ASU professor helps humanitarian groups ease global suffering more efficiently

By

Mary Beth Faller

When suffering happens anywhere in the world, humanitarian organizations rush in, providing food, shelter and medical supplies. Research by an Arizona State University expert has found that these charities could better utilize their assets — and reduce human distress — with more precise planning.

Mahyar Eftekhar, an assistant professor in the W. P. Carey School of Business at ASU, is an expert in operations management and has long studied how humanitarian organizations can be more efficient.

His most recent paper, published in Production and Operations Management, found that these groups, which typically have uncertain budgets and work in extreme conditions, would save money and reach more people by more precisely prioritizing missions and better planning the use of vehicles.

Eftekhar said that the discipline of operations management looks to answer questions at a very detailed level.

“When we talk about economics, we are talking about high-level questions,” he said. “But operations management is a discipline that considers the details.”

“In this study, the goal was to show good policy for these organizations in practice,” he said.

“Lots of these organizations just chase the demand regardless of what happens in the future, so they don’t reserve capacity. In this study we tell them how they should reserve capacity for more important and critical missions.

“This is the big difference from what these practitioners are actually doing.”

Eftekhar researches response to different types of disasters. Emergencies, for example, include events like floods and earthquakes in which organizations must operate at maximum capacity to reduce human suffering as much as possible. He previously researched how media attention influences donations and cooperation among charities after a big disaster.

The most recent paper deals with development programs, which are ongoing relief of long-term crises like poverty and lack of access to education or medicine.

“These organizations are there to hopefully increase living standards. They operate in the long term. They want to build schools and distribute health supplies,” he said.

Eftekhar and his co-authors created an operations model based on the use of trucks and then tested it with data from a real relief agency that operates around the world. They wanted to answer two questions: How many vehicles should an organization have and how should the vehicles be deployed?

“When these organizations are in the field, they need different types of assets to operate — vehicles, computers, power generators, motorbikes, water-purification systems,” he said.

They chose vehicles for the model because they’re expensive, subject to environmental conditions like weather and roads, and they depreciate in value.

“Fleet management is the second-most expensive portion of humanitarian operations in the field after personnel,” he said.

The policy model helps organizations differentiate between mission types as well as how to purchase and deploy vehicles more efficiently.

“Based on what we learned from what they do and from the costs and benefits of the decisions they make, the conclusion we have is that they should not be assigning all their capacity to all demands in all periods,” he said. “They must be frugal and assign limited capacity to the most critical missions and reserve some capacity for the future.”

Eftekhar has developed relationships with humanitarian organizations to research workable solutions to their complicated operational problems. He recently finished a project for Catholic Relief Services, which was struggling with inventory management in relation to rapid-onset disasters.

“They said, ‘We don’t know what will kind of disaster will happen next, at what magnitude or which country. So we don’t know how many relief items to keep in our warehouse,’” he said.

The organization could keep a low supply of food, shelter, water and medical items and take a chance on buying in the open market when disaster hits, or it could maintain a higher supply itself.

Eftekhar worked with two colleagues and presented an inventory formula to the organization’s headquarters recently. The group is considering whether to adopt the model.

He’s also working with St. Vincent de Paul in Phoenix on a policy to manage their volunteers.

“What we are trying to do in most of these situations is try to understand a local problem very well and then try to find a kind of global solution that can be shared,” he said.

“This is not easy, and that’s why each project might take years.”

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