C&B Notes

Simple But Effective

A French purchasing agent working for Doctors Without Borders redesigned the humble tarpaulin in the mid-1990’s.  The result has been improved performance and much lower cost for one of the most versatile and important tools for aid workers.

Ask an aid worker, though, and the paeans to tarpaulin come pouring out.  Cheap, lightweight, and waterproof, “tarpaulin is the most common shelter material,” says Joseph Ashmore, shelter consultant for the International Organization for Migration.  Responders and survivors can use tarpaulin for roofs, fences, and flooring — but don’t limit your imagination to shelter.  “I’ve seen people dry rice on it, in latrines, as bags, as trousers, as umbrellas,” Ashmore adds.

Not all tarpaulin is created equal, though.  The Red Cross catalog’s tarpaulin is the crème de la crème of plastic sheeting.  It’s not the blue stuff of construction scaffolds, nor is it the inferior tarpaulin that certain aid agencies give out (which last only months under the sun’s harsh ultraviolet glare).  These obsessively engineered 4×6 meter plastic sheets last years, and it all goes back to one French engineer tying plastic sheets to poles back in the ’90s.

Patrick Oger was a purchasing officer for Doctors Without Borders when he first got the tarpaulin assignment in 1993.  At the time, high-quality tarpaulin came from just one maker, a Danish company called Monarflex.  Thanks to its patent on the tarpaulin’s eyelets (just the eyelets!), the company could charge monopoly prices.  So aid agencies often went with cheap tarpaulin that fell apart after months.  One report estimates that the turnover cost $10 million a year.

So in 1993, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and Doctors Without Borders decided to write their own specifications for tarpaulin in humanitarian aid.  With the details in hand  — size, strength, color, thickness, and so on — they could get manufacturers to bid on the cost.  They put Oger in charge of collecting the specs, but he needed help.  “I’m not a plastic maker,” says Oger. “I had to learn everything…”

Working mostly alone — while still doing his job as a purchasing office — Oger completed the specifications for tarpaulins in three years.  Since 1996, the Red Cross, UNHCR, Doctors Without Borders, UNICEF, and Oxfam have given out millions of tarps manufactured to those specs.  Factories in China, Korea, Vietnam, India, Pakistan, and Kenya churn out the tarpaulin to use all over the world.  And they’re cheap, at just $15 a pop in the Red Cross catalog.  “We’ve really made a good product.  It is saving money.  It is saving lives,” says Oger. When you see pictures of UN shelters made out of tarp, it’s his.