Opinion: Creating a humanitarian supply chain to deliver medicine in a crisis

By Thomas Tighe, Jenny Robertson 11 November 2016

Multinational courier delivery service company FedEx helps deliver disaster relief aid globally for Direct Relief. Photo by: Direct Relief / CC BY-NC-ND

When a natural disaster strikes, getting the right supplies into the hands of disaster survivors, doctors, and relief workers can be extremely challenging. Disasters often create an urgent need to deliver lifesaving essentials while fracturing the existing distribution channels in the areas most in need.

Logistical challenges are inevitable in situations that typically involve rapidly changing circumstances, spotty information on which to act, and impassable roads and damaged runways.

Lessons from a collaboration

Drivers, pilots, and other professionals from across sectors, work around the clock to use their logistical expertise to help deliver critical supplies, such as medicines and medical equipment, hygiene and clean-up kits, water and food to hard-hit communities. This requires extensive preparation and expert collaboration with humanitarian organizations. It’s these kinds of collaborations that has allowed FedEx to deliver disaster relief aid globally for Direct Relief for more than a decade.

Most recently, this included support of disaster relief efforts for the communities impacted by Hurricane Matthew. FedEx sent two Boeing 757 charter flights to Haiti, which included nearly 35,000 pounds of medical supplies and medicine from Direct Relief. The supplies were requested by personnel in medical facilities in Haiti with whom Direct Relief was in continual contact and marked the largest emergency medical aid airlift to Haiti since Hurricane Matthew first struck.

To further transform how medical aid is mobilized and delivered for people in need, Direct Relief broke ground on its new headquarters and medical distribution warehouse in Santa Barbara in September. This state-of-the-art medical distribution center is a mission-critical step to enable more efficient humanitarian medical relief.

The new facility will be more than just a building. It’s a critical public-benefit asset for humanitarian purposes, and it will enable the secure delivery of medications and other health essentials to people who need them but otherwise lack access to them. It will extend health services to millions of people for the first time, and provide resources where they’re needed most in times of disaster.

A new facility, however, is just one part of the solution. To serve people in urgent need across the U.S. and around the globe, both organizations rely on the FedEx-Direct Relief relationship to help achieve each of their respective missions. Here’s what we’ve learned together along the way:

1. Collaborate for growth.

Over the last several years, Direct Relief has experienced dramatic growth, with annual shipments of medical aid increasing from $25 million in 2000 to $761 million in 2015. FedEx has handled this increase in shipments — including over 10,000 in the last year alone to nonprofit health centers and clinics in all 50 states. This fast-paced evolution has helped our organizations provide more support to efficiently help more people around the world who endure poverty or crisis situations.

2. Anticipate complexities to overcome obstacles.

When we deliver supplies through flooded roads, power outages, rough terrain and other challenges — especially on an instant’s notice — we need to also consider things such as staffing, timing, shipment temperatures and air traffic coordination.

The new FedEx Cold Chain Center located at the FedEx Express World Hub in Memphis, Tennessee, is designed to protect the integrity of temperature-sensitive health care shipments such as those from Direct Relief. We’re also able to use the advanced tracking technology SenseAware, a FedEx innovation, to provide near real-time visibility into a shipment’s location, temperature, humidity, barometric pressure, etc., while in transit. This allows for a quick response when issues arise, but without sacrificing the critical care handling required and expected related to medications or medical supplies.

Working together allows us to tap into each organization’s resources, tackle logistics with multiple brains, and make an impact that otherwise wouldn’t be possible alone. Together, our organizations conquer challenges and impact lives around the world.

3. Leverage cross-team expertise.

Providing aid is more than just writing a check. It’s making sure the goods and services purchased with money given for important charitable efforts are done well and efficiently and serve the intended purpose. Ultimately, it’s hands-on actions that deliver help to those in need.

Our FedEx and Direct Relief team members are always willing to work extra hours in times of need. Employees from both organizations have learned how to work together and plan, so when a disaster hits, we’re prepared and understand how to make the most of each other’s strengths. We want to ensure that the humanitarian supply chain that serves people in need is as good as the ever-improving supply chains that serve consumers and businesses.

Our collaboration has repeatedly shown the power, efficiency, and multiplier effect that’s possible when a business and a nonprofit organization join to solve problems that neither one alone would either see as clearly or approach as thoughtfully as is possible together. Just as every person can serve in some way, so too can every organization make an impact that improves the lives of those less fortunate and of society generally. We’ve recognized that, while commercial businesses and nonprofits may differ in their orientation and purpose, most of the functions each must perform to succeed are essentially the same.

Combining the skills, talents, insight and expertise that exist in the worlds of business and philanthropy can have such a positive impact on all communities and people who live in them, as well as the team members in organizations that collaborate strategically. We’ve learned that playing to our respective organizations’ strengths and recognizing our core expertise are essential, as are devoting the time and effort to plan meaningful growth and expansion. We are hopeful that our colleagues in both businesses and nonprofits join in similar efforts that help strengthen communities, improve lives and enrich our common society.

In building the strong relationships that have the potential to harvest vital results, strategy and commitment are essential for both parties.

Making Markets Work is an online conversation to explore what’s being done to make global health care markets accessible to people at the base of the pyramid. Over 10 weeks, we will amplify the discussion around effective health financing, analyze key challenges blocking universal market access in the health care supply chain, and explore the key strategies to make markets more effective. Join us as we look at this important issue, and share your thoughts by tagging #MakingMarketsWork and @Devex.

About the authors

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Thomas Tighe

Thomas Tighe has served as president and CEO of Direct Relief since 2000. He's formerly the chief of staff and chief operating officer of the Peace Corps.


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Jenny Robertson

Jenny Robertson is the director of citizenship and reputation management at FedEx. In that role, she leads the Fortune 100 company’s global citizenship programs, corporate contributions, and thought leadership platforms.


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