Research in Humanitarian Logistics

The Humanitarian Logistics and Supply Chain Research Institute (HUMLOG Institute) is at the forefront of humanitarian logistics research worldwide. Gyöngyi Kovács is the first professor in humanitarian logistics worldwide.

Nearly thirteen years ago Gyöngyi Kovács was writing a conference article on humanitarian logistics with Hanken’s current rector Karen Spens. During this work, they realised the sparsity of research dedicated to humanitarian logistics, even though the matter is crucial in humanitarian work.

—Our article generated a lot of interest in the conference and gained an award. In addition to aid organisations, the National Defence University also realised the need to study the matter. This led into the joint establishment of the HUMLOG Institute between Hanken and the National Defence University, professor Gyöngyi Kovács explains.

—The institute, and our research, has gained a lot of recognition both in the research community and in among humanitarian organisations. Also, the only dedicated journal to this field, the Journal of Humanitarian Logistics and Supply Chain Management, has been established here and continues to be co-edited here. Interestingly, quite a few humanitarian organisations also subscribe this highly academic journal, and members of the Global Logistics Cluster have access to it.

Photo: Nyasha Mkombo/FRC

Most of the humanitarian work is conducted on various conflict areas around the world. Often this means areas that are difficult to travel to. Academic knowledge combined with information on practical issues can, at best, lead to substantial improvements in humanitarian work.

—The main focus in my research is on humanitarian logistics, I work with all sorts of projects in the area. Generally, the research topics have been defined together with aid organisations, or by a direct research request from an organisation. The topics involve field research and there is a clear link of the research to its potential implementation and impact. Currently much of the focus is on systemic changes in the area of humanitarian logistics such as when and how to use cash-based interventions versus deliver items in-kind. In terms of context, the focus is not just on natural disasters but more and more on conflict zones.

Another one of Kovács’ research topics is green supply chain management, in order to green operations and make ecological choices in the supply chain. In combination with humanitarian logistics, this can extend to considering climate change risks, but also weather forecasts in logistical decisions are being made.

At large, humanitarian logistics does not differ much from business logistics. The same principles and practices apply in both. The most crucial difference is the aim of the operation, with humanitarian operations saving lives rather than making profit. Also, humanitarian logistics can take place in extreme operational environments, and serve populations that are not usually considered in business. In disaster areas the infrastructure, such as transport, energy and water supply, is often disrupted, and those needing aid might be on the move. There are several variables in the activities that have to be considered, such as bridges being down and airports too full. Through research, one is able to further operations in difficult environments and find the right solutions for each situation.

Another one of Kovács’ research topics is wine supply chains.

—At first, this may sound a little strange, but the topic does have common denominators with green logistics and climate change research, since the sparsity of water and changes in climate conditions affect the production and delivery of wine around the world. From a researcher’s point of view, this is rather refreshing compared to my other topics, Kovács smiles.

From Austria to Hanken

Gyöngyi Kovács comes from Austria. She grew up in a little, picturesque village of Oberschützen in Southern- Burgenland. Often, the village is described by saying that it has more cows than people. However, there are many esteemed schools in Oberschützen, where students are brought from around 50 km distance. The village also has a music university.

When Kovács was young, the war at Balkans began, and refugees came to Austria.

—In Austria, at that time, there was a policy that refugees were placed all over the country. Our village also received refugees. Also, the Croatian-speaking minority in my region became rather active in delivering humanitarian aid to the Balkans.

—I came to Finland as a tourist in summer 2000. I liked it here, and decided to try my luck and look for work. After getting a job, I resigned from my then-work in Austria, and moved to Finland. At first, I worked in consulting until I decided to continue my studies and write a doctoral thesis. I ended up at Hanken, where the supply chain management research was closest to my interest areas.

Photo: Hanken

Hanken is a rather small university, which has its own good sides. According to Kovács, this shows, for instance, that important decisions can be made quickly, and that it is easier to adapt into changes in the research environment. By the way, her professorship was the first in humanitarian logistics in the world, and these days, it is possible to do master’s as well as PhD studies in humanitarian logistics at Hanken.

Photo: Tiina Jakonen/FRC

—For a researcher, it is excellent to work at Hanken and the HUMLOG Institute, both of which have also great international contacts. Also, by now the HUMLOG Institute is the largest research centre in this area worldwide. Funding-wise we of course struggle with the same issues as any other university in Finland right now. There is more and more competition for the same external funds. But there is also considerable interest in the research we do, both for its topicality but also for its quality. This applies for research at Hanken overall, not just in my area, Kovács points out.

Science based decisions

—I am active in the operations of the Hanken chapter of the Finnish Union of University Professors. I consider the Union’s role important, but not only for the salaries and work environment, I think the Finnish Union of University Professors is a valuable forum through which to increase awareness for research. The need for scientific research is perhaps more important now than ever before, and therefore it is important to make sure that different decisions in the society are based on science and expert statements.

Presently, Gyöngyi Kovács is working in Zimbabwe for several months’ time for the Finnish Red Cross in an ECHO Food Security project.

Economic difficulties and drought have weakened Zimbabwe’s humanitarian situation.

—In the Finnish Red Cross’ project, among other things, we use cash-based interventions, through which people can buy the necessary foodstuffs and other goods. By buying local products, they strengthen the region’s economy at the same time.

—Working in Zimbabwe is really interesting, and I have learned a lot. This is a way to put my research in practice and do what I preach and teach. Also, many of the HUMLOG Institute’s members are involved in different humanitarian projects, since it is important to see all that can be achieved on the field through the academic research work.

Text: Arja-Leena Paavola
Photos: Nyasha Mkombo/FRC,  Tiina Jakonen/FRC, Hanken