When an employee of the United Parcel Service (UPS) saw firsthand the complexity of aid delivery during emergencies, the global distribution company launched a system to help humanitarian workers expedite supplies as well as oversee their destination.
That system was later developed to specifically help the U.N. refugee agency track aid deliveries to displaced people in countries around the globe.
Headquartered in the U.S. state of Georgia, the company also runs a “skilled volunteer” program that deploys UPS logistics experts to support ground efforts in emergency situations.
As part of our interview series with private sector leaders engaging in the refugee crisis, Refugees Deeply spoke to Joe Ruiz, director of the UPS Humanitarian Relief & Resilience Program at The UPS Foundation about the results of their work with refugees to date, and the challenges they faced along the way.
Refugees Deeply: How did the company’s work with refugees begin?
Joe Ruiz: It really started in Haiti in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake. One of our UPS skilled volunteers [was] deployed to Haiti [and] saw firsthand how challenging of an environment it was to distribute vital food and non-food items. There was naturally chaos and violence. Some people were afraid, and others who were aggressive got meals for their families, while others stayed out of the mix and were left out.
The UPS volunteer quickly mobilized efforts to set up a UPS tracking system called Trackpad that would allow the Salvation Army to track items distributed to ensure all the families received what they were supposed to receive – both food and non-food items.
Each family received an ID card that could be scanned each time there was a distribution of food and supplies. In order to receive food and non-food items, the moms would line up and receive the appropriate amount of supplies for their family. Word spread to the U.N. refugee agency, who reached out to The UPS Foundation to learn more about the technology.
From that camp in Haiti, we have worked with UNHCR to develop UPS Relief Link, a tracking system that has been adapted to meet the needs of UNHCR beneficiaries. The system has improved distribution efficiency and was recently tested in Greece to assist with the distribution of supplies to refugees arriving in Lesvos.
Over the past few years, UPS has become UNHCR’s Emergency Standby Partner, leveraging our global network to help deliver life-sustaining supplies to support internally displaced people and refugees across the Middle East, Africa and Europe. Our financial and in-kind commitment to the agency is annually over $1 million per year.
The scope of the aid has included a combination of donated supply-chain and logistics services, transportation, human capital expertise and financial contributions. UPS also provided an automotive fleet manager to UNHCR on loan for six months in Africa to help assess their fleet management practices and share best practices.
Refugees Deeply: What results have you seen from your refugee programs to date?
Ruiz: UPS Relief Link uses UPS’s proprietary Trackpad technology to link data on the distribution of food, blankets and other emergency goods or services to UNHCR-registered refugees – a task previously done via paper. It’s compatible with handheld barcode readers and Android tablets, and lets UNHCR view what each household received and when, helping it to keep track of supplies and refugee location. Relief Link has reduced distribution time by 50 percent and reduced the number of computers that were needed to record the distributed supplies.
Refugees Deeply: What has UPS learned about the risks and opportunities that companies are likely to face in addressing the refugee crisis?
Ruiz: What we’ve learned [from Relief Link] is that all humanitarian agencies are in need of more effective IT and track and trace technology systems. However, the operating environment where these organizations operate in the most remote corners of the world makes it challenging to develop, maintain, support, and sustain these systems.
It is always challenging to create strong, effective public-private partnerships. Yet that’s exactly what’s needed in order to scale to the level of support that is needed, given the size of the refugee crisis at any given time.
Refugees Deeply: How are you measuring the success of the company’s refugee programs?
Ruiz: By nature of being [UNHCR’s] emergency standby partner, we are constantly focused on meeting the emergency needs of our U.N. and agency customers. Our efforts are measured on whether we can deliver when and where they need their supplies – food and non-food items. We provide the appropriate mode of transportation, ground, ocean and air as needed, leveraging our global UPS network and customs brokerage skills.
This interview was conducted by email and has been lightly edited and condensed.