Four-by-fours with bull bars and long radio antennas have become emblematic of relief operations - and a target for critics. Humanitarian agencies operate an estimated 70,000 vehicles and could save millions annually with better management of cars and trucks, a lobby group has told IRIN.
Better acquisition, management and disposal of vehicles could save 12-17 percent (between US$120 million and $170 million a year) of an estimated $1 billion annual spend, according to the Fleet Forum.
The group's three main areas of focus are in enhancing efficiency and effectiveness, improving road safety and minimising environmental impact. The annual meeting in Vienna this week will consider best practices and initiatives, including carbon offset proposals; the forum estimates humanitarian vehicles emit about 500,000 tonnes of carbon a year.
The quality of fleet management in the humanitarian world needs improvement, said Rob McConnell, the coordinator of Fleet Forum, a grouping of more than 40 UN agencies, NGOs, academic institutions, donors and corporations.
"It's not the sexiest topic," McConnell admits, and forum members are sometimes "struggling" to get through to senior managers of aid agencies, he said. The link between effective programme delivery and efficient use of cars and trucks "is not always made in people's minds", he added.
Esther Bosgra of commercial logistics giant TNT is involved with the Fleet Forum and regards aid agency fleet management as generally "poor". "It doesn't get the attention it deserves," she said, but things are "improving slowly".
In 2007, a collaboration between the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and TNT resulted in an interactive "clean fleets toolkit", designed to help organisations assess and reduce their environmental impact.
While IT and finance procedures in aid agencies are usually tightly managed, with standards enforced from headquarters, they rarely have a central, corporate approach to their vehicles, which tend to be handled on a "project-by-project basis", McConnell told IRIN. Some large agencies find it hard even to say how many vehicles they have worldwide at any time, and very few have a dedicated fleet manager.
|The link between effective programme delivery and efficient use of cars and trucks 'ís not always made in people's minds'|
McConnell has a rich store of stories illustrating shortcomings in fleet management. An aid agency manager in Southern Sudan, for example, whose 12 motorbikes were constantly clogged up with mud, decided against buying a $200 pressure washer, despite advice from a mechanic. In the end, all the engines seized up and the bikes were "wrecked". Each cost about $2,000.
Another telling statistic: research sponsored by the forum reveals that on average 30 percent of vehicle fleets on the books of humanitarian organisations are immobile.
Vehicle management usually comes under the catch-all department of "logistics". An NGO field logistician is often expected to take care of everything from accommodation, IT, staff security, communications equipment, procurement and more. Those "468 hats", according to Matthew Bader of Mozambique-based logistics NGO Jacana, are too many, and fleet management is one of the many roles of a logistician that "is not the core business" of a relief operation.
Professional and outsourced transport operations should have very specific targets; depending on the conditions, running light vehicles should cost between $0.65 and $1 per km driven, Bader said.
Savings can also be found in insurance. The Fleet Forum helped the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to develop a self-insurance policy. OSCE's insurers dropped their premiums to match the estimated self-insurance costs, saving OSCE 150,000 Euros ($214,000) a year, according to a spokesperson.
The Fleet Forum was established in 2003 by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the UN World Food Programme and the NGO World Vision International.