Aidex Voices

As the leading global forum for humanitarian aid and development professionals of all stripes, the input and expertise of several highly-respected individuals from within these communities – gathered together as the AidEx Steering Committee – is essential to delivering a quality event year after year. 

We caught up with one the newest members of the Steering Committee, Ed Blagden, to discuss his work as Head of Supply Operations at Oxfam GB


What does your role as Head of Supply Operations involve? 

Oxfam is unique amongst NGOs in the UK in having one central supply point of stockholding for emergency equipment, particularly in the area of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), which is available for dispatch across the world. My department oversees this. 

This past March, the European Commission’s directorate-general for humanitarian aid and civil protection (DG ECHO) awarded us the status of Humanitarian Procurement Centre. This means that other NGOs can come to us to source the products they need, safe in the knowledge that our 40 years of experience has enabled us to build a catalogue of 300 essential humanitarian items. It’s brilliant that we’re now able to share that knowledge and expertise with other organisations. We have an extensive catalogue of WASH and other equipment, and I would encourage anyone to take a look – the catalogue can be found online at oxfam.org.uk/equipment/catalogue.

What do you look for from a potential supplier of humanitarian equipment? 

Obviously, item specification and cost are very important, but so is responsiveness: the nature of humanitarian emergencies is that they are impossible to predict, both in terms of timing and demand for supplies. So we look for suppliers who can gear up very quickly and provide the necessary items in sufficient quantities as fast as possible. 
The other side of the equation is that suppliers need to meet all requirements in terms of their own supply and procurement processes. As an organisation receiving donations from public institutions, we have to ensure that our suppliers follow ethical processes right across their supply chains. 

In terms of obtaining supplies, what are the most pressing challenges faced by global NGOs such as Oxfam?

The primary issue we grapple with is ensuring sufficient stock of those items most needed – which varies from crisis to crisis. When a large-scale emergency strikes, there’s a scramble amongst NGOs for priority products. In order to anticipate needs, we use some quite sophisticated forecasting and demand analysis techniques, and this helps us target our inventory levels to respond well to most emergencies. 

What’s your approach to working with the private sector? 

We have close, collaborative relationships with a number of private sector organisations and often they come to us for feedback about their product during the development process. Of course, all procurement of products for our catalogue is done on a competitive and transparent basis – everyone has to have the same chance of supplying us. 

What’s your approach to sourcing solutions locally and stocking products from suppliers in developing nations? 

Where possible, we’re 100% in favour of sourcing products locally. The response to the earthquake in Nepal earlier this year was a textbook example of how things should work in this regard. Oxfam had a team out there who identified what was needed in the first instance so these items could be flown in immediately, but since then all of the follow-up needs have been provided for by local suppliers and suppliers in neighbouring countries. We also provide exact specifications for most items in our online catalogue, so those responsible for operations on the ground can source alternative solutions which may suit local needs better. 

How do you see collaboration fitting into the humanitarian aid and development sector? 

Our approach to collaboration is reflected in our newfound status as a Humanitarian Procurement Centre, the whole focus of which is experience and information sharing. I’d like to see us working more with other NGOs to develop a shared perspective on what technologies and solutions are most appropriate in emergencies. Our current catalogue is very much our take on what’s needed, but of course, other NGOs may have different ideas. As a HPC, we’ve become a supplier of sorts ourselves, so we want to listen to other agencies and gather ideas from the field experience of NGOs.