Covid-19: The planes of the riposte

An interview with Fabrice Perrot and Marie Houel, from the Humanitarian Logistics Network which coordinates the European Humanitarian Airlift.

© Airlift, Humanitarian Logistics Network.

Défis Humanitaires: Following Covid-19 and the interruption of air transport you organized a humanitarian airlift with a first plane to Bangui from Lyon on May 8th. Three months later, how many flights, humanitarian passengers and cargo were you able to deploy?

Humanitarian Logistics Network: As part of the European humanitarian bridge, 45 flights were organized to 15 countries in Africa, Asia and America. More than 1100 tons were transported as well as 1475 humanitarian, medical and diplomatic staff.

The flights were punctual, allowing priority to be given to countries where a large volume of material had to be sent. Dedicated cargo flights were organized to Kabul (100 tons, including 15 tons of vaccines), Khartoum (100 tons) and Mogadishu (3 rotations for a total of 40 tons).

The airlift was also activated for destinations for which humanitarian access issues were shared by the partners, in particular for obtaining visas or authorization to enter the territory.

Who are the partners in this initiative, how is it organized and who does what?

The initiative is a coordination between 3 complementary actors. The European Union finances the airlift, mobilises its network of delegations in the destination countries and participates in the coordination of the actors involved via a taskforce within ECHO (EU service for Civil Protection and European Humanitarian Aid Operations). The Member States are committed to the diplomatic dimension associated with the flights. This involves providing support for applications for overflight and landing permits and supporting applications for visas for departing expatriates. Finally, the Humanitarian Logistics Network (HLN) acts as a coordinating body for humanitarian partners interested in embarking goods or personnel.

Over the last three months, the HLN has increased its capacity by strengthening the coordination unit that has been set up. For the organization of the first flights, the unit was composed of three people. Today, 9 humanitarian aid workers, provided by five NGOs, are working on this operation, both passenger and cargo specialists and database experts, to ensure the efficient implementation of the flights. This unit is coordinated by two employees made available by their respective NGOs, as project manager (Jean-Baptiste Lamarche – Action contre la Faim) and deputy project manager (Marie Houel – Solidarités International).

The coordination unit project set up by HLN is supported by the Crisis and Support Centre (CDCS). By financing this project, the CDCS enables HLN to take on an operational dimension by associating itself with institutional actors.

How do you perceive the motivations of the European Commission with ECHO and those of the Member States participating in this airlift?

Faced with the deadlock caused by Covid in the spring, the European Union expressed a strong desire to position itself as a direct operational player in the humanitarian response. The Humanitarian Logistics Network, by positioning itself as a partner of the European Union in this mechanism, was able to be at the heart of the response. As an NGO, the members of the HLN are used to a donor/recipient relationship for projects. In the framework of the humanitarian airlift, a new light was shed on this relationship which has become more of a partnership. Engaged together in a taskforce, we were committed to defending humanitarian access.

©Janez Lenarčič, European Commissioner for Crisis Management, at the arrival of a plane from the humanitarian airlift, HLN.

How does this airlift compare to the United Nations World Food Programme airlift?

The Humanitarian Airlift is complementary to the World Food Programme Airlift. At the beginning of the Covid crisis, between March and May 2020, when humanitarian personnel and equipment were stuck on the ground, with no possibility of reaching the countries of intervention, the WFP quickly informed the humanitarian community of its project to set up a very large-scale air operation. However, implementation took time, and the first flights did not begin until early May. As visibility on the effectiveness of the WFP operation was limited during this period, pre-existing groups of European NGOs (including the HLN – Humanitarian Logistics Network and the RIDO – Informal Network of Operations Directors), in conjunction with the CDCS and ECHO, quickly worked on compiling passenger and cargo requirements in order to identify priority destinations and find rapid solutions. It was this multi-actor collaboration that led to the European Union funding humanitarian flights.

The WFP Air Bridge is based mainly on regular air connections, and the HLN coordination team has remained on permanent standby on the routes opened by the WFP. This monitoring has enabled us to identify destinations not served by the WFP, but considered as priorities thanks to the consolidation of our partners’ needs. It is these destinations that have consequently been put forward to the European Union and the Member States to validate the implementation of humanitarian flights.
In addition, ECHO and the WFP worked together during this period, and some EU-funded aircraft were made available to the WFP for some of their operations.

What is the origin of HLN, its raison d’être, its founding members and the number of these today?

The Humanitarian Logistics Network was born in 2014, from the initiative of 3 Directors and Logistics Managers of French NGOs (Action contre la Faim, Handicap International [now Humanity & Inclusion] and Solidarités International), sharing common values and the will to share ideas, information and means in the humanitarian logistics sector.

The principles that guide HLN’s actions are based on a key concept: mutualisation. We are convinced, although operating in a sector that is rather competitive with institutional funding, and in which the funds allocated are insufficient to meet humanitarian needs, that the pooling of resources in the logistics sector (“mutualisation”) is an added value for all our organisations. We recognise that our organisations compete for funding, but we work together to achieve efficiency and reach the most vulnerable populations despite limited funds. This is what we call “cooperation”.

While remaining informal, the network has been structured over the years through a dynamic and engaging system of governance, keeping the group active and loyal.

To date, the HLN, is composed of nine members[1], but the scope of its activity extends far beyond this historical core. Indeed, if we take the example of the Air Bridge currently coordinated by the HLN, it is about sixty members who benefit from its activity, and in which each partner has a voice.

© Pallets from the Humanitarian Logistics Network, HLN.

Apart from the airlift, can you give examples of the added value that HLN can bring to humanitarian NGOs?

Several actions have been carried out over the years by HLN, and have shown that collaborating in the logistics sector is beneficial to humanitarian organizations.
The most obvious example is the implementation of joint procurement between organisations. Following the example of private sector companies, we have decided to conduct joint tenders with several NGOs. By leveraging the combined volumes of each organization for a given contract, we achieve critical amounts that allow bidders to offer much more competitive prices than would have been obtained by one organization alone. Savings can reach 8 to 10% depending on the market!

At the same time, the humanitarian sector is also in the era of digital transformation, and must modernize to meet the ever-increasing need for efficiency and an ever-growing volume of data to be processed. In order to manage logistics flows as efficiently as possible, humanitarian organisations must equip themselves with supply chain information systems (software). These systems are expensive, and the particularities of humanitarian activity make it complex to use pre-existing software created for the private sector. In the same way as purchasing groups, we believe that access to the digitisation of logistics should be mutualised through cost sharing. Moreover, our operations and procedures are similar, the data we process is categorised in the same way, and our employees often move from one organisation to another throughout their careers.

Therefore, we advocate the idea of operating around a common information system, developing and improving it together, and sharing costs. This idea has already been put into practice, since to date, a logistics information system (“LINK”, developed by Action contre la Faim) is already in use or under development for two other members of HLN (including Humanité & Inclusion and Solidarités International).

Humanitarian NGOs are generally committed to the diversity of actors to better respond to the diversity of situations and needs. How does HLN understand this diversity and how can it be supported?

HLN has grown organically, welcoming new members over the years. While certain criteria must be common to ensure a certain homogeneity in the group (being a humanitarian organisation, having international operations), the mandates, sectors of activity and size of HLN organisations are very diverse.

Above all, we base belonging to this network on common values, trust, proactivity and the search for logistic mutualisation. Once these criteria are met, the diversity of actors is a real added value since it increases our influence and our capacity to work in very broad sectors of activity and areas, allowing us to increase the humanitarian impact of our respective NGOs.

If we believe so strongly in a possible pooling of logistical resources, it is precisely because, and this is the initial observation that led to the creation of HLN, despite the diversity of our structures, in our respective logistics departments, the functioning, constraints, procedures, needs for innovation and financial constraints are extremely similar.

© Press conference after the arrival of the flight in Juba, South Sudan. HLN

The Covid-19 pandemic is growing and accelerating around the world today. Air transport will not regain its full capacity in the short term. Do you envisage the continuation of the airlift and with what objectives?

Today we are faced with a situation where the majority of air services from Europe to major humanitarian crises are provided either by commercial flights or by World Food Programme flights. If in May the situation seemed totally blocked because of the lockdown in the different European countries, we are facing a different situation this summer: some borders are reopening and commercial flights are resuming. However, in many ways, this reopening is a façade: the restrictions imposed by the European states through which expatriates transit are diverse, they are changing rapidly and are being applied with varying degrees of zeal. Health approaches are also different depending on the country of origin and the country of transit. This uncertainty is extremely difficult to manage for the NGO teams in charge of expatriate movements.

Indeed, if the organisations are used to risk management in the field, the administrative vagueness is a real brake on movements: after having ensured the rotation of staff who were at the end of their contract during the confinement, the challenge now is to allow staff under contract to take the rest they are entitled to during their expatriation. Without certainty about the administrative constraints imposed by the authorities, both on departure and on return, taking the risk of leaving the country without knowing when return will be possible is sometimes undesirable.

Final words for conclusion.

With a history of 6 years and thanks to the recent experience of the European Humanitarian Airlift, the HLN is today at a turning point in its existence. The concept of mutualisation that we now defend and operationalise is based on the commitment of its members, but the absence of its own legal entity can be a hindrance in a sector where reactivity and speed of execution are essential. Indeed, each of the actions carried out must today be carried out by one or other of the member organisations, on a voluntary basis and according to its capacities.

However, we believe that, in order to be effective, the model must be rethought to enable the pooling of logistics to truly serve operations and thus increase access to the most vulnerable populations and the humanitarian impact. It is with this in mind that we are currently considering the creation of a third-party, inclusive structure, whose governance would be shared by its members (founders, beneficiaries, partners, etc.).

This structure would be a real innovation in the humanitarian world, but the work carried out by HLN over the years (studies, advocacy, simulations, actions), as well as the feedback from our partners (donors, operational partners, etc.) lead us to believe that this concept is the one the sector needs to face the humanitarian challenges of today and tomorrow.

[1] Current members: ACTED, Action Contre la Faim France, Croix-Rouge Française, Humanité & Inclusion, Médecins du Monde, Oxfam Intermon, Plan International, Première Urgence Internationale, Solidarités International, Terre des Hommes.

Marie Houel

Purchasing and Supply Manager at Solidarités International since 2016.

Lawyer in human rights protection by training, experience in international transport / logistics and a Master 2 in humanitarian project management. Trainee then expatriate with Solidarités (Lubumbashi, DRC, Haiti – earthquake, Bunia DRC).

Period in the private sector (Bolloré, Lafarge & International SOS) then return to humanitarian work to support the Ebola humanitarian response in 2015.

Coordinator of the humanitarian procurement network Inter Agency Procurement Group.

Inter-NGO coordinator for the management of dedicated humanitarian flights / COVID response.


Fabrice Perrot

Fabrice started his career in social work, managing socio-cultural associative structures in rural and urban areas in France before moving to the humanitarian sector in 2010. Within Solidarités International, Fabrice worked as a base manager and field coordinator in DRC, Haiti and Bangladesh, and supervised logistical coordination for West Africa and Haiti.

He has been heading the logistics department since 2014, and was appointed to his current position as logistics director in 2017, now overseeing four services: IT and information systems, procurement and supply, operational logistics and general services.