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October 08, 2005

Outsourcing Disaster Relief?

Reading David Leonhardt's piece on the instantly adaptive nature of today's transportation and business systems in today's NYT reminded me of an excellent idea a neighbor suggested for dealing with Katrina-type natural disasters: outsource it to the private sector. He meant, of course, having FEMA contract with large national firms like Walmart, UPS and FedEx to stockpile and distribute relief supplies.

The advantages are obvious. These firms already have the transportation and logistical support assets needed to deliver huge volumes of supplies throughout the US. Even more important, they train and practice using these assets in a timely and cost-effective manner every day of the year. What is more, they already own (at their own expense) substantial inventories of the supplies most likely to be needed during the early phases of mass disaster relief: food, drinking water and first aid supplies.

The major advantage of using the private sector to handle this type of vital humanitarian aid, however, is the effectiveness of their management and control systems. Unlike FEMA, bound by the iron shackles of government bureacracy, private sector managers are daily held accountable for results. Is the inventory there or not? Were the percentage of ontime deliveries above or below target?

There is also precedent for this type of arrangement. For many years, the Air Force's Military Airlift Command has contracted with major airlines to participate in the Civil Reserver Air Fleet (CRAF). This program pays airlines (largely through guaranteed annual volumes of traditional freight and passenger business) to contracturally commit specific aircraft and their crews to the military within 48 hours.

Given the demonstrated lack of proficiency of our governmental systems (at the local, state and federal level), maybe it's time to think outside the box -- particularly when lives are at stake.

October 8, 2005 at 09:35 AM | Permalink

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