Choice of transport crucial to aid success
29 Jan 2003

By Nick Cater

Land Rover is challenging the dominant position of Toyota in the aid market - GENEVA ( -

In the vast halls of Geneva's Palexpo exhibition centre, the truck stands dominate this week's Aid & Trade Europe event, with gleaming new Toyotas, Land Rovers, Nissans, Hondas, Fords and more.

As conference delegates discuss integrating development assistance with emergency relief, other visitors can check out the polished machinery, arrange test drives and talk delivery dates and payment options.

It's a long way from the vast distances, tough conditions and harsh climate of a country such as Iraq, which may well prove again how the multi-million dollar spending on ground transport, from trucks and 4x4s to motorcycles and bulldozers, is crucial to emergency and development aid's success or failure.

As it shifts grain or staff, refugees or medical supplies, transport also incurs risk. The ubiquitous white 4x4 -- often the only thing still on the road in a crisis -- is an easy target for criminals or militias bent on hijacking, theft or kidnapping. Mines persist as a hazard and road accidents remain among the largest causes of death and injury among relief workers.

Two groups specialising in all aspects of transport, from vehicle maintenance to emergency preparedness, have been established to help aid agencies, southern governments and local NGOs. Transaid and Riders for Health were developed after Save the Children Fund UK asked companies to help improve its transport operations.

While several international firms, charities and hybrids -- including Atlas, GD4 and MSF Logistique -- offer shipping, freight and delivery services, Riders for Health and Transaid aim to transfer skills for sustainable solutions.

Transaid has worked in Asia but the most serious problems remain in Africa, where it conducts training, produces manuals and disseminates principles of effective transport management, including emergency preparedness, through local partners.

Chief executive Sarah Nancollas says: "People need access to basic services and transport is a crucial part of that. Donors spend a lot of money on transport but have not always helped ensure its best use. Tackling poverty also needs a vibrant economy, for which good transport is essential. We cooperate with governments and transport organisations in developing countries to help them set standards and build the skills of the transport sector, and work closely with ministries of health and other NGOs."


Nancollas adds that a serious problem with transport in Africa is that many vehicle dealers focus on sales and owners neglect maintenance.

"Without planned, preventive maintenance, transport costs over the life of a vehicle can be doubled. Maintenance failure is the greatest cause of operational failure in transport activities throughout the developing world."

She urges aid agencies: "Keep it simple, so there's less to go wrong -- no electric windows, no central locking -- but these days it's hard to find a simple vehicle".

Starting small in motorcycle transport, Riders for Health -- one of Aid & Trade's smaller exhibitors -- now has what chief executive Andrea Coleman calls "a mission to ensure that 21st century mechanical transport works normally in Africa".

With almost entirely African management, Riders for Health has created a system to conserve vehicles and prevent accidents or breakdowns through staff training in defensive driving and daily checks, while budgeting collects cash for every kilometre before repairs and refuelling are required.

It first proved the system by running a 47-motorcycle fleet for the Lesotho Health Ministry for seven years without a breakdown, and then exported it to Gambia -- where government vehicle management is outsourced to Riders -- the Democratic Republic of Congo and Nigeria. Its International Academy of Vehicle Management in Harare trains students from around the world in zero-breakdown vehicle management, from one motorcycle to truck fleets.

With backing of $125,000 from the World Bank's Development Marketplace, Riders is about to put into production its "Uhuru" motorcycle and sidecar, designed and engineered as a multi-use community development vehicle, from carrying a patient on a stretcher to pumping water to contributing to income generation.

When the focus is an emergency, aid agency vehicle needs can be very different from those of an average business or personal customer, according to leading dealers Toyota Gibraltar Stockholdings (TBS), given the range of climates and conditions in which vehicles are used, the complex and fast-changing demands of emergency purchasing, and the often contradictory priorities of low-cost transport in remote areas.


Against fierce competition from Land Rover and Ford, Nissan and Mitsubishi, and new rivals such as India's Mahindra and Korea's Hyundai, Toyota dominates aid sales, as its large stand at Aid & Trade suggests. TBS marketing manager Michael McElwee said: "Aid agencies need a different kind of vehicle and different accessories for the work that they do, from security and safety equipment to communications and extra fuel tanks.

"Aid agencies have preferred fairly basic vehicles. They are not looking for luxury but the accessories and extra equipment is getting more sophisticated. A few years ago, we might spend two to three hours preparing a vehicle before it went out, now it is becoming more complicated, with eight to 10 hours in the workshop before it is shipped. Agencies want the vehicle to be ready for use straightaway."

Even in a crisis, aid agencies must still take time to assess transport needs and local conditions, and decide which vehicle mix best meets the requirements. A fleet of brand new pick-ups may be the image of disaster operations but there may be many better -- and cheaper, or faster -- ways to deal with short and long term needs, from renting regionally or contracting a local firm to borrowing from the government or diverting from another aid programme.

Transport experts inside agencies such as the Office of U.N. High Commissioner for Refguees (UNHCR) and Oxfam suggest some key factors are essential for well-managed relief transport, such as standardising fleets to cut the need for spares and cost of repairs, considering whether any roads or bridges need improving, planning for a good margin of spare capacity and ensuring there will be enough drivers, mechanics, spares and fuel.

While Oxfam points out that transport "is often the single most expensive item in a budget", Transaid says: "The emphasis should not be on the cheapest purchase price but the lowest full life cost of the vehicle."

Untying aid has made vehicle procurement easier, although governments and some NGOs still prefer to use one of the major procurement companies or vehicle dealers, such as Crown Agents, Kjaer & Kjaer, Bukkehave or the International Procurement Agency, while several U.N. agencies offer procurement service, including the UN Office for Project Services (UNOPS), the U.N. Procurement Division and the U.N. Development Programme's Inter-Agency Procurement Services Office (IAPSO).

Progress in e-commerce for vehicle procurement is slow, although IAPSO's Web Buy site offers U.N. agencies and NGOs vehicles from firms such as Isuzu, Iveco and Suzuki to Scania, Tatra, Peugeot and Volvo, with specifications and firm prices -- including shipping and insurance -- available online, and a "track and trace" system for orders.

Land Rover dealer Conrico International and other companies allow approved site visitors to search stock records online, and to check spares, shipping, deliveries and prices by email.

A growing range of transport training is available, such as "Automotive training for field staff" from IPC in the Netherlands, "Defensive Driving" from On Course in Uganda, and "Formation de Responsable Logistique" from MSF-France. Ford and Land Rover dealer Automotive Export Services also offers training. Its Sales and Marketing Manager, Marguerite Idziak, says that aid operations can be very hard on vehicles: "Driver training is the single most useful thing to do."

Some of this article first appeared in Humanitarian Affairs Review.