Date and Place of birth: 4 January 1977, Budapest.
Family: Husband and two kids.
Education: PhD in logistics.
Humanitarian aid should… fill a gap, a need.
Logistics makes me feel… structured, normal.
Disasters are… what we make them.
Finland is… a nice place to live in.

Gyöngyi Kovács is helping Finland lead the way in the research and implementation of humanitarian aid logistics.

Most foreigners who come to Finland do so out of work, out of love or out of looking for a better life. Gyöngyi Kovács came after tossing a coin. After it landed on the side that favoured a holiday in Finland over New Zealand, in 2000 Kovács toured around the country from top to bottom, quickly realised she liked it and decided to live here.

Within a handful of years, Kovács was lecturing in humanitarian aid logistics at Hanken School of Economics in Helsinki, and had helped establish HUMLOG, the Humanitarian Logistics and Supply Chain Research Institute based on campus. Given the haphazard methods of organising the logistics of providing aid in times of need, in the wake of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, the industry had seen some much needed regulations put into place. Inched out have been the multitasking types trying to cover all aspects of the process, and in their place has come professional logisticians to help coordinate efforts. HUMLOG is now widely recognised as a hub of expertise and information in the area, so why then exactly would Kovács be hopeful of a time when logistics would not be required when providing humanitarian aid?

SixDegrees sat down with the Budapest-born, Austrian-raised logistician, to hear about this, why researchers should stay away from the sites of natural disasters and the interference of ‘mom and pop organisations’. Stepping into a conference room at Hanken, she briefly attends to a colleague’s query in Swedish. Once the matter is settled, she shuts the door and takes a seat.

You can speak Swedish?

I have to. I teach in Swedish, so of course. I didn’t speak either of the national languages when I first came here. By now I speak Finnish as well, but not on the same level as Swedish. I learnt it along the way.

How about the touted similarities between Hungarian and Finnish, did they help with learning the language?

I grew up in Austria, so my Hungarian is more of a kitchen Hungarian. Definitely the grammar is pretty much the same. I didn’t go to a Hungarian school, so I wouldn’t have been able to make any more parallels.

Actually, I was surprised when I visited Budapest, I thought because of my Finnish I would have a good grasp of what was being said – I didn’t understand a thing going on around me.

My sister is a linguist and has different theories why these two languages might be related. None of them go back to vocabulary. It’s really grammar and syntax. But you’d have to ask her to get a better idea. There’s nothing in the vocabulary that resembles one another, other than in hunting and fishing.

Hmm, I’m a bit rusty in that department.

Well, you would need to go and hunt and fish there to see this.

Okay, that’s the next type of trip I need to take then. Tell me about your background in humanitarian aid. What first sparked your interest?

Growing up in Austria at the time of the Yugoslav Wars we had a great number of refugees in every hotel and every village. Each person would be integrated. I knew people from Kosovo and there were always Hungarian refugees in Austria.

Then, when I was doing my PhD is supply chain management and logistics, what interested me was that if you look at any organisation that is really quick and agile and fascinatingly mobile in organising something, it’s a humanitarian organisation. If you have a disaster occurring anywhere, within 72 hours aid is arriving.

I felt that this is something to look at, and I could learn from it. At the same time there were a number of issues that could be performed better in the supply chain as well. It was really from a research interest. I was lucky as I knew a lot of people in humanitarian organisations. I could bounce ideas back and forth with them. They kept on saying that logistics was the biggest problem. Up to 80 per cent of their costs are logistical costs. I wondered why anybody wasn’t looking into that, to reach more people or make the mechanisms more effective. That’s how it started.

Did you ever feel compelled to get in the front line?

Yes and no. My projects are very hands-on. So, it’s anything from looking at the healthcare systems in Zimbabwe during the Cholera outbreak, to looking at food security in Nepal. It’s always in the field. I just came back from Kenya. There was a nutrition and health supply chain project there. In that sense, there is that kind of frontline participation.

What I don’t do, and in a way every researcher should also not be doing this, is be there after an earthquake, or after a typhoon. You are kind of in the way. It is one more person on the plane to fly in. If you are not then really part of the team, then don’t be there.

In terms of sharing your knowledge and experience, tell me about HUMLOG.

Humlog grew out of something called the HUMLOG group. There was an international research group that we established here in Hanken back in 2006. We had done some humanitarian logistics research before that. A number of researchers globally had came in, and a number of humanitarian organisations as well, and we had established a network. In the beginning it was like a coordination effort. We met a number of times per year; we looked at different types of projects, what could be done. It had gotten to a point where the networks felt that we need more than this. We need a hub where we can visit, where there is always someone there to work on these issues, and has whatever it is that you need.

It was taken on by Hanken and the National Defence University. They established the HUMLOG Institute here, as it was easier to establish something here in a university building than in a defence building. We have our seminars here, our doctoral students are on this floor and we have frequent international researchers coming in for visiting research reasons, doing projects with us, all sorts of purposes. We get requests from organisations for particular research projects where they feel that there would be a need to look a bit deeper into an issue.

We have a number of principles with our research: it has to focus on something that has an impact on the beneficiary, and serves the beneficiary. It’s not just for humanitarian organisations or for the government. It has to have an impact on the ground. The research has to be a bit more hands-on in general.

Also, we have a principle of the non-duplication of efforts. It is a waste of time if two institutions do exactly the same research project. In terms of research this a relatively new field. Logistics have always been there; 10 years ago it would be in the hands of people who have a ‘jack of all trades’ kind of thinking.

After the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004, and the logistical problems encountered with organising donations, there was a big reform in the UN. With that came lots of questions like ‘How should we actually be doing this?’ There’s a lot of embedded knowledge in these organisations, but at the same time there is such a high turnover of staff that very often knowledge was not being retained. Processes and policies needed to be in place and really understand which logistical principal should be applied when. And for what purpose. That kind of research is relatively new.

When we started in 2004-5, there were only two other institutions that had done anything in humanitarian logistics research. Now it’s a big global group.

It sounds like an exciting time.

It is. Now you start to see the impact of the work. One of the projects we are trying to establish is an impact assessment of one of the previous projects we had; what did it change on the ground?

Do you enjoy what you do?

Yes, of course I enjoy what I do. [Laughs] Would I be doing it otherwise? It is exciting. At the moment I’m really boosted up because I just came back from Kenya. I also know I have a stretch of two months before the next field research comes up, so I’m back to teaching. I hope to bring this enthusiasm to the classroom.

How do students respond to your teachings?

Well, it’s a bit of a dual response. There are some who don’t understand why we are doing humanitarian logistics at a business school at all. Then there is the other extreme that is super excited about it. We have a lot of enthusiastic people working in the field. We actually have alumni that now work for humanitarian organisations.

At the same time, most of the response is in terms of doctoral students. We have a rather large group of these focussing on humanitarian issues. The HUMLOG Institute is quite well known right now for its research. You get doctoral students all over the world applying to become a member here, which in a way is a bit unique. You don’t get that in all of the universities and institutes in Finland, so really we have a good response.

Is there some part of the logistics process that gives you a buzz?

I enjoy it when people can actually think beyond the sheer transportation and warehousing aspects and have a view on supply chain management overall. They can really have the link from raw material supplies, to suppliers, all the way to the end beneficiary; to have that kind of coordinated thinking in a business context to the end customer. The other thing that I enjoy is that when in the field you have a working coordination mechanism, humanitarian logisticians coming together on a regular basis and coordinating and exchanging ideas, then it works.

Unfortunately I see that it is very person dependent. If two people have personal chemistry they make it work. If they don’t they somehow don’t make it work. It would be nice to develop a mechanism that was a little less person-dependent.

When it works it gives you kick. You see that yes, these organisations put their personal agendas second and the agenda of actually serving the beneficiary first, to do this together. They manage to discuss that, well, you have better coverage in this area, let’s think about it that way. Instead of having the flag of your name first.

There is a lot of competition?

There’s a lot of competition in funding. There are, of course, good and bad organisations. Ideally it shouldn’t make a difference, and you should be able to coordinate it anyway. The best organisations I have seen are the ones where it’s not important; they are about getting the job done. In that sense logistics is a nice field to be in: getting the job done. That’s what logisticians usually focus on.

Is every humanitarian aid situation approached as being something new?

You should be able to implement learning from previous situations. Also, logistically the principles are the same. There is actually very little variation. Even though in an earthquake you have all of the rubble to take away, in a flood you have all the mud to take away. Bridges are typically down in a disaster, whether it’s a war zone or an earthquake.

Logistically it’s pretty much the same way your respond and what you need to do. Variations can come with needs profiles. If you have a disaster that is more of a medical disaster, the profile might change. Typically after an earthquake you have a different medical profile with all the fractions and so forth, than in a meteorological disaster, particularly it is more about waterborne diseases you have to focus on. It changes what items you should bring in. The item that is needed first or second changes a little bit based on the disaster profile, but not on whether it is in the Philippines or Haiti.

Actually, the Philippines is a tricky situation because it is a series of islands, and when you have all of the ports being destroyed, how do you access the islands? These kinds of issues.

Logistics has come along in leaps and bounds since the 2004 tsunami, how do you see it in another ten years?

A couple of things I foresee changing. One is currently many of the big international NGOs are implementing ERP systems (Enterprise Response Planning), for their logistics and also financial reporting. There are some systems that would enable them to see each other’s scheduling, stock levels and so forth. Now if that would be really implemented on a broader scale then organisations wouldn’t still go on ordering items just because they don’t know it’s coming in from another organisation. One of the biggest struggles still is that too much of the wrong stuff is sent in. Then you clog up the airports, the warehouses around it. Nothing else can move in until these things have been removed. That kind of knowledge, if that was more streamlined, would definitely be a huge change in this field.

The professionalisation of logistics makes a huge difference in what you do on the ground. I really hope there are gong to be less ‘mom and pop’ organisations who think that ‘my friend, or family is living in country x’ and I really now have to make my own organisation to make sure they get something. Typically these are the organisations that have absolutely no understanding of logistical planning and don’t understand that transportation costs can be up to 60 per cent of total costs. Even purchasing items in the country itself would be so much cheaper. There are all kinds of global understandings that the typical ‘mom and pop’ organisation doesn’t have.

There are a number of other things that are on the way, which I find exciting. Currently there is an inter-agency group that has designed standards for health kits. They are trying to make sure that if you receive a package, regardless from which organisation, you know what is in the package and how to use it. A malaria kit is the same, how many boxes it is, what is the content. A field hospital is the same, a warehouse is a warehouse. It should not matter if you are working for the Norwegian Red Cross or WHO, you receive the kit and you can implement it. That will make a huge difference on the ground, also considering the fluctuation of staff.

One more thing that is exciting is the elimination of logistics, if that is possible in a way. I’m not joking. You are not in this field to be forever in this field. Your mission is to make yourself not needed in future. When you implement a programme the idea is that you implement it in a way that the community or the government can take over, and that kind of need will not come up in future if possible, or be reduced.

Are there any other innovations?

A number of agencies are experimenting right now with cash vouchers instead of bringing in supplies. In most disaster areas, a vast population that has for some reason lost its property and cannot afford certain items and cannot buy them. Instead of organising and bringing these in and deciding which containers come from where, you can give beneficiaries a cash voucher instead. This can be used for anything from buying certain items in certain supermarkets, to certain housing repair materials from a particular supplier. This way the beneficiaries have a choice. Now if they get a shampoo and they don’t like it there is no other option.

With the cash voucher system you have a choice. You buy from your local suppliers, actually stimulate the local market, and eliminate a lot of the logistical costs for bringing in the aid. For me the question is at which point do you need the aid, how much of it and for how long? At which point could you already switch over to cash vouchers? In which situations do you not need to bring in anything? What kind of support? That’s going to be something for the near future to establish how this works.

Does this mean extra security is needed to ensure they get into the right hands?

That’s why it’s usually vouchers and not direct cash. The amount of security is a bit difficult to establish because if you bring in food, how do you make sure it is actually for those people who need to be fed? It is the same question. There is not really an added difference to it. If you give food to a family, does ‘father x’ make sure that the children are fed? Or does he sell it on the market? You have the same problem with both.

But, at the end of the day, either way these vouchers will still contribute to the local market.

That’s the whole idea.