Red Tape Redress: What The Response in Puerto Rico Reveals About Aid Procurement

by Stephanie Cox, The Level Market

“We are dying. And you are killing us with the inefficiency.”

This was the heartbreaking truth leveled at the US (and the world) by the Mayor of San Juan 10 days after Hurricane Maria devastated the island of Puerto Rico. As those working in procurement of relief supplies, we are too familiar with the hurdles and red tape faced by those just trying to survive in dire conditions. As we watched the gut-wrenching plea from the Mayor, my colleagues and I turned to each other and said, ‘What is it going to take for the world to sit up and take notice of the broken aid procurement system?’

I was forced to take notice when nearly 13 years ago I was on a small wooden boat in the Indian Ocean when the deadliest tsunami in history struck. While working in Nepal during the civil war on an aid project, I went to Thailand for a much-needed break. I was one of the lucky ones who made it out of the boat and up to the jungle. But more than 230,000 people died. Hundreds of thousands that were left behind desperately needed lifesaving products like water filters, lighting and blankets. Aid couldn’t come soon enough. This experience shaped my life in many ways.

In the 13 years since, I’ve crisscrossed the globe – working for social enterprises – helping to create business solutions to poverty. Well, there are a few more difficult environments facing us now. Today, we are in the midst of the worst humanitarian crisis since WWII – and this doesn’t even include the devastation in Puerto Rico. In addition, more people are affected by natural disasters per year than the entire population of the US. And climate change certainly isn’t helping. Unfortunately, the existing humanitarian system, which we all rely on and is run by some of the biggest hearts, has changed very little since its origins in 1919.

In 2014 during the Ebola crisis, I was Skyping a colleague in Sierra Leone with the World Health Organization (WHO). When I asked him how the aid efforts were going, he told me, “Horrible. We’re out of clean drinking water, buckets and body bags.” This proved to be deadliest outbreak of Ebola to date. More than 11,000 people died including 40 aid workers. Later, an Associate Press (AP) investigation cited “shoddy supplies,” “red tape so thick” and “death by conference call” as health officials argued about the proper color of body bags.

We live in an e-commerce and digital world. How many of us:

Buy books on Amazon?

Purchase airline tickets on Travelocity?

Review a restaurant on Yelp?

Take Uber instead of a taxi?

As humans, we are accustomed to using e-commerce and marketplaces for everything. But when it comes to aid, we step out of that world and resort to ineffective behavior.  

Until today, you’ve probably never thought about where all this stuff comes from that gets deployed after events like hurricanes, earthquakes and tsunamis.   Well, I’m here to tell you that getting this “stuff” is more difficult than you can probably imagine and certainly more difficult than it needs to be.

I know this because I’ve been in aid and development for 17 years. Here are just 6 things my colleagues and I regularly encounter:

  1. There is no easy way for suppliers and buyers to connect.
  2. There’s little competition.  As a result, poor products are being dumped on poor people.
  3. Paper catalogs gather dust, while Google searches, excel sheets and faxes remain the norm.
  4. Prices and inventory levels aren’t published, so there’s very little transparency.
  5. Shipping is problematic at best. There are very few warehouses and depots around the world that house these products. Because red tape holds up these processes, there is no urgency to warehouse these goods. So the supply chains are incredibly long and expensive.
  6. Once supplies are landed, local distribution (as we’ve seen in Puerto Rico) is one of the biggest challenges.

Result: People fall further into suffering, deeper into poverty, and die while waiting for aid.

‘Empires, Oligarchs and Malaise’ was the characterization of the humanitarian system by London’s Kings College in a 2016 report. The report called the system “ill-equipped to deal with emerging humanitarian events.” Tufts University said that “This enterprise is the world’s safety net and provides essential services to the survivors of conflict and crisis, but there are huge gaps and inefficiencies.”

With the right technology and the will to change, procuring these supplies doesn’t have to be beholden to bureaucracy, opaque practices, and outdated methods. Technology can make it possible for the $100 billion traded in the humanitarian arena, to happen quickly, efficiently, and securely. Without industry and political buy in, however, change will be too slow to save lives. Procurement will remain a good ol’ boys club of who you know and not what impact you can have.

That day while on the phone with the WHO worker, I had a revelation. The constellation of events in my life from war to tsunami to Ebola, revealed to me that just as other industries have been transformed by the ease and speed of today’s e-commerce processes, the humanitarian industry needed to benefit also.

Why not take the best technology of Silicon Valley and apply it to humanitarian procurement, an industry that saves lives? Just as we have Amazon to meet all of our wants and desires, the aid industry needs an online  marketplace for those basic goods that 90% of the world actually needs to thrive and survive.

10 years almost to the date after surviving that deadly tsunami, I began working on creating an Amazon for Aid. We call it The Level Market as we seek to open up, digitize and democratize aid procurement. 

In a time where I can order shoes for my daughter from Amazon with the click of a button, I believe we should be able to provide shelters for a child in Syria or water filters for people in Puerto Rico just as easy.

I imagine a day where aid workers know where in the world supplies are, how much they cost, and can order them on their mobile phones.

I imagine a day where warehouses around the world are stocked with mosquito nets, water filters and yes, buckets and body bags.

I imagine a day when technology will finally serve all of humanity.

What we envision at The Level Market is that through the efficiencies of technology, it is possible to bring aid buyers and suppliers together under one platform, and allow for the streamlined purchase and exchange of relief supplies that save lives. What the Mayor of San Juan revealed to us today is that we cannot continue to respond to disasters as we have done in the past. The system, as it exists today, is not fit for purpose and it needs to be modernized and digitized and opened up. Please do not let Puerto Rico’s pleas fall on deaf ears. We need to talk about procurement and disaster relief. We need to do it before more people suffer and die because of our broken procurement system.

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