Toward a conceptualization of humanitarian service providers

AuthorDiego Vega, Christine Roussat
Publication Date11 Nov 2019
Toward a conceptualization of
humanitarian service providers
Diego Vega
HUMLOG Institute, Hanken Svenska Handelshogskolan, Helsinki, Finland, and
Christine Roussat
CRET-LOG, Aix en Provence, France and Université Clermont-Auvergne,
Clermont Ferrand, France
Purpose Service development and outsourcing are growing trends in humanitarian logistics (HL).
Humanitarian organizations (HOs) have developed specialized units to perform logistics activities on behalf of
other aid organizations, as a commercial logistics service provider (LSP) would do. The purpose of this paper
is to explore the characteristics of HOs acting as LSPs and the differences with their commercial counterparts.
Design/methodology/approach This research uses a two-level content analysis of 149 annual reports
from 50 local and international HOs, performed with the help of qualitative data analysis software. First, a
manifest content analysis identified the number of occurrences of logistics-related words and later, a latent
content analysis studies the use in context of such words to characterize the nature of HOs as LSPs.
Findings Evidence shows that some international HOs in some cases through specialized logistics
units perform the same activities as commercial LSPs, providing similar services. However, due to the
characteristics of the humanitarian context, HOs acting as LSPs can offer a wider range of value-added and
dedicated services to clients (other HOs) than commercial LSPs.
Research limitations/implications Exploring the activities performed by HOs on behalf of other aid
organizations and characterizing them as service providers constitutes a first attempt to grasp the unique
features of these particular humanitarian LSPs. The results open the discussion about the services HOs offer,
thus contributing to theory development in HL.
Practical implications The identification of HOs acting as LSPs introduces a new actor to the
humanitarian network, which the authors refer to as humanitarian service provider (HSP). This supposes two
main managerial implications. First, the results support the idea of seeing servitization as a competitive
difference, having a substantial impact on the way HOs build their strategies and achieve competitive
advantage. Second, HSPs can push their commercial equivalents to identify new activitiesor services to offer
and maintain their competitive advantage with regard to the newcomers.
Originality/value This paper furthers the discussion on the concept of HSPs and demonstrates its
uniqueness, thus contributing to the ever-growing body of knowledge of HL research.
Keywords Europe, Documentary, Logistics services, Logistics industry
Paper type Research paper
1. Introduction
The field of humanitarian aid is constantly evolving and so are the actors involved and the
roles they play. Logistics in this context is defined as the process of planning, implementing
and controlling the efficient, cost effective flow and storage of goods and materials as well as
related information from the point of origin to the point of consumption for the purpose of
alleviating the suffering of vulnerable people(Thomas and Mizushima, 2005, p. 60). Jahre
et al. (2015) note that of the $22bn spent on humanitarian operations in 2013, logistics
accounts for 6080 percent. These activities are mostly performed by humanitarian
organizations (HOs)[1], which have developed a professional approach in logistics(Kovacs
and Spens, 2011a, p. 34) using information technologies to track and trace their goods
(Sandwell, 2011) and setting up quite complex supply chains to assemble and distribute the
required food, shelter and other necessities(Scholten and Scott, 2010, p. 625). Constrained The International Journal of
Logistics Management
Vol. 30 No. 4, 2019
pp. 929-957
© Emerald PublishingLimited
DOI 10.1108/IJLM-04-2018-0091
Received 11 April 2018
Revised 22 October 2018
21 May 2019
27 July 2019
Accepted 28 July 2019
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available on Emerald Insight at:
The authors sincerely thank Professor David B. Grant for his comments and suggestions, Professor Britta
Gammelgaard for her continuous support, and the anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments.
by many complexities (Overstreet et al., 2011), HOs must operate within an embedded
network of actors and perform various logistics activities just as firms do in the private
sector. Indeed, despite the contextual differences existing between humanitarian and
business logistics (van Wassenhove, 2006), both processes account for the flows of goods
between the nodes of a network(Gösling and Geldermann, 2014, p. 23).
Logistics outsourcing, a main feature of commercial logistics, has recently emerged in the
field of humanitarian logistics (HL). While private players are involved in humanitarian supply
chains carrying out transportation, shipping, freight forwarding(Oloruntoba and Gray, 2009,
p. 490), HOs also act as logistics service providers (LSP) (Abidi et al.,2015),executinglogistics
operations for their peers within the humanitarian supply chain. Heaslip (2013) presents various
examples of these practices such as IFRC providing procurement and transportation, or WFP
acting as consignee for other HOs, and later states that most of the services humanitarian
organizations offer to each other fall under the realm of logistics(2014, p. 116). HOs could
therefore be considered as LSPs, actors who manage, control and deliver logistics activities
(Hertz and Alfredsson, 2003, p. 140), given their capacity to perform logistics activities on behalf
of other humanitarian actors. However, theroleandimpactofHOsactingasLSPshave
received little attention by the scientific community (Dufour et al.,2018),andveryfewhave
actually investigated the activities performed/provided by HOs acting as LSPs in view of those
performed/provided by commercial LSPs. The purpose of this paper is thus twofold:
(1) explore the logistics activities performed and services provided by HOs; and
(2) characterize HOs acting as LSPs from commercial LSPs.
The paper is structured as follows. Section 2 examines logistics service provision in relief
chains. It successively broaches the logistics outsourcing in general and in these chains, the
relevance of outsourcing to peers for such chains and finally comes to HOs acting as LSPs, a
topic that needs further investigation. Section 3 details the research design. Section 4
presents the results of the qualitative content analysis, which are then discussed in Section
5. The conclusion addresses limitations and future research.
2. Logistics outsourcing in the humanitarian supply chain
For more than a decade, LSPs third-party firms in the supply chain have been a strongly
developed trend in the supply chain management (SCM) academic literature (Selviaridis and
Spring, 2007), mainly in response to the exponential growth that these companies
experienced in the early 1980s due to a generalized outsourcing movement (Quinn, 1999; van
Laarhoven et al., 2000). Nowadays, the trend still continues, as does the generally positive
growth rates for logistics services (Langley and Infosys, 2019). LSPs fulfill the function of
logistics intermediary thus ideally placed to organize the pooling of logistical resources and
help supply chain achieve substantial economies in scale and scope(Fulconis and Paché,
2019, p. 10). These arrangements notably negate capital investment in logistical assets and
reduce payroll (Grant, 2019). The process of logistics outsourcing involves external
companies to deliver, within the agreed budget and time-frame (Akbari, 2018), different
logistics services. Historically performing transport and warehousing operations for
industrial and commercial firms, LSPs have gradually developed value-added and
informational activities and nowadays offer a rich (Anderson et al., 2011) and broad array
of bundled services that also includes warehousing, inventory management, packaging,
cross-docking and technology management(Zacharia et al., 2011, p. 43). They have
developed their capabilities both in terms of broader service offerings and in terms of
providing solutions adapted to specific customers or customer segments(Fabbe-Costes
et al., 2008a) and are likely to strengthen their value creation in supply chain networks both
at global and local levels(Heaslip, 2013, p. 42). The main publications in the LSP literature
thus deal with logistics outsourcing from commercial and industrial firms, including main

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