Humanitarian Aid and Logistics: Behind the Scenes



Logistics always involves time management but never is it more important than in the delivery of emergency humanitarian aid, when a speedy arrival can mean the difference between life and death. It is a complex task, with no time to craft tailor-made solutions in emergency situations. Action always needs to take place sooner rather than later.

But delivering aid is not always about reacting to one-off disasters. In other circumstances, such as the provision of long-term support to relief-dependent countries, logistics is often highly streamlined through a tried and tested set of procedures using an established logistics infrastructure.

CEVA Logistics works with non-profit and aid organizations to deliver humanitarian supplies to communities in need worldwide. The company’s expert teams manage the transportation of food, sanitary products and more to regions hit by both natural and man-made disasters. In the last few years, CEVA has moved more than 7,000 TEUs of aid, supporting local, national and international aid agencies in Africa and the Middle East. And the trucks are still rolling.

But what goes into getting the aid to people in need? And how much planning is possible in the face of the unexpected?

CEVA Logistics Humanitarian Aid

Aid and relief logistics; the magic of how

Providing humanitarian aid to vulnerable populations can be as straightforward as supplying vouchers for local stores, if aid organizations are working within functioning environments. This can significantly reduce the pressure on aid organizations, as it removes the need for direct procurement and logistics negotiations.

However, natural disasters and man-made crises often strike unannounced. In the wake of these catastrophes, there is an immediate need for the mobilization of assets and resources.

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In the midst of humanitarian crisis situations, aid organizations and logistics services can override the red-tape and fast track the process. An agreement that may take weeks or months in a non-emergency humanitarian situation takes only a few days, if not a few hours, in the aftermath of a disaster. Recently, we concluded negotiations with a top international aid and relief organization for the provision of a temporary warehouse solution in less than two days, with all paperwork and facility ready to receive the cargo.

All negotiating parties understand the urgency of the situation and often the most senior decision makers are directly involved in agreeing on terms, which provides assurance that executing the plans will be given priority. Nonetheless, these negotiations don’t happen in a vacuum. Emergency logistics support is facilitated by pre-existing framework agreements, whereby logistics services providers have already been audited for compliance.

In addition, a network of local aid agencies also pull together to deliver aid and relief. Most often this involves the appointment of a local or national authority or agency to spearhead the process.


Disaster relief: the 2023 Morrocco earthquake

In the aftermath of the devastating earthquake that struck Morrocco’s Al Haouz province in September 2023, people and businesses from all parts of the country were keen to help but they needed a way to make their donations. Local aid agencies organized multiple collection points at supermarkets, student centers, schools and other pick-up points in response to this public activism.

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In less than 10 hours after the earthquake, we started receiving multiple calls from local aid agencies. We instantly allocated some trucks from our fleet along with a transport coordinator to deliver aid and relief. From the first day, we managed to place trucks in several regions to ensure supply to the disaster area at short notice.

With an unprecedented number of trucks carrying aid and relief to the affected zones, the next challenge was to coordinate logistics efforts so that donations and aid could quickly get to those in need.

The earthquake zones had very complex access routes, and with an influx of trucks, there was a serious risk of the roads collapsing. The authorities’ timely involvement in the process was crucial. as Morrocco sent army personnel on Day 1 to:

  • Assess the area with drones
  • Clear the ground access routes
  • Povide emergency aid by military helicopters, while simultaneously conducting additional area assessments
  • Gain information needed for a defined strategy

By Day 2, they’d already implemented a strategy. It included the immediate appointment of a single local aid foundation to take charge of streamlining aid and relief efforts and collaborating with other local agencies. The appointed foundation rapidly formed a centralized hub in Marrakesh and optimized management of trucks dispatched to ALL affected zones in the Al Houza province.

Aid and relief support to Morrocco’s impacted zones continued well after the earthquake, as the communities desperately needed long-term support, including temporary container housing, energy solutions, simple furniture and more.


Ongoing aid and relief: logistics in Ethiopia

In contrast to the reaction to a sudden diaster, the land-locked country of Ethiopia requires a continual supply of aid, as approximately 20 million people dependent on it. The reasons for Ethiopia’s dependence on aid include:

  • Climate change: over 80 percent of its population is engaged in small-scale farming, and crop yields have been poor over the past five years because of severe droughts mixed with heavy rainfall. Climate change also causes the internal displacement of population.
  • Fertilizer shortage and skyrocketing costs: the war in Ukraine has led to high prices for fertilizer, so local farming communities cannot afford to buy enough, further reducing their yields to not be able to feed their community.
  • Influx of refugees from neighboring conflicts: over one million refugees have entered the country from Sudan and South Sudan, Somalia and Eritra. The persistent conflict in Sudan adds to the demand for aid and relief.
  • Growing unrest and instability in some parts of the country.

One of the most striking features of logistics for Ethiopia in general is its higher logistics costs. The country’s landlocked status requires cross-border handling and transport by road or rail infrastructure. Most of the aid and relief cargo heading to Ethiopia arrives in bulk, which means that at least the ocean freight leg of travel is often cost-efficient. Ethiopia is also a sub-hub (second to Djibouti) for further aid distribution to Somalia and South Sudan. Around 95 percent of cargo bound for Ethiopia comes through Djibouti port. The rest comes through Port Sudan and Berbera Port. However, if not managed well, excessive bulk shipments inevitably create port congestion, and coupled with a shortage of transportation options, it can translate into high costs.

To alleviate the pressure on road infrastructure, cargo is frequently transported directly from the port to Indode Rail Station in Ethiopia.

From the ports, aid and relief cargo makes the next leg of its journey to a series of regional hubs, including:

  • Adama (key country hub that receives more than half of the aid and relief shipments)
  • Kombolcha
  • Dire Dawa
  • Jijiga
  • Gambela
  • Mekelle
  • Semera

Before the humanitarian cargo reaches the hubs, it is subject to customs clearance. There are two possible channels:

  1. Tax and duty exempt cargo – primarily for international aid agencies since they have free duty privilege.
  2. Humanitarian aid managed and distributed by government agencies that have a formal approval to override the initial payment of taxes and duties in place of a later deduction Most of the aid and relief cargo for Ethiopia is subject to the tax and duty exemption.

Finally, some critical items such as pharmaceutical products, medical kits, and high nutrition food arrive by air cargo, as Ethiopian Airlines has one of the best global and continental networks. In contrast to Ethiopia’s dependence on neighboring countries for sea imports, Ethiopia is considered an airfreight hub in Africa for aid and relief shipments and trans-shipments.


Strategic positioning of warehouses

Most humanitarian aid organizations have their food and sanitary stock ready in pre-positioned regional warehouses across the globe. The stored items include long shelf-life products such as milk

powder, oil, tea, and canned food. These pre-positioned warehouses are typically located in a county that is deemed safe in that region.

A good example of a pre-positioned warehouse location is Humanitarian City in Dubai. In addition to the UAE being a stable country, the location offers outstanding logistics infrastructure. Aid is frequently channeled from Dubai’s pre-positioned warehouses directly to an affected country. For crises further from a pre-positioned site, humanitarian aid must often go to a temporary warehouse, closer to the affected crisis region.

Once the vehicles carrying the humanitarian supplies reach their final destination, aid agency representatives on the ground distribute the aid. On-site storage facilities are usually very limited as the aim is to distribute the aid as fast as possible to the affected population.

As for temperature-controlled supplies, such as medicine, the warehousing process-flow is very similar, with the main difference being that reefer containers used to deliver the medicine to sites often serve as ad-hoc storage units until the medicine is completely distributed.

Airdrops, where the products are released from aircraft at altitude clearly capture the public imagination, as they’re often asked about, but they’re only used in very specific circumstances:

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Aid airdrops are primarily used during floods when landing is not possible or if airport runways are not available.Basically, it’s only if there is no other infrastructure available to access the population. They can also be used if its likely vehicles carrying aid and relief would be rejected by local para-military groups. In the case of humanitarian airdrops, both the packaging and weather conditions have to be impeccable.

Aid airdrops are not an ideal solution in all circumstances. They will not work in a no-fly zone and more importantly, there is no oversight to ensure that the aid is delivered to those in need. Airdropped supplies can be easily controlled or stolen by individuals who have firearms or other means of power over the weaker local population.


Operational readiness

For the majority of humanitarian and aid organizations, time is of the essence. Any delay in delivery may have life-threatening consequences for people in need.

In many countries and regions, humanitarian aid agencies have robust partnerships with logistics services providers that operate there, as well as with teams on the ground ready to step in from day one.

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Some humanitarian logistics experts undergo bespoke training in state-of-the-art facilities that replicate disaster environments. The training sessions involve sleeping in tents in challenging weather conditions, limited food availability and guidance on how to support people who have suffered trauma.

Sometimes, extremely challenging environments call for extraordinarily swift logistic operations, such as when food is distributed to remote parts of a crisis-affected country via a remotely assembled helicopter. This can happen within the timeframe of a month, including transporting the helicopter to

a base camp via a bigger aircraft. This involves removing the helicopter blades and reassembling them at the base.

On the other hand, during the flood season, many roads in Africa are almost non-existent. There are highly specialized vehicles that can navigate through rough and flooded terrains, although such vehicles are few and far between.

Another critical factor affecting operational readiness is understanding safety risks. Trucks carrying humanitarian aid have special exemptions if they are entering warzone areas. However, this is not always enough to keep the driver and cargo safe. Conditions in some countries may require hiring private and licensed security to escort convoys.

A convoy can be anything from 10 to 15 trucks, with a minimum of three security vehicles at the front, two security vehicles at the back and one security vehicle in the middle. There are areas where even licensed private security cannot pass and where the UN provides a security escort with their own assets.



The logistics behind humanitarian aid involves a large amount of careful planning and preparation in order to prepare for a wide range of scenarios facing teams on the ground. CEVA Logistics has considerable expertise in working with aid agencies and managing the complex process of accessing regions that are under pressure due to natural disasters or man-made conflict.

At CEVA, we’re proud to be able to provide an important service to support local, national and international aid agencies. Our global team acts locally for the good of the people in our communities, as we connect people and products at their moment of greatest need.