process management.

Transaction-oriented relationships focus on operational issues/tasks. Coordination of effort is targeted at solving problems and developing immediate solutions (e.g. expediting late deliveries). Event-oriented relationships are about joint planning and decision making centered on critical events or issues, such as identifying where supply chain disruptions or bottlenecks may occur. Finally, process-oriented relationships imply a more strategic collaboration, covering demand (downstream) and supply (upstream) processes. This type of collaboration involves long-term joint business planning and more fully integrated supply chain processes, across functions and organizations.

The Whipple–Russell typology can readily be adapted for humanitarian logistics. An example of transaction collaboration is close cooperation in the field; adapting, improvising, and overcoming obstacles to get the job done, to help people live to see tomorrow. Joint needs assessment and sharing of assessment information is an example of event collaboration. The NGOs and others who post updates to “ReliefWeb” are engaged in this type of collaboration. Launched in 1996 and administered by OCHA, ReliefWeb is the world's leading on-line gateway to information on humanitarian disasters ( Finally, pre-positioning partnerships are an example of collaborative process management. For joint pre-positioning, two or more humanitarian agencies would have to strategically plan and integrate their upstream and downstream supply chains in preparation for the next disaster.

Unfortunately, relatively little has been written to provide specific guidance on relationship or partnership building. According to Schary and Skjøtt-Larsen (2004), “management's capability to establish trust-based and long-term relationships with customers, suppliers, third-party providers, and other strategic partners becomes a crucial competitive parameter”. Relationship building is a critical capability in SCM.

Lambert and Knemeyer (2004) offer a reasonably comprehensive framework for building supply chain relationships (or partnerships). Their model commences with each prospective partner considering its drivers or compelling reasons to partner. For commercial supply chains, relevant drivers – asset and cost efficiencies; customer service improvements; marketing advantages; profit growth or stability – focus on increasing sales and profits. If two firms can make more money working together, they should seriously consider it.

Humanitarian supply chains share some common drivers with their business counterparts. It is critical to get the most out of scarce resources and limited budgets. It is also important to reach more beneficiaries in need and serve them more quickly. However, humanitarian supply chains have their share of unique drivers, such as: increasing awareness; becoming better prepared for the next disaster; gaining more rapid access to accurate information about what is needed; and providing better security in the field. If two or more organizations can save more lives or ease more suffering by working together, they should seriously consider it.

Lambert and Knemeyer (2004) next describe four fundamental facilitators or environmental factors that enhance partnership growth:

  1. compatibility of corporate cultures;
  2. compatibility of management philosophy and techniques;
  3. strong sense of mutuality; and
  4. symmetry between the parties.

The symmetry issue has been explored in great detail, by authors such as Cox (2004).

While the four facilitators were derived with commercial supply chains in mind, they are also applicable to the humanitarian context. Compatibility is about organizational missions, visions, and principles, as well as procedures, systems, and technology. These can differ dramatically across humanitarian organizations. Moreover, as in the commercial world, there are asymmetries in the humanitarian community. For instance, larger NGOs tend to exert more influence in inter-agency planning and coordination.

An additional critical facilitator in humanitarian relief logistics (and commercial logistics) is the “complementarity” of capabilities of each prospective partner. In its July 2007, Principles of Partnership statement of commitment, the Global Humanitarian Platform suggests that “The diversity of the humanitarian community is an asset if we build on our comparative advantages and complement each other's contributions” (

2.2 Humanitarian supply chains

Kovács and Spens (2007) discuss differences between business logistics and humanitarian logistics. Compared to their business counterparts, humanitarians face greater challenges in collaboration. Coordination of many different aid agencies, suppliers, and local and regional actors, all with their own operating methods, can be very challenging. Descriptions of relief operations frequently criticize aid agencies for lack of collaboration and duplication of effort. Indeed, commenting on the situation in Haiti, the United Nations' (UN's) top humanitarian relief coordinator, John Holmes, referred to struggling “without the capacity required to coordinate efficiently the large number of partners involved in the operation” (Lynch, 2010).

Some literature on humanitarian supply chain partnerships emerged recently. For example, Tomasini and Van Wassenhove (2009) suggest that disasters test the capacity of different actors (e.g. government agencies, military units, and humanitarian organizations) to work together. While these actors usually may have little reason to collaborate, a disaster puts them under sudden pressure to coordinate their capabilities to relieve suffering and save lives. However, the lack of profit motive, lack of clear command and control, and rapidly changing priorities combine to make coordination challenging in humanitarian supply chains. Tomasini and Van Wassenhove (2009) further suggest that collaboration with businesses (e.g. logistics service providers) and local communities can make a difference in delivering the goods, developing capabilities, and reducing vulnerabilities. Collaboration with various relevant actors can help reduce cost and increase speed in the supply chain.

Kumar et al. (2009) ask, “How can small, non-profit NGOs effectively manage a global humanitarian supply chain?” They address the question through a case study of Minneapolis-based Global Health Ministries (GHM). GHM coordinates transport and shipping with global integrated logistics providers like Maersk. The organization also has relationships with suppliers such as Tyco Health and Nonin Medical for medical equipment. Kumar et al. (2009) offer several recommendations for improving supply chains, including collaboration with other NGOs to leverage the strengths of each organization. For instance, GHM is a member of Technical Exchange for Christian Healthcare (TECH). They use TECH as a resource and communication network, to collaborate for resources, and to share risk with other small NGOs. TECH is also a freight consolidator.

The role of partnerships and collaboration in humanitarian logistics emerged as a central theme in a recent case study focused on the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), a faith-based NGO (McLachlin et al., 2009). Partners are crucial for MCC's operations; as a relatively small organization, they would be much less effective without partners. Being a faith-based organization, MCC tries to choose local or regional partners who have similar views. Having local partners provides several advantages. Such partners have deeper connections with local communities and local authorities. They also have a better understanding of the local culture and value system. MCC would not be able to respond to a sudden-onset disaster if there were no local partners or country representatives present in the region. Other critical partners for MCC include the Canadian Foodgrains Bank and the WFP. One preliminary generalization from the MCC case was to pick partners carefully, focusing on their complementary capabilities and compatibility or “like-mindedness” (McLachlin et al., 2009).

Seybolt (2009) presents the humanitarian assistance community – people in need, governments, UN agencies, NGOs, political missions, military units and donors – as a complex, open, adaptive system. Poor coordination among humanitarian, political, and military organizations is cited as an explanation for performance gaps. Seybolt describes three constraints on network development:

  1. the sudden, massive workload following a crisis;
  2. the need for trust among the system's actors; and
  3. the political interests of certain actors.

He argues that information sharing can help overcome these obstacles.

Open systems can be governed as hierarchies, markets, or networks. Hierarchies are centralized, with formal rules and patterns for communication. While hierarchies can effectively coordinate units in a stable environment, they are slow to respond in environments of rapid change, as in humanitarian crises. Markets are adaptive to environmental changes by enabling independent decision making by individual units. Seybolt (2009) suggests the humanitarian system combines some negative aspects of both hierarchies (e.g. UN agencies) and markets (e.g. NGOs not cooperating with each other because they compete for funding).

Perhaps a network approach could give the humanitarian system a useful combination of market and hierarchical governance. Networks are like markets in facilitating horizontal communication and independent decision making by individual organizations. They are also like hierarchies in attempting to reduce conflicts within the system and preserve individual organizations. Network members tend to work collaboratively to plan, implement, and evaluate their activities. This could lead to better coordination of humanitarian organizations (Seybolt, 2009).

The commercial supply chain literature has also drawn on the network approach. Pathak et al. (2007) advise supply chain researchers to adopt a Complex Adaptive System perspective to better understand the adaptivity of firms and complexity of interrelations inherent in supply networks. According to Podolny and Page (1998), networks foster learning, enable the attainment of status or legitimacy, provide for autonomy, and facilitate the management of resource dependencies. They also note possible economic benefits to the coordination enabled by networks.

While trust is often modelled as a critical element of long-term relationships, Tatham and Kovács (2010) discuss the role of trust in “hastily formed networks”, which are more the norm in disaster relief humanitarian supply chains. In rapid-onset disasters, “swift trust” among logisticians from a variety of organizations could spur improvement of relief operations. Trust can be viewed as a necessary condition for successful relationships. Hastily formed networks bring people from different communities together for planning and execution toward fulfilment of a large, urgent mission.

In summary, the humanitarian community has been criticized for its lack of coordination or collaboration. While there are many challenges, the literature aimed at commercial supply chains contains useful conceptual and empirical work on relationships, including some guidance on relationship building, which can be adapted to the humanitarian context.

3. Methodology

As each conference speaker was involved with logistics and SCM in a humanitarian context, the conference offered the opportunity to utilize the presentations as raw data. Speakers represented a variety of NGOs, aid and advocacy groups, UN and governmental agencies, the Canadian military, and private-sector suppliers of various services.

The presentations were treated like data, with each speaker responding to an open-ended question on the theme of the conference. Invited speakers had been asked to address their organizations' views of the role of relationships and relationship building in managing humanitarian supply chains. Our opening keynote speaker set the tone with his understanding that the conference was “going to focus on building the relationships among the NGOs, between NGOs, agencies of the UN, governments, commercial suppliers and service providers”.

Thus we were able to engage in some grounded research (Strauss and Corbin, 1998). This approach uses the constant comparison of data with emerging categories (Creswell, 2003; Locke, 2001). Such approaches allow us to ground our results with “elements that are useful to practitioners in the setting studied” (Locke, 2001, p. 18), in this case, practitioners of humanitarian SCM.

For data collection, the presentations were recorded, transcribed, vetted while listening to the original audio to ensure accuracy, and imported into qualitative software (NVivo8) to facilitate further analysis. The data were then coded and grouped into themes. Following Strauss and Corbin (1998), we further developed this concept of relationship building according to its properties and dimensional ranges, leading to testable propositions. For instance, one key property is compatibility, with a dimensional range from incompatible to highly compatible.

4. Analysis

Relationships in humanitarian SCM come in many types. There are internal relationships (e.g. between headquarters and field units), as well as external relationships (e.g. between two NGOs). Larson (2011) discusses four types of supply chain relationships:

  1. humanitarian – between two or more NGOs;
  2. humilitarian – between an NGO and a national military;
  3. humanitariUN – between an NGO and an agency of the United Nations; and
  4. humoneytarian – between an NGO and a commercial firm, either as service provider or donor.

There are also relationships between NGOs and both government agencies and community groups.

Another type of relationship in humanitarian relief operations concerns NGOs and the media. A director with international NGO spoke of operating under constant media evaluation of their performance, “When there are big disasters, we all know that CNN and the big media are there. If anything is going wrong in logistics, it will be [broadcast within minutes.] Goods that are lying in the airport, transportation that is not working, and delegates that are not where they are supposed to be” will be on the news. This relationship needs to be managed well, as it may or may not be advantageous, but has implications for donor support.

A director of another international NGO noted that one key element missing from the humanitarian reform process was the issue of partnerships, even though the Principles of Partnership were adopted by the Global Humanitarian Platform ( in 2006. The five principles are:

  1. equality;
  2. transparency;
  3. result-oriented approach;
  4. responsibility; and
  5. complementarity.

The remainder of this section comprises subsections on benefits of, challenges to, and advice for relation building in humanitarian supply chains.

4.1 Benefits of relationships

During the conference, there was general agreement about the value of good relationships for managing humanitarian supply chains. For example, a logistics officer with a small Canadian NGO told us that “there are a lot of benefits to logistics collaboration and they're all fairly obvious, better leverage, better standardization, lower cost to programs, more responsive, timely delivery of services to beneficiaries”.

She also offered examples of value-added expertise that could be accessed via such relationships. These included finding “a freight forwarder [who] worked at getting the best price”, arranging for “monitoring and surveying services at the destination port”, and hiring “a local trucking company to deliver the commodities inland from the port”. For larger projects, they decided to hire the services of a European logistics organization called EuronAid. She concluded “we rely on those that we hire” and “having someone on the ground overseas to travel around and to meet with some of these suppliers and build relationships with them is key for us right now”. She also explained the advantages of doing more local purchasing, given that funding has been untied so that Canadian sources are no longer required. Thus, they “can source cheaper when purchasing locally”, once differential freight rates are accounted for, with the added advantage that they can “strengthen the support for local markets and production in developing countries”.

A director with an international NGO explained how, in establishing a more regionalized system of logistics units, they also placed more emphasis on “local and regional framework agreements, in which the supplier holds certain stock for us [allowing us] to be able to respond within the hours we have promised”. She gave the example of a drastic reduction in cost of delivery, comparing the earthquakes in Pakistan (2005) and Yogyakarta (2006). This comparison showed that more regional and local sourcing during the latter earthquake led to a reduction in the cost of a full package of relief supplies for a family by about 83 percent, along with other similar measures of improvement.

A director with an international NGO reminded us that “without partnership, without working effectively together we really can't achieve what needs to be done on the ground to help the beneficiaries that we're trying to serve”. He outlined a number of benefits of collaboration. These include earlier, more effective response, more effective assessments and information, better economies of scale for transportation, leverage and purchasing power, standardized supplies, lower cost program support, fewer duplications or gaps, effective access to pre-positioned goods, better value for money, accountability to donors and beneficiaries, and streamlined donor liaison in emergencies.

4.2 Challenges to relationship building

It is especially challenging for a new organization to establish relationships. A manager of an American NGO spoke of beginning as a non-profit with “no business plan, no funding, nothing” and having to do it “on our own [and] networking with our own personal relationships”. She noted her ten-year challenge to obtain help from her former employer.

Similarly, a director of an international NGO addressed the challenges of building new partnerships, within the humanitarian system that was a “mélange of agencies, with different mandates, missions, and agendas” and “a very complicated, disparate group of entities that is very difficult to coordinate”. These challenges include the large number of parties involved in any emergency response, power sharing, avoiding inefficiencies (i.e. ensuring proper systems for decision making), leadership – and how to share the lead, achieving impact, managing expectations (i.e. addressing the “What's in it for me?” factor), communications (e.g. aligning approaches), and funding or “persuading not only the partners themselves but potential donors that this approach is useful”.

Another challenge, related to the issue of symmetry, is the position of a small, focused NGO. For example, a director of an international disabled people's network spoke of various relationship challenges in advocating on behalf of disabled people concerning their treatment within humanitarian operations, especially concerning pre-disaster planning – so that the rights and needs of disabled people are “realized and met during times of disaster and conflict”. These relationships consist primarily of lobbying various UN agencies and officials concerning “additional barriers and challenges”. She offered some examples, including first responders who often do not have the “awareness or training regarding the specific needs of persons with disabilities” and thus may establish relief camps or distribute resources in ways that “can further threaten [their lives] […] even when life-sustaining resources such as food and water are available to the wider population”.

A director of a large Canadian NGO addressed today's challenges by looking back at the discussions in the 1990s concerning their various relationships:

[…] with a bit of nostalgia because it seems like they were a lot simpler in the 1990s than they are today, where what we see today increasingly [is that] our donors are adding an element of self-interest into their work […] So there are a lot of places where humanitarian needs are critical but it's in no one's self interest. So there's no humanitarian assistance provided.

He noted that one of the big challenges concerned “the relationship models that many of us carry in our heads” that are inadequate for understanding “the relationships that we're trying to manage today […] [as] they fail to put the beneficiary right in the centre”. He added that “the increasing complexity of our models, the various roles that many actors are now trying to play is definitely contributing to conflict, competition, and lack of coordination”.

He outlined relationship challenges in four key areas. These were relationships with donors (fund raising), ourselves (operations), the public, and beneficiaries. He tied the fund raising challenge to the question of relationships by suggesting that donors may not be motivated to give because there may be too many choices, given competition among agencies. He added that, while there are instances of joint fund raising, for the most part agencies do it individually. For the operations challenge, he spoke of being in the field and working with partners. He used a 1994 example from Rwanda of the challenge of coordinating multiple NGOs, noting that “people were startled to find that there were 120 NGOs registered in Kigali to deal with the after-effects of the genocide”. This is “a small number now, when you have hundreds or thousands on the ground in post-tsunami or in other conflict areas, but even 120 was a breakthrough moment for people realizing there's so many actors here”.

Addressing the challenge of relationships with the public, he said it was important for humanitarian agencies to decide whether they are trying to seriously engage with the public or are “just after a bit of money and a few mouse clicks on a survey”. Concerning the challenge of relationships with beneficiaries, he pointed out that, while relationships with beneficiaries should be at the center, the “duty to serve those beneficiaries [can be] compromised by a second accountability that we have to our donors. That dual accountability, serving two masters, can be extremely difficult when you are trying to build your relationships.”

4.3 Advice for relationship building

The conference presenters offered advice about how to build relationships. A director of a large Canadian NGO noted that they spent quite a bit of time in the 1990s exploring the relationships between three principal actors:

  1. the military;
  2. donors; and
  3. NGOs.

A manager of an American NGO made a similar point, arguing that “all real solutions come from an association with business, NGOs and government [including the military]. So, we try to work on all three fronts all the time.”

The use of existing contacts can help develop relationships – and lead to new contacts. The same American NGO manager also referred to “leveraging our contacts to support humanitarian initiatives” and explained that, “the military association came about by happenstance, again by going down personally to New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and connecting up with people” where her husband “met some of his old military buddies”. These contacts led to a number of other initiatives, such as moving donated goods into Iraq, signing a memorandum of understanding with Southern Command, the military providing various major shipments of goods for them and helping to supply a hospital in Colombia, the use of a small airplane provided by the Colombian national police, the military building a kitchen in one of their orphanages in Bogotá, and overall having 200 of their members from the military. She also reported on developing a number of useful external contacts, ranging from prestigious supporters (including movie stars), an influential board of directors, and contacts with many foreign embassies. She added that they “make it a policy to connect with the First Lady of every country because the First Lady, [having] feminine energy is usually interested in the betterment of her people, the children, and families in her country”.

Relationships can be built via the process of establishing agreements – designed to be used when the need arises – with various groups. For example, a director of an international NGO spoke of the importance of having pre-agreements with governments. She pointed out that they had “status agreements with 89 countries” wherein governments have already agreed that when there is a disaster, they can come in, are exempted from tax, will have a warehouse made available, and will not pay landing fees. She pointed out that, “This is one of the most important [considerations] in logistics – that we really can move goods quickly over borders […] and are supported by the government”.

It is important to avoid violating basic principles while building relationships with diverse groups engaged in humanitarian SCM. A director of a large Canadian NGO stressed this by stating that “the humanitarian imperative comes first. That is what should be driving our decisions; we need to deliver humanitarian assistance first and foremost” and that “aid is given on the basis of need alone”.

In line with the literature, the conference speakers recognized compatibility and complementarity as two important considerations in relationship building. These are discussed in the next two sub-sections.

4.3.1 Compatibility

A representative of a large Canadian NGO responded to a question about participation in the UN Clusters:

From [our] perspective, we participate in the Clusters. Our staff are telling us that it is helpful. It is very useful to have like-minded, like-mandated organizations together working within those clusters. They're viewed quite positively by people within [our organization], partly because it's a forum where they can sit with really specific issues with people who are committed to solving them and also just for the networks and the relationships that they build. They meet people before they actually meet them in the field. There are both pre-disaster, during, and post- networks that have been very helpful.

Another important initiative to help build relationships is simply to join or help to form groups aimed at coordination of humanitarian supply chains. For example, a representative of an international NGO stated that they were “involved with a number of the UN clusters” (e.g. Logistics Cluster, Shelter Cluster, and Water and Sanitation Cluster). In addition, they were involved with a number of similar groups, both as founders and members. In addition, they were “in the process of establishing what will hopefully be quite a big and valuable partnership with a commercial logistics provider”. Finally, he outlined their direct involvement in forming a consortium of NGOs to jointly address various logistical challenges. He further advised, “When you're talking about collaboration and partnering and coordination generally, it is important to […] keep things simple. The logistics challenges seem fairly simple to address; the real challenge is more around how do we work together?”

A representative of a large Canadian NGO spoke of the successful Disasters Emergency Committee in the UK, whereby a group of NGOs does a single fundraising campaign for humanitarian disasters. He told of a smaller version in Canada, comprised of four NGOs, by explaining that for public donations, this group has “agreed that in times of acute humanitarian disaster, [they] will launch a consolidated campaign as opposed to four individual campaigns”.

4.3.2 Complementarity

Many relationships, including those in the humanitarian sphere, come about because organizations realize that they have complementary capabilities. Well-developed relationships that utilize complementary capabilities can lead to an entire supply chain being more effective in meeting beneficiary needs, by being more timely, accurate, and cost effective.

A director of a large Canadian NGO highlighted complementary relationships via their focus on final distribution, in which they “stopped doing a lot of the direct purchasing and shipping and worked from the extent of distribution point to the beneficiary, really the last mile of the logistics chain – and we often say the hardest mile”. As he later stated, they had a complicated partner/sub-contractor relationship with a large international NGO. A logistics officer of a small Canadian NGO provided another example of intricate complementary relationships with another partner NGO, a government agency and various church groups.

Complementarity comes from capabilities developed and services offered. For example, a program officer for a non-profit recruitment agency explained how they specialize in assisting multilateral organizations in identifying and engaging skilled individuals rapidly. She gave examples of several recent deployments by noting that, “We've had requests from UN agencies such as UNICEF, UNHCR, and OCHA for experts to be available immediately to respond to the humanitarian crises in countries like the Philippines [and] […] Yemen”. She further explained that, “In the area of logistics, our database consists of experts on warehouse and supply chain management, fleet management, vehicle maintenance, camp management, transportation, movement control, air operations and procurement.”

A manager for an American NGO explained that their model is based on the notion of “voluntourism”, in which otherwise ordinary travellers are involved with community development, vocational training, micro-loans, and so forth. They work with a wide range of partners – commercial airlines, national militaries, various NGOs, etc. – to meet the needs of beneficiaries (Larson, 2011).

A representative for a global logistics charitable organization provided an example of multiple relationships used to solve a humanitarian supply chain problem. After the events of September 11, 2001, they were contacted by the American Red Cross who were “requesting assistance in sourcing 30,000 bottles of water to bring to ground zero for the rescue workers” within three days. They called a contact who had previously been doing logistics for Wal-Mart. In turn, Wal-Mart immediately agreed, donated the bottled water, and started delivering it in refrigerated trailers to ground zero, New York City, on schedule.

Another complementary service was described by a manager for a provider of humanitarian air services. He said they were “a not-for-profit provider of air transportation in support of humanitarian programs and initiatives worldwide” and are “the last link […] small planes to small places”. He explained that, “Most of our operations […] are in Africa. If we took a snapshot today, we're flying in Mozambique, Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Chad and then into Iraq out of Amman, Jordan”. They support a wide range of aid agencies and organizations (e.g. World Vision International, Médecins sans Frontières, Save the Children, and USAID).

A director with an international NGO described internal supply chain relationships between headquarters and offices within each country in terms of services. One such service was the use by donor countries of their three recently established regional warehouses. So, for example, “When there's a disaster in Indonesia, the goods donated by the [donor country offices] are not shipped from [these countries], but rather from the regional warehouse”. Another concerned “mandated services, which are paid by statutory contributions”. Third, were “some added-value services, for which there are comparable commercial services available. [For these] we are acting as a procurement agent […]. We do supply chain management, transport management, fleet management and we are managing the stock”.

4.3.3 Propositions

Many speakers offered advice concerning the core concept of the conference, relationship building in humanitarian supply chains. As mentioned, Strauss and Corbin (1998) suggest that a concept may be more fully developed by considering its properties and dimensions. As an example, we were told that relationship building takes time. Thus, one property of relationship building would be “time to build”, with its dimensional range being “little time” to “much time” (see Table I). In turn, suggestions to take time to build relationships may be represented by the “X” placed near the upper end of the range. Furthermore, this representation suggests a testable proposition such as: Relationship building is more effective the more time is spent on it.

Other propositions were derived from speaker suggestions in the same fashion. Together the set of propositions provides a reasonable snapshot of advice from the speakers for building relationships.

Each “X” on Table I suggests a testable proposition concerning actions for relationship building in humanitarian supply chains, as follows:

Relationship building is more effective when:

  • P01: more time is spent on it.
  • P02: the focus is on a reasonable number of contacts.
  • P03: the initial focus is on familiar contacts.
  • P04: the process is relatively formal.
  • P05: it occurs before a disaster happens.
  • P06: it is supported by joining or forming a larger number of groups.
  • P07: the process is kept simple.
  • P08: organizations avoid compromising their humanitarian principles.
  • P09: the players are of relatively equal size.
  • P10: the organizations are highly compatible.
  • P11: the capabilities of the players are highly complementary.

5. Discussion

The speakers suggested many benefits from good relationships in humanitarian supply chains. In many cases, advantages flowed from cooperation between two or more actors who were able to provide complementary, value-added capabilities, which would enhance the overall performance of the supply chain.

The overall consensus was that relationship building efforts and complementary services would lead to better relationships, which in turn would lead to better coordination and effectiveness within humanitarian supply chains. This notion that better relationships lead to improved performance is well supported in the literature concerning commercial supply chains (e.g. Droge et al., 2004; Flynn et al., 2010; Frohlich and Westbrook, 2001; Vickery et al., 2003), although some question this (e.g. Fabbe-Costes and Jahre, 2007, 2008). This literature shows that supply chain integration leads to performance improvements. Definitions of supply chain integration include many properties that are relationship based. For example, Frohlich and Westbrook (2001) measure supply integration via eight integrative activities, most of which have a relationship component (e.g. access to planning systems, sharing production plans).

Implementation – or actually building relationships – is difficult. This is because implementation is process based and involves people. The unique context of humanitarian supply chains adds to the difficulty (e.g. a largely volunteer workforce, low level of logistics training, a decentralized workforce, urgency). Nevertheless, there are some good examples of the implementation of such relationships. These include the operation of the UNHRDs by the WFP, which provides services to other humanitarian organizations at either no cost or on a cost recovery basis, the recent establishment of regional hubs by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), allowing for improved effectiveness via Red Cross National Societies (Heigh, 2006; Jahre and Heigh, 2008), and the Supply Chain Consortium, by which four compatible international agencies collaborate to address logistics challenges.

One important approach to building relationships was hinted at by a few of the presentations. This is the notion that the larger player in a supply chain needs to “break the ice” by providing services to the smaller players, typically “for free”. That is, relationships within a supply chain need some trust building to get started – and only the larger players have the resources to initiate this. This parallels situations in the commercial world. For example, Toyota develops supply chain partnerships by heavily subsidizing the network (with knowledge and resources) during the early stages of formation to ensure that suppliers realize substantial benefits from participation. Toyota's initiatives include: first, establishing supplier associations, second, providing free operations management consulting, third, facilitating supplier small-group learning teams, and fourth, arranging inter-firm employee transfers (Dyer and Nobeoka, 2000). Similarly, ITC Limited offers numerous free services to soybean farmers in India, such as computer access, detailed weather and crop information, confirmed market prices, and many others (Upton and Fuller, 2003). But, why would larger players give away free services? They do so because they understand that developing an effective supply chain will improve the situation for all players, with the larger player then having a great deal of influence in a more effective supply chain. Currently, most supply chains perform so poorly that improvements will unleash value for all players (Taylor, 2004).

There is much to be learned by approaches to developing relationships that are used in the commercial world (e.g. Autry and Golicic, 2010; Dyer, 2000; Holweg and Pil, 2008; Wu and Choi, 2005; Wu et al., 2010), but would need to be adapted to the unique context of humanitarian SCM. One of many issues concerning such adaptation is that humanitarian operations cannot match the efficiency of commercial operations, given the principles under which they operate, such as the humanitarian imperative always coming first.

This paper has some limitations. First, while it flows from the opportunity to use conference presentations as data sources, it is limited to those messages that a group of speakers chose to present on one day at one conference. Second, while the presentations were treated as interview data, there was no opportunity to probe statements made by the speakers. Third, speakers were the sole representatives for their respective organizations, whereas validity and reliability would have been enhanced by multiple interviews and multiple sources of data for each organization. Fourth, though a wide variety of organizations were represented, the findings cannot be generalized beyond the types of humanitarian supply chain situations and organizations represented at the conference.

More research is required concerning relationship building in humanitarian supply chains, including lessons that might be adapted from the commercial world. As Balcik et al. (2010) point out, “ […] the literature lacks studies that broadly and systematically address relief chain coordination”. Two fruitful research areas include issues of implementation (i.e. relationship building) and focused studies on specific types of relationships (e.g. NGO/military, faith-based/secular, etc.).

Given the limited research to date, this likely means process-oriented, empirical studies aimed at understanding what relationship building efforts work and do not work under various circumstances. Case-based and primarily qualitative methods would be preferred in many instances, as the knowledge about relationship building in context of humanitarian SCM currently fits Yin's three conditions for preferring a case-based approach. That is, the form of most research questions is likely to be “how” or “why” questions, researchers typically do not have control over behavioral events, and the focus is on contemporary events (Yin, 2009).

ImageFigure 1 Number of articles published on supply chain partnerships, 1991-2010
Figure 1 Number of articles published on supply chain partnerships, 1991-2010

ImageTable I Relationship building in humanitarian SCM
Table I Relationship building in humanitarian SCM


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About the authors

Ron McLachlin is an Associate Professor and teaches operations management courses in the undergraduate and graduate programs, including Fundamentals of Production and Operations Management, Management of Quality and Reliability, Operations Management in Service Organizations, Production Management Seminar, Designing Fast Response Operations, and Global Operations Strategy. His research interests are in operations strategy. In particular, he is interested in process innovation, such as just-in-time manufacturing and synchronous operations. He also has interests in the role of consultants in implementing process improvements. His publications are in the Journal of Operations Management, Management Decisions, the Operations Management Review, Business Quarterly, and Elsevier Science Publishers. As well, he is an Associate Editor of the Journal of Operations Management and a member of the Academy of Management, the Administrative Sciences Association of Canada, the Decision Sciences Institute, and the Production and Operations Management Society. Ron McLachlin is the corresponding author and can be contacted at:

Paul D. Larson, PhD is a Professor of Supply Chain Management (SCM) at the University of Manitoba, Asper School of Business. Paul is also head of the SCM Department and Director of the Transport Institute. He earned his BSB and MBA degrees at the University of Minnesota, and his PhD degree at the University of Oklahoma. The Institute for Supply Management (ISM), formerly the National Association of Purchasing Management (NAPM), funded Dr Larson's doctoral dissertation, which won the 1991 Academy of Marketing Science/Alpha Kappa Psi award. From 1990 to 1996, he taught marketing and retailing at the University of Alberta, chairing several doctoral dissertations. After that, Dr Larson taught purchasing, logistics and SCM at the University of Nevada from 1996 to 2001, and at Iowa State University from 2001 to 2004. He has published over 40 articles in leading SCM, logistics and transportation journals, and has made numerous presentations at academic and practitioner conferences. He has consulted and conducted executive seminars, in Europe, North America, South America, the Caribbean, and China, on logistics, purchasing, transportation and SCM. Paul serves on the ISM Educational Resources Committee, is an Associate Editor of the Journal of Business Logistics, and serves on the Editorial Review Board of the Journal of Supply Chain Management. Dr Larson's recent research awards include the following: ISM Senior Research Fellowship (2002), DHL best paper award at the NO FOMA 2002 conference, and the Beta Gamma Sigma Researcher of the Year (2000).