Courier companies deliver emergency disaster response

DHL, TNT and Agility are all now leading partners of UN emergency response agencies in Dubai, with staff flying to flood-ravaged Pakistan to help co-ordinate relief efforts.

DUBAI // Their daily business may be delivering our mail around the world but the logistical capabilities of courier companies have also made them major players in emergency disaster response. DHL, TNT and Agility are all now leading partners of UN emergency response agencies in Dubai and most recently staff flew to flood-ravaged Pakistan to help co-ordinate relief efforts. Administrative workers, human resources staff, couriers and managers have all helped out and their services have been invaluable, according to Abdul-Haq Amiri, the regional head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia.

"We encourage and welcome the involvement of the private sector in humanitarian assistance and response," Mr Amiri said. "We have a good partnership, particularly in Asia Pacific. They have been providing quite sizeable logistical support at airports and establishing the movement of goods." OCHA has enjoyed a decade-long partnership with DHL and the courier service's Middle East and North Africa office now has its own disaster response team, trained by UN officers and senior logistics experts from within the company, who are on call to respond to emergencies within the region.

Its 70-odd trained staff at offices in Dubai, Oman, Turkey and Bahrain have helped unload, record and direct relief items at airports in the aftermath of disasters. There are two more teams, strategically located in Singapore and Panama. Their efforts began after the 2003 earthquake in Bam, in south-eastern Iran, when an influx of goods proved too much for staff on the ground to handle and the airport being used was temporarily closed.

Chris Weeks, the director of humanitarian affairs for Deutsche Post DHL, who has been in Pakistan for two weeks, said o fBam: "I had a colleague there who was looking at this and, at that time, DHL was looking at how we could be involved in disaster response. "We had [supplied them] aircraft, but we thought perhaps there was a better role for us in handling aid when it came in." A meeting between local logistics companies, including Emirates, Dnata, Aramex, TNT and DHL, was held at a Dubai hotel shortly afterwards and they agreed to set up an airport emergency response team.

"It was an effort by the business community to contribute something rather than standing by and watching NGOs, governments and the military do it," Mr Weeks said. A year later, having organised and trained volunteers from the various companies, and with links to the UN in place, the 2005 tsunami hit Banda Aceh in Indonesia and they were called on to assist. "For three weeks, we handled cargo from 160 aircraft with a team of people from the Middle East, India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan," Mr Weeks said.

The team has since disbanded but many of the companies have established their own disaster response teams for specific logistical tasks. Agility Logistics, for example, has created its humanitarian and emergency logistics programme and worked with UPS and TNT to assist the UN World Food Programme move food to those affected by flooding in the Philippines and the earthquake in Padang, Indonesia in 2009.

DHL continues to handle airport cargo and a team of 10 staff from Dubai and Bahrain are currently on the ground in Pakistan. They do not leave the airport but instead work to clear backlogs of aid and organise the airport's cargo areas, training local staff to take over when they leave. Offloaded cargo is identified, listed and sent to their warehouses until the local authority decides where it is needed.

"We are not humanitarians, we are not trained to deal with those affected by disaster, but there is a role for us," Mr Weeks said. The disaster response team normally camp at the airport closest to the disaster for deployments of between one and three weeks. Deepak Shirodkar, hub manager of DHL Express, who has been a member of the disaster response team since joining the company in 2003, and who was part of a mission to Indonesia last October, said: "We are given 15 minutes' notice by the airport tower that a flight is coming in with relief goods. It can be day or night."

Having had 24 hours' notice of that mission, Mr Shirodkar and his teammates worked 12-hour day or night shifts, clearing between 20 and 80 tonnes of relief cargo within a maximum of two hours. TNT is another company that has provided a similar hands-on support service to the World Food Programme's field and emergency support office for the past seven years. The office provides rapid interventions in emergencies and support to large-scale humanitarian operations.

Marc Potma, a media relations representative for TNT, said: "This co-operation creates company pride among our employees." The company offers the UN agency use of its local warehouses, hands-on help within them, and local resources including staff and trucks. "There are staff doing double-shifts because TNT business has to be run as usual," Mr Potma said. "Obviously every disaster is different, but we are always in close cooperation with the WFP."