Aidex Voices

NGO risk management in a hostile environment is essential to protect both yourself, your assets and your colleagues. This particularly applies to NGOs that regularly interact with factions of the local community. We spoke to Joanne Smith of SEPAR International - a leading security, risk management, training and logistical support company specialising in hostile locations worldwide, about her Top Tips for NGO safety following their participation in AidEx in Brussels.

Joanne: “Risk cannot be 100% avoided but it can be reduced and managed. Understanding the political and security-risk environment in a country or region involves more than a Google search. Getting things done in high-risk jurisdictions can be arduous, frustrating and often dangerous. NGOs that ensure the optimum personal protection are those that seek to understand the history, culture, and current situation of the destination country.

“Security doesn’t have to be complicated or necessarily involve expensive specialist equipment. Apply the following tips at a minimum, and always seek the advice of an expert who thoroughly understands the local culture of the country you’re visiting.”

  1. Read your organisation’s policies. NGO operations in high-risk jurisdictions can face a broad spectrum of threats to their employees. Large areas of these countries can be controlled by rebel groups and local warlords. Power vacuums aggravate more commonplace risks, from life-threatening driving conditions to the spread of diseases, and can create lethal uncertainty in the local population. NGOs need to make sufficient preparations to ensure they meet physical, ethical and legal requirements to operate in foreign countries. This involves creating comprehensive compliance and risk assessment processes in order to identify, assess, monitor and manage risks, including the personal safety of their staff, and implementing and disseminating crisis-management strategies. Make sure you have accessed your NGO’s policies – read and understand before setting off.
  1. Keep up to date: Assess the risks of terrorism, internal conflict and civil unrest. Understanding the political and security risk of a high-risk jurisdiction is a continual effort. Simply researching these issues at the time of entry is not sufficient. Events evolve rapidly, and NGOs that are deploying aid workers in a high-risk environment need to regularly reassess the situation to understand how it is changing and mitigate  potential negative effects. Utilise the services of organisations who can provide intelligence and information reports. As an aid worker, you should have the ability to maintain an ongoing service with the intelligence provider whilst you are travelling. The situation in an unstable territory can change over-night, having the latest information at your fingertips will allow you to make decisions based on knowledge, rather than guesswork.
  1. Make sure you have access to funds: Sudden changes in laws and fluctuations in currency in a high-risk jurisdiction, such as changes in monetary policy, may restrict access to funding or cause fluctuations in exchange rates. Make sure you are able to access funds without relying on the local in-country bank.
  1. Take your personal safety seriously: Unstable or ineffective governments create a political climate that can increase the incidence of petty crimes such as pick-pocketing and violent crime, such as muggings and rape. Anti-foreign sentiment may heighten this and make aid working especially challenging. Mitigate the likelihood of becoming a victim:
  • Keep your passport and money hidden using a money belt or similar.  If you use a bag make sure it can go across your body with the pockets turned inwards, this prevents bag snatching and anyone putting their hands in your bag.  Do not use your back pocket for keeping your phone or valuables – this is the first place a pickpocket will look! 
  • Write down emergency information for the country you are travelling in just in case you should need it. Keep it stored in your phone’s notes or on a small laminate card to protect from adverse weather.
  • Ensure your travel plans are also provided to trusted friends / family and double check that they have stored them securely.  Tell them your general plans, where you are going and when and check in with them every few days. 
  • Do not share your travel plans on social media or with people that you have just met or in public places such as cafes, bars or in taxis.
  • Hide emergency cash / credit card separately for worst case scenarios.
  • Research the weather and any environmental hazards in the countries you’re visiting so you pack appropriately and prepare for any warnings.
  • Travel with others where feasible – a group is less of a target to thieves and predators.
  • Stay alert – alcohol and drugs can impair decisions and make you more vulnerable.
  • Only take registered taxis preferably with their licence and photograph displayed matching the driver.
  • Bring only what you really need, expensive cameras and watches will only draw attention to you.
  • Bring small denominations of currency – large sum notes draw attention!
  • Pack a doorstop to take with you in case any of your accommodation room doors do not have locks, place this under the door at night to prevent anyone from entering.
  • Only withdraw money from bank counters as ATM’s are at risk of ‘skimming’ with many cases being reported.
  • Be health conscious – get the appropriate vaccinations, use bottled water (always check the seal is intact) to drink and brush your teeth with, ensure bites and scratches are kept clean and treated.  Pack a basic first aid kit.
  • Make sure you have an electronic record of all flights, travel plans, emergency numbers and bank numbers in case you have to cancel a credit card. There are also excellent phone apps which allow you to notify a UK command and control centre that you are safe, such as TravSafe, which has been developed by SEPAR International associates.

In short, before visiting a volatile country, do your homework. It is not possible to eliminate all risks but you can reduce or manage them. Speak to SEPAR International to help familiarise with threats like terrorism, political violence, civil and sub-state conflict, regional instability, interstate relations, armed conflict, domestic military activity and regime stability. We also provide guidance and practical advice on personal safety.  Our in-country personnel can provide physical security and trained drivers and we offer safe houses which provide a welcome respite and a safe environment where you will meet with fellow NGOs.