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The logistics of ‘Fill a Truck’

Our ‘Fill a Truck’ campaign has recently hit the UK newspapers, urging the public to donate just a small amount to help load a truck with relief supplies, destined for one of the hardest places on Earth to be right now.

But what does it really take to turn the public’s donations into a spoonful of life-saving food for a child in Somalia or Northern Kenya?

A giving spirit

The crucial first stage is of course the great generosity and empathy of those of you who’ve given so far, allowing us to carry out this vital work.

We then have to work out what people need most – and what’s the best way to get it to them. The people who know best are of course the people affected, and the Save the Children staff working on the ground, often in extremely arduous conditions, who know their regions and the people who live there. They have the technical knowledge of how best to deal with each set of problems.

Nutrition staff, for example, have techniques to assess the level of malnutrition within a community, from visual signs like swelling in feet and bellies (known as kwashiorkor) to taking measurements such as the ‘middle upper arm circumference’ of children under five.

Setting the wheels in motion

Once staff know what’s needed to save lives and prevent illness, they provide a set of order documents detailing it – how much is needed and where. This is where the ‘loggies’ (the logistics team) take over.

Most of the time, we get what we need locally, within or close to the affected region – it’s cheaper, faster, and nearly always better for local markets and economies. But with some things, like the therapeutic peanut paste used for treating malnourished infants, the precise medical specifications mean we have to place the order internationally.

By sea or by air

In this case, the Global Supplies Unit based in Farringdon, London, will place the order and arrange for transport to the emergency. Recently, we made the decision to fly, rather then ship, 30 tons of therapeutic food to east Africa. It was slightly more expensive, but crucially given the rapidly rising levels of malnutrition, three weeks quicker.

Once the goods arrive, the team in the country take over. It may be hundreds or thousands of miles to where supplies are needed, and there may be hundreds of trucks with thousands of items, worth tens of thousands of pounds.

Just clearing customs can often require concerted effort. In emergencies, as we saw after the earthquake in Haiti, ports can get clogged up, making it hard to get the supplies to those who need them.

The next stop will often be a warehouse, typically in the capital city, where supplies are held for the minimum time possible. They’ll often be hives of activity with goods coming and going – so staff have to be skilled and organised to keep track.  We may have to scale up the space rapidly, using pre-made warehouses that can be assembled as we need them.

A boat, a truck, a bike or a donkey?

This is where the truck comes in – it’s the cheapest and most efficient transport in most of the countries where we work. These are hired locally and must be carefully checked to ensure our staff and supplies will be safe. They’ll need to travel over difficult, dangerous terrain and be prepared for security threats such as looting (ready-to-eat therapeutic foods making perfect mobile rations for armed groups).

Supplies often stop in warehouses along the journey and another challenge with this is that most therapeutic foods need to be stored below 40 degrees Celsius (ideally below 30). That’s extremely difficult hot African climates (as it is for unaccustomed international staff like me to manage all the goings on while sweating copiously).

At the end of the road, saving lives

Finally reaching their destination, supplies are then handed over to the life-saving nutrition teams who made that first request for them. This might be in a clinic or hospital, or even through mobile clinics that can visit a different village each day.

Very sick children are treated as inpatients at stabilisation centre, while children well enough to move around and feed themselves might be given supplies as outpatients visiting with their families maybe once a week.

On average, one 13.8 kg box of peanut paste will see a sick child through the outpatient treatment programme. The large numbers of children we’re treating need a constant flow of supplies and demand is rising all the time.

Each child might need therapeutic milk as well as the peanut paste, vitamins, rehydration salts for older children and any number of medical supplies. Each medicine they need must make that difficult journey, made possible by a lot of hard work and by your generosity.

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