April 30, 2014 - The instinct to help those in need is as old as humanity itself, but the stakes are higher than ever before. The aid industry has been forced to go global in response to a doubling in the number of people affected by humanitarian crises in the last decade.

Mike Whiting, senior logistics consultant for the World Food Programme (WFP), chairing a seminar on humanitarian logistics on the opening day of the Multimodal exhibition in Birmingham, said aid costs increased by 430% between 2004, the year of the Indian Ocean tsunami, and 2013. Last year, 50% of those facing humanitarian need were in conflict-affected areas, up from 25% 10 years ago.

No fewer than four countries - Syria, the Philippines, South Sudan and the Central African Republic – had faced maximum "level three" crises last year. Whiting said: "The system is having to deal with problems of increasing scale and complexity, which has profound implications. We need to find a more locally based, anticipatory approach - a more creative way of dealing with the logistics challenge that faces us."

Whiting, who is also chairman of the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport (CILT)'s Humanitarian and Emergency Logistics Professionals Forum (HELP), said the Institute could be a catalyst for change. "We must listen to what those in peril want, not impose what we think they need."

There was a potential payback for those putting resources into improving the situation on the ground. "If we enable aid, we enable trade," Whiting said.

Dorothea de Carvalho, CILT's professional development project director, said people development was critical. More than 1,000 students had now passed through the Institute's certified qualification programme in humanitarian logistics, developed in association with organisations such as WFP, Save The Children, the Red Cross, Oxfam and Unicef.

Logistics professionals can study for a humanitarian supply chain management qualification, while a specialist medical logistics practices strand (Medlog) is suitable for doctors or nurses needing to understand "the unique requirements of running a cold chain," de Carvalho said.

She invited companies to sponsor students or offer work placements for programme graduates, which would enable them to benchmark their work against what was happening in the commercial sector.

Martijn Blansjaar, head of logistics and supply, for Oxfam's International Division, said airline offers of cargo space in their aircraft had become fashionable in the 1990s, only to result in aid supplies failing to fly because the paperwork was not right.

Oxfam now benefited from "fantastic long-term arrangements" with JCB, which regularly supplied digging and lifting equipment, and British Airways, which could usually offer free capacity within days of a crisis developing, Blansjaar said.

Chris Weeks, director of humanitarian affairs at DHL, said the company was helping disaster preparedness by helping airports in high-risk areas to be ready for a surge in incoming air freight.

The trick is to act smarter, Week said. He contrasted the "old world" model of sending bottles of water, with today's focus on purification units and jerrycans. Instead of "dump and run" shipments of unwanted food and clothes that could paralyse an airport, equipment and palletised freight was now shipped out.

"Disaster response is becoming more professional and coordinated. We've got to upskill and change the profile of our employees," Weeks said. "The private sector needs to work more closely with other actors and donors such as governments and NGOs."

Whiting concluded: "We can't go on as we were, transformative logistics is needed. Training people in storage and distribution will control the amount of food wasted between harvest and end user. We have to go from tonnage-based to knowledge-based operations."

He quoted an example from Tanzania, where at one time cola was obtainable everywhere but not essential drugs. Following a collaboration between Coca-Cola and the Ministry of Health, medical supplies were now more efficiently distributed across the whole country. "Thinking more sustainably and helping people to help themselves can save a huge amount of long-term investment," he said.