Home Blog & Media Humanitarian Aid Safety: How preparedness can ensure business continuity

Humanitarian Aid Safety: How preparedness can ensure business continuity

February 18, 2020

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Robert Quigley M.D., D.Phil, F.A.C.S.

Senior Vice President and Regional Medical Director
International SOS and MedAire

When it comes to changing the world, humanitarian workers are on the front lines. NGOs employ nearly 19 million paid workers and countless volunteers, many of whom travel to remote locations to make positive change happen. However, this travel is not without risks. Those who are deployed globally to help those in need face a variety of health and security risks, even in low-risk destinations it’s up to the organization to ensure they’re adequately prepared and safe.

Travelers may encounter a wide variety of risks when working for an NGO in a foreign country, including immediate danger associated with conflict or political tensions, tainted resources concerns over traveler welfare due to delays, airline strikes or weather disruption. In addition to security risks, there are also health-related risks that travelers may encounter such as infectious disease and psychological disorders,the two most common medical categories associated with frequent travel. According to International SOS research, whether it be a medical evacuation or an evacuation in light of a natural disaster, more than 20% of international aid workers in 18 countries require evacuation over a 12 month period. Evacuations such as these can be costly to the organization in more than one way. While the health and safety of the traveler are of the utmost importance, business continuity for NGOs is also crucial.

A company’s Duty of Care to employees ensures that an NGO is providing physical, mental, and

pharmaceutical services as well as safety, security, and support wherever their people are serving–including in remote and sometimes dangerous parts of the world. Strong risk mitigation programs can help to alleviate the damages that these risks may have on the wellbeing of the employee or volunteer. This can, in turn, build trust and increase employee/volunteer retention, while maintaining business continuity. Lastly, when an NGO adopts a robust travel risk management program, it benefits the organization by decreasing monetary expenses such as medical and security evacuations, training costs, and most importantly – human capital.

As mentioned previously there are different strategies for addressing destinations of varying risk. We often find that NGOs must take extra precaution when deploying staff to high-risk countries because there are additional circumstances that travelers should be prepared for. In addition risk mitigation should be a priority in lower-risk destinations as well. Low-risk destinations sometimes open the door to other threats because travelers may not be as prepared for unexpected situations, leaving them vulnerable.

The best way to ensure that a traveler stays healthy and safe during an excursion is to establish robust preventive programs, catered specifically to the environments they are in. Pre-departure preparation is important for everyone, regardless of their destination or trip duration. Preparing for health-related risks might include ensuring vaccinations are up to date and adequately briefing travelers on foods or other substances they should avoid in the region or country where they’ll be traveling. By knowing what to avoid and recognizing early signs of illness, traveler preparation can ultimately avoid costly medical evacuations. Additionally, this preparation should also include researching adequate medical facilities in the area so in the case that the traveler does become ill, they are able to receive medicine or medical attention quickly before the situation becomes life-threatening.

In addition to medical-related health risks, natural disasters can also inhibit NGOs’ ability to maintain business continuity and protect their employees and volunteers. Due to the unpredictable nature of the world, it’s important to make sure that humanitarian workers are informed of the types of natural disasters that may arise. Natural disasters can disrupt an NGOs scheduled services, travel plans, and their ability to communicate with volunteers and employees. An alternate communication plan should be in place ahead of travel plans to mitigate risks related to loss of communication channels. Additionally, explicit instructions should be provided to the traveler in the instance that a natural disaster should occur. These instructions and best practices should also include health risks associated with the types of natural disasters and how to protect against them.

The more information the employee or volunteer is equipped with by their organization, the lower the risks they may face threaten business continuity. These risks can alternately lead to costly situations for the company in ensuring the individual gets the proper assistance. NGOs can quantify a return on investment for prevention programs and put those savings back into their emergency response preparedness or assessment, and their own humanitarian aid programs.