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How can logistics help people and improve their lives?

Author photo

by Patrik Klingbert
Communications Director

Impactpool sees a constant need for logistics expertise in international organizations. Read our interview with Marianne Jahre, Professor in Logistics and Operations Management at BI Norwegian Business School and Lund University. She has many interesting findings and views to share about the challenges and opportunities for humanitarian logistics. She will also give advice on how you can build a career in this important field.
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Hi, Professor Marianne Jahre, what is your expertise in the logistics area?

“I have been working for a long time in research and teaching. I did my PhD in Environmental Logistics, looking into recycling, at Chalmers University of Technology in 1995. Since 2007 I have been working with humanitarian logistics, or humanitarian operations as it is also called, so basically working with UN and NGOs. I have been working a lot with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, trying to develop project applications, find funding, and work together with practitioners to do research and translate the research results into teaching in my main two universities.”


How do you define logistics (explained to a layman)?

“Logistics is the art of managing flows. Very often we talk about material flows, information flows, and money flows (funding). That is the simple definition but logistics is about developing, defining and managing supply chains for good purposes. The ‘good purpose’ depends on the context and can be defined in terms of profit, cost, customer service, least environmental damage, good ethics, etc. In the context of humanitarian logistics, it is about providing the right aid at the right time in the right way to beneficiaries.”


How can logistics help people and improve their lives?

“Normally we say that logistics, in general, constitute 60-80 % of total costs in humanitarian response, even if we need more empirical evidence to substantiate the number. For example, when you go out and respond to an earthquake or flooding, much of the costs and many challenges will be linked to logistics. So there is a lot of potentials for improvements to make the supply chain more efficient. In order to do that you have to plan and prepare to be able to react fast when a disaster occurs.”


Do you have an example of this?

“I know that Red Cross did research on this to estimate the logistics cost share of the total. They investigated their operations and found it to be about 60 percent. The reason why this is important is that you have limited funding in most organizations. Simply by trying to be more cost efficient, you can help more people with the same amount of money.”


What would you say are the main logistics challenges for humanitarian organizations, based on your expertise and experience?

“One issue that came up when I begin studying this ten years ago was the coordination of getting organizations involved. What we have seen is that there are many new actors coming up, not just humanitarian organizations. We see a more explicit role of the military as a logistics provider with big airplanes and other resources, and we see the commercial actors, private companies, like DHL, TNT, and Maersk, playing bigger roles in the humanitarian community, providing their services to humanitarian organizations. When you have so many actors with different roles, coordination becomes a challenge.”


“Another challenge we work on as logistics researchers are to help organizations developing better estimates of future needs. In order to prepare, coordinate and set up the right supply chains, information about future demand is needed. So, we try to come up with better ways to predict future demands so that organizations and other actors can plan better. That is very important. Measuring the performance of operations, while they are still ongoing, is another challenged. Evaluations have traditionally been conducted after the operation has finished which makes it difficult to adjust and improve underway.


And what are the opportunities for humanitarian logistics?

“There are many opportunities with new technology, both to collect information and for distributing aid. This is something we will see more of in the future. People with good skills in social media to collect information and big data analytics will be in much need. As logisticians, you are no longer just supposed to move goods and containers. Additional skills such as planning, conducting market analysis, strategic sourcing, are also necessary. What we want to achieve is do more local procurement and sourcing, and build local capacity.”


What is your advice on how to become a logistics specialist?

“When it comes to competencies it’s important to have a much wider perspective of logistics in this context than before. Earlier, most people would look at humanitarian logistics simply in terms of being the best in getting hold of vehicles and helicopters or building roads. Because of the way things are changing, future humanitarian logisticians will have more formal education, be better in using available technology and analyze data. We need to have a broad picture of the longer-term impact of logistics as well such as waste management and other effects on the environment.


Similarly, as we have seen in commercial logistics the skill set is therefore expanding. The work of a logistician and the skill set required is changing, more for some organizations than others depending on where they are located and with what they are working on.You might think that there will be no need for logisticians if we stop moving stuff around, but we know that they will definitely be needed.”


Do you have any advice to give to someone who wants to make a transition from the private sector to humanitarian logistics?

“One of the things this sector definitely needs help with is to become more professional in procurement. Like the development in the public sector, you need to work creatively and innovatively with your suppliers. This is something we need to see in the humanitarian sector as well. Another thing I see is increasing requirements for more sustainable – environmental and long-term – solutions. It can be anything from waste management, to develop packages that can be used for something else.”


Many organizations such as the United Nations want to attract more female logisticians to achieve gender parity. Do you have any advice to give to female candidates?

“My experience is that I have more interests from female students than average to work in this sector. My general advice of getting a job in this area, after getting a formal education, is to start in the private sector and gain a few years of experience. Also, try to learn another language than English and your native language. Spanish, French, and Arabic are often required. It’s also good to show in your CV that you have actually been engaged in the sector, working as a volunteer or similar. “


“I talk a lot with my students about the problem of getting your first job. One way of getting around this problem is to use the opportunity of getting an internship. I have also had a lot of students who have done their Master’s thesis in this sector, which is a great way of getting into the field. We have many students who want to do this and we are very conscious on those who we pick. We want to see very committed students who already have some knowledge of the sector. It is good to show that you are an idealist as well. The sector is not for those who want to work for the big firms and make a lot of money. We look for best people who are suitable to work in this context.”


What do organizations need to do better in this field to make an impact?

“One opportunity for organizations is to work better with universities where you can find the right people, through internship arrangements for example, even if it’s resource demanding. Part of the problem, in terms of logistics, if you go to organizations in Norway or Sweden for example, is that they have very small logistics departments and they don’t have very much slack and capacity to use with students or academics. It takes a while to build relationships in order to show that our Master Students as well as our research in general, support the organizations making a difference and are not just demanding resources.”


“The relationship with organizations is also very person dependent. One frustration is – also for us who cooperate with organizations on projects, is that people change positions often. So, when you have established a relationship with a person that moves on to another employer, or another position, you often need to start over again developing the relationship.”


“A somewhat more long-term thinking in the organizations is also something we want to see more of, both for our students and our projects in general. I guess the sector is still kind of characterized by that everything should have happened yesterday. It takes a lot of time to set up a project, whether it is a master thesis or not, and then, once things are agreed, everything is a rush and the projects should be finalized very quickly. This can be frustrating also for young people going into the sector.”


That’s great advice! Thank you very much, Professor Marianne Jahre for taking the time to answer Impactpool's questions.

Photo: Copyright Marianne Jahre.

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