The long journey of a Syrian food parcel

Publié: 7 octobre 2013 13:18 CET

By Vivian Tou’meh, Syrian Arab Red Crescent

It’s a sunny morning at the Syrian Arab Red Crescent’s al-Maisat centre in Damascus. Red Crescent volunteers are about to start delivering food parcels to 850 families. Many people have already been queuing for hours.

People gather in a queue outside the centre, and around 20 volunteers are on duty keeping the lines in order. The day is starting to get hot, which makes the wait difficult, both for the beneficiaries and the volunteers trying to manage the crowd.

Yusra left her house at dawn to come and collect her food parcel. She is eager to get the aid quickly, since her journey back home is a long one. “I have six children, the youngest one is only three years old. My husband sometimes works picking fruit, so we do not have a continuous source of income,” she explains.

Rania has also come a long way for her parcel. She has four children, the youngest one just a toddler in her arms. “We are living in a mess. The winter is coming and our area is very cold,” she worries.

From Dubai to Damascus

The parcels that Yusra and Rania will take home have already made a long journey themselves. The IFRC’s Global Logistics Service (GLS) office in Dubai is the key player supplying aid in the Middle East.

When funding becomes available, the lengthy procedure starts with a request from Syria. After the tendering process, the offers are studied and contracts signed based on quality and price. Once the items are in Dubai, food parcels are packed by hand, organized in pallets and stuffed into shipping containers.

Containers sail from Dubai via Egypt to the port of Latakia in western Syria. After the containers are unloaded and released from customs in Latakia, they are loaded and brought by trucks making the 90-kilometre trip to the Syrian Arab Red Crescent central warehouse in Tartous. From there, based on the relief distribution plans, the parcels are transported to different Red Crescent distribution sites.

“The main challenge is the gap between the massive needs on the ground and the limited funding available. This hampers advance planning, which is so important for ensuring an uninterrupted flow of goods. This is then coupled with the known operational constraints in the region, market instabilities and sensitivities with regard to food deliveries.

“So far, we have managed to deliver over 190,000 food parcels and will continue to supply 30,000 parcels a month. Securing funds remains the biggest challenge to ensure an uninterrupted supply chain,” says Goran Zuber, head of the Global Logistics Service office in Dubai.

Value for the money

The IFRC’s Global Logistics Service supports more than 60 humanitarian operations every year through its offices in Dubai, Kuala Lumpur, Panama, Nairobi, Las Palmas and Geneva. When a disaster strikes, pre-positioned stocks in global warehouses guarantee that the immediate needs of 450,000 people will be met within 48 hours anywhere in the world.

“One of our targets is to ensure the best value for money – so that more people can benefit from assistance. Through competitive tendering and consolidation of volumes, we have managed to achieve a 10 per cent reduction in the food parcel cost since the start of the year. The GLS team has just completed a market assessment in the region and we hope to be able to further cut in costs and delivery time whilst maintaining the current quality standard of the food parcel,” says Zuber.

Meanwhile, at the Damascus distribution centre, the biggest challenge for the volunteers is to manage the large distribution in one day.

“These people will receive aid for the first time. They live in areas that are hard to access and our assessment teams have reached them for the first time now. Some have special needs, some have lost their breadwinner, and all of them are in urgent need for a reason,” explains Ahmad Samaha, the assistant warehouse manager.

Warehouse work requires cooperation, especially with the relief department. There is plenty of effort in finding the best storage methods, issuing quality reports, making assessments and distribution plans.

More funding needed

“Warehousing is the backbone of relief work. It is work that needs capabilities, means putting up with stress, and creating solutions,” says Ahmad Abd al-Khaleq. And he is somebody who knows, having been a volunteer with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent for 14 years, and recognized with an award for the best volunteer in the relief department.

His experience means he is able to make a comparison of the work now and before the crisis started. “At the beginning of the crisis, we had few capabilities and faced many challenges with delivering the relief items and working in dangerous areas. Now it is difficult because there are huge gaps between the needs and the funding from the donors.”

Majid, a logistician in the centre, has his own worries:  “We are a very collaborative team, but we don’t have delivery trucks of our own. Dealing with other delivery companies sometimes causes problems which, in turn, delays our work.”

By the afternoon, volunteers are still working at full speed; today’s distribution is a big one. Although sometimes inpatient, beneficiaries are also satisfied when they receive their food – it meets at least some of  their needs for a month.

At the end of their time waiting, Yusra and Rania get their food parcels in time for their long journey back home. “The most important thing in the food parcel is the oil. It is very expensive at the market; we could not afford to buy it.” Rania has an extra reason to smile: she has had her special request fulfilled and can take home nappies for her youngest.