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Conference Proceeding

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Publication Title

Proceedings from the 2015 International System Dynamics Conference


Purpose – We explore the short-term humanitarian response to a natural disaster that prompts a rapid influx of relief supplies to the area affected by the disaster, aiming to understand the dynamics of systemic processes that apply to humanitarian supply chain logistics. Design/methodology/approach – We use system dynamics to simulate the disaster relief supply chain elements of humanitarian response. System dynamics is a well-established simulation method for analyzing complex social systems that include feedback. We used it because the timing and coordination of, and feedback loops among, events in humanitarian response incorporate a delay structure that can be modeled effectively using system dynamics. Findings – Of all the stocks in our model of the Humanitarian Stock Management System, the most important was the Cumulative Food distributed to disaster victims. In all of our simulation runs, victims eventually got all the food they needed, but at varying speeds (fast in the base run, slow in runs where repair of infrastructure was slow). However, the most problematic stock was the amount of Food in the Central Warehouse. In almost all the runs, that stock contained an excess of food (which is very common in such situations), resulting in waste and inefficiency. This problem was worst when the agency panicked at the outset and doubled its estimate of needed food, and when, as is often true, the agency received too many in-kind donations of food. The most interesting finding was that “managing” donations led to the best overall performance--low waste, good relief for victims. Practical implications – We offer a number of policy recommendations, including the need to avoid early bias, to repair infrastructure as quickly as possible, to develop better methods for keeping track of inventories and supplies on the way, and striking a balance between encouraging and dampening donations. Originality/value – This study focuses on understanding the short-term dynamics of the logistics of a humanitarian response, using a system dynamics approach. There have been only two other studies applying system dynamics to humanitarian assistance. One was operational and focused on long-term dynamics (often called “development,” as opposed to “response”) and the other was abstract and focused on those same longer-term dynamics. While these studies have produced meaningful insight, our study is unique in that we have applied an operational approach to a short, or “crisis response,” time horizon.

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