Médecins Sans Frontières — Four Principles for Procurement and Supply Chain People

At the recent Trade Extensions customer event, Chris Cushing from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) gave an incredible speech. MSF provides medical help in the most extreme situations, principally during wars and conflicts, and after natural disasters. The charity employs some 30,000 people, has assisted at 182,000 births, treated 1.9 million people for malaria, and treated 9 million outpatients in conflict and disaster situations. It won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999; rarely can that award have been so deserved. On the less positive side, it's hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, was tragically destroyed recently by a US attack, which has caused some controversy, to say the least.

Cushing himself has been involved in humanitarian work for 25 years in the field, as an educator, policy maker and adviser, and has been involved in “17 wars and 2 disasters” as he puts it, including some of the most harrowing situations imaginable such as the Rwanda genocide in 1994.

In the somewhat incongruous and luxurious surroundings of the Emirates Stadium, he talked mainly about his work in the Sarajevo siege during the Bosnian conflicts of 1992 to 1996. He told us harrowing stories of snipers deliberately targeting children to tempt medics into the open where they could be shot at; of rape used as a weapon of ethnic cleansing and conflict; and of surgical operations conducted with a drop of a local alcoholic beverage as the only anaesthetic.

There were also lighter moments if you could call them that; trying to survive on a diet heavy on grass and tree bark; and trying to get to parachute drops of medicines before the locals could damage them in their search for much needed food.

But there were some points he made of more direct relevance to procurement and supply chain people. Here are four we took away.

1.  You don't have to be a huge organisation to take advantage of complex sourcing tools, or to drive for supply chain innovation. MSF is not that big by large corporate standards, but uses the  Trade Extensions “market informed sourcing” platform for its own buying activities. It comes down to some of the issues we discussed in our recent paper, “What Defines Complex Sourcing - and Why Does It Matter”? It's not the size of contracts that matter; other factors define that complexity. And in terms of other innovations, MSF has been instrumental (given the circumstances in which they work) in pushing drug firms to develop vaccines that don’t need to be refrigerated during storage.

2.  The end use of what is being bought should drive the strategies and approaches to procurement. So for example, Cushing described the amazing MSF field hospital, including inflatable buildings, operating tables, equipment, drugs etc. It is a “plug and play” hospital that can be set up in under three days, and all packs up into boxes that can fit in the back of a Toyota Land Cruiser! So the specifications are obviously very much aligned to the essential factors that the end users need in the “service delivery” phase, as we might say. The basic purchase price is almost immaterial – it is the true value that is key, given the context in which the purchase is going to be used.

3.  Specifications must fit the need as precisely as possible. There was an issue however with the Land Cruiser. MSF found that the suspension was too good in the standard model! This encouraged drivers to travel at high speeds (because the ride was so comfortable even on terrible roads). But that led to speed-generated accidents too often! So MSF asked Toyota to build a model with harder suspension for them. What's the general point here? Well, that over-specifying might not just be wasting you money directly, it might be encouraging the wrong behaviour amongst staff, for instance. Make the chairs in the conference room too comfortable perhaps and people will make meetings last all day! I'm sure there are other examples too.

4.  Technology is changing things, even in these extreme situations. MSF are using drones to fly supplies and medicines into remote areas of New Guinea, for example.

Finally, we suspect the delegates were left with a number of emotions after the speech. Sadness, horror, but also hope at the amazing work MSF does and indeed the power of the human spirit to recover from some of the atrocities Cushing described.

But there was one other feeling many of us had. When you are having a bad day, a supplier has let you down, your boss is being an idiot, your stakeholder didn't tell you she negotiated a deal without involving you … just remember how relatively lucky you are. You’re not being shot at, starved, physically, mentally or sexually abused (I hope) in your daily life, so get your problems into perspective.

You can read more about MSF here; they rely on personal or corporate donations and support (rather than government cash) so do consider that too.

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First Voice

  1. Rob:

    It was incredible. I’m never going to moan about stakeholders ever again (not for a few weeks at least).

    I recall Chris describing one of the ‘negotiations’ that he had with an army colonel. He asked the colonel to be given access to the wounded in a town. There was only one narrow road into the town. The colonel’s BAFO with Chris? His snipers would be allowed to take a maximum of three shots at Chris’ vehicles along the route. Now, we’ve all been victims of ‘snipers’ in corporate companies, but this sits at the extreme of anything I’ve ever encountered. Chris is an amazing individual.

    Hats off to Trade Extensions and to Garry Mansell particularly for supporting this charity at a corporate level.

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