CultureProduct ManagementSaeedUncategorized

A call for Product Managers Without Borders!

You’ve almost certainly heard of Doctor’s Without Borders, the international humanitarian organization of doctors and other medical personnel who help those those in need after natural (or man-made) disasters occur.

Another similar group, Global Medic, sends Paramedics and other similar medical professionals to people in need.

And of course, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of other organizations world-wide the step up to help when disaster strikes. These include other medical organizations, search and rescue teams, organizations that distribute food and other humanitarian aid and much more.

But, what struck me this past year, seeing the awful devastation that took place in Haiti and then in Pakistan, and then the response from the rest of the world,was how almost completely reactive it was, specially with respect to collecting, transporting and distributing food, water, shelter and other supplies to the needy.

Of course, no one can predict an earthquake (yet) and, while much slower than an earthquake,  it’s virtually impossible to stop a flood once it starts. But in virtually all natural disasters, the needs of the affected and displaced are well understood.

Affected and displaced people need medical services, clean water, food, shelter, clothing and basic necessities until they can return to their homes or until new lodging can be found.

In Haiti, tents were in short supply given the approximately 1,000,000 Haitians suddenly homeless.  2 months after the quake, thousands still had not received a tent. Now cholera is spreading in Haiti, mostly likely transmitted by foreign troops stationed there almost a year after the earthquake.

In Pakistan, the irony of the flood was that even though 20% of the country was covered in water, clean drinking water was in high demand. The army resorted to dropping bottled water from helicopters to people in need.

These are not problems that happen simply in poor or remote countries. Closer to (my) home, for those who remember Hurricane Katrina and it’s devastation of New Orleans, a lot of the same dynamics applied. People needed shelter, food, water, medicine etc.

In all these cases, the pattern of need was the same:

  • Fresh water
  • Nutritious food rations
  • Baby food and formula
  • Temporary shelter
  • First aid supplies
  • Hygiene products
  • Clothing
  • Portable lighting and energy sources
  • Blankets
  • Cooking fuel
  • Etc.

and unfortunately, the (reactive) pattern of response was the same with minimally coordinated drives to source, transport and distribute these products to the needy.

Perhaps I’ve been a Product Manager for too long, but when I see repeated problems that are going unaddressed, parts of my brain start working.

Here’s a challenge

Let’s put our collective brains together and see how we can solve this problem, so that those unfortunate enough to be caught in the next natural disaster, whether flood, hurricane, typhoon, earthquake etc. can get the help they need as quickly as possible and as efficiently as possible.

How can we — as analysts, problem solvers, and cross functional leaders — apply the same skills we use everyday in our jobs, to benefit those most in need around the world?

How can we address the utterly reactive nature of the response to natural disasters, and minimize, if not eliminate, as many barriers as possible that prevent or delay aid and supplies reaching those most in need?

It’s a big challenge. I’m not underestimating that. But, I’ve tried to define the key requirement as simply and clearly as possible.

I want to hear how you think we should begin decomposing the problem to start addressing it in a repeatable, scalable and effective manner.


  1. Jordan_Keats

    Interesting question, one that I have no answer to. There is a resource that I thought of that may help you explore this question. Its a discussion from TVO’s Search Engine called Hacking Philanthropy with Lucy Bernholz, author of the blog Philanthropy 2173. Here’s the URL:


    Bernholz uses examples of digitizing social good from the earthquake in Haiti, Crisis Camps, People Finder Applications, and Open Data.

    The tools are here for crisis coordination, it’s a matter of connecting the dots and filling in needs as they arise. This is an excellent question and food for thought for those of us who want to make change. Thanks,


    1. Saeed


      Thanks for the response and the tweets. I’ll check out the link you provided and Lucy’s blog. The is a lot that can be done to help improve how we help people after natural disasters. As an outsider looking in — we did do some collections and packed some relief boxes this fall to help out victims of the Pakistan flood — there seem to be a lot of gaps that can be addressed.

  2. Andreas

    Two things come to my mind:
    – find an organization and donate them regularly. For example the red cross invests into material for future cathastrophies, and puts it on stock, to be able to react fast
    – make sure your govt supports Kioto protocol, or Cancun on climate change. In particular if your country belongs to the Top pollutors / top contributors to problems that emerge from climate change

    1. Saeed


      Thanks for the response and the suggestions. I think the issue though is that large organizations like the Red Cross and certainly governments are not thinking along these proactive lines. If that were the case, then, for example, stockpiled disaster relief kits would be ready and waiting for immediate delivery — kind of analogous to stockpiled serums to protect against a disease outbreak — but that is of course not the case.

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