KINGSTON—Humanitarian aid groups throughout the world depend on donations from citizens of countries that have the means to do so, gathering crucial items such as bottled water and non-perishable goods, to help support impoverished populations or those affected by disasters. Questions that may never be asked, however, is how those supplies reach their intended destination and, more importantly, how much it costs. University of Rhode Island Assistant Professor Koray Özpolat has sought to answer those questions and challenge his students to scrutinize the business of humanitarian aid efforts.
“When [humanitarian aid groups pay for handling, storage, shipping, in terms of disaster aid, only nine to 10 percent of what you donate reaches the beneficiaries out there,” said Özpolat. “The intent is always sincere, but material donations cost supply chains.”
“After the earthquake in 2010, for example, tons of blankets were sent to Haiti, but they didn’t need blankets there,” he added. “So, the available single airport was clogged by unnecessary materials.”
Özpolat arrived last year at URI after working with the United Nations in Jordan to serve refugee camps receiving humanitarian aid contributions, sent from points throughout the globe. While there, Özpolat observed that much of the product being shipped often cost humanitarian aid groups significant amounts of money, as well as hindering the effectiveness and organization of the transporting process.
“I believe in the importance of ‘Humanitarian Logistics’ and disaster relief in underserved areas,” said Özpolat. “The frequency of disasters has been increasing and will continue with global warming and more people living in larger cities, yet how we respond, the arranging the logistics of [humanitarian aid] is still developing.”
“I feel that I can do something about it, and wanted to raise awareness among students,” he added. “I emphasize social responsibility, engaging with non-profit organizations, and our students should also interact with them. [The students] will be business leaders somewhere in this country, and the companies they will work for can do something about it.”
Özpolat thus offered students in his ‘Supply Chain Management’ course the option to enter projects into the 7th Annual Public Service Announcement (PSA) Contest, sponsored by the Center for International Disaster Information (CIDI). Students worked in groups to develop PSA advertisements which detailed all of the associated costs associated with organizing and transporting goods to needed populations throughout the world.
“This has been a good teaching tool, and it was a fun project to work on,” said Özpolat. “Students went out and collected the logistical data, such as if you donate a can of tuna, how much does it cost to ship it to somewhere in Providence, Asia, or Africa?”
“They educated themselves about Humanitarian Logistics, and they also thought about how to create a piece of art to communicate their message to the public,” he added. “If you just write numbers on a paper, it doesn’t stick in one’s mind. A PSA is the easiest and most effective way to deliver the message to the public.”
40 students, or about 70 percent of Özpolat’s class, signed up to create a PSA, and four won in the print category. Undergraduates Ryan Pincince, Richard Kalhofer, Jill-Ann Hewins, and Kelsey Finegan all received second and third place recognition for the two projects that they submitted. The entries were judged for their originality and message delivery, among other requirements.
“Initially, it took [the students] a month to familiarize themselves, and every two weeks for five to 10 minutes, I showed them previous submissions and discussed them,” said Özpolat. “When they realized the relationships to effective donations, then they were excited.”
Pincince, a Narragansett resident who will soon be looking for a career in supply chain management, was excited that his group had done so well.
“The message our PSA conveys it the benefit of cash over a material donation,” said Pincince. “From origin to endpoint, the cash donation loses much less value and is usually more effective.”
“The personal recognition received for the project was pretty exciting,” he added. “We began this project with the intent of winning the competition and getting an A for our class project grade, and the benefits of working in a team are great. Personally, the team made it easier to meet the demands of a 15 credit semester while still doing quality work.”
Pincince and his team members, because of their successful conveyance of the cash contra in-kind donation benefits, will see their PSAs appear nationally during NFL games. The advertisements will also be distributed to all major television and paper media outlets for publication. Özpolat praised the work of Pincince and his fellow group members.
“The group which received two recognitions, in particular, worked very systematically,” he added. “They married the message of Humanitarian Logistics very well, and the director of CIDI appreciated that very much. Our students did the math, and there is some good logistical knowledge injected into their design to attract attention.”
Özpolat is also grateful for the visibility for URI that his students’ success has created, and will be collaborating in the future on other projects for students that will address the pressing issues facing the logistics of humanitarian work globally.
“I am happy to see that our students are becoming more visible,” he added. “It creates awareness amongst the 120 students I have taught, so they will graduate and make donations [based upon] what they have learned at school here as well.”
“University is the place to start the flame, so if pupils can buy your message, it will be carried to different places of society that you cannot even imagine,” he added.