Non-government organizations (NGOs) operate in remote, austere conditions to include conflict zones throughout the world. NGO staff conduct humanitarian activities far from medical facilities, in areas of poor physical and communications infrastructure, and faced with fluid conflict conditions. Previous protections offered by their neutral status have eroded over time, putting NGO employees at increased risk of harm. One of the best approaches for NGOs to navigate the evolving risk landscape is through tough, realistic training. Building up each employee’s capacity develops strong, cohesive teams that will thrive in risk environments.
Each organization has a unique risk profile, generated by external threats and the organization’s risk tolerance. Hostile Environment Awareness Training, termed HEAT, has become a buzzword in the NGO sector. Many service providers provide one-two day courses covering various subjects ranging from first aid to kidnap and rescue scenarios. The allure of certifications is a strong incentive to demonstrate a duty of care without truly preparing employees for the risks they will encounter. If an NGO wants to ensure the health and safety of its employees by adequately preparing and equipping them for the risk landscape they will work in, a HEAT curriculum can be a valuable, affordable component of the risk mitigation process if done correctly. Tailored training versus a standardized certification is a far more effective approach to protecting employees.
The HEAT curriculum begins with an organizational risk assessment. The NGO must assess where it is conducting activities, what health, safety, and security risks are present in that location, the differing threats to expatriate and local staff, and an assessment of current staff training levels. Using the reality of budget constraints as a guide, determine which are the most likely risks and who is at most risk in the organization. Then a training plan is created to meet those requirements. In an ideal scenario, an organization “trains the trainer” and builds an in-house cadre of instructors to sustain long term professional development efforts. For skills such as first aid or driver training, this is feasible for many organizations. For more specialized skills such as advanced driving, counter-custody training, advanced medical, or survival training, it will be best to solicit outsourced vendor support. It is not cost-effective for most organizations to develop an in-house capacity for such niche skills.
As numerous benchmark surveys indicate, the most common risks are medical injury due to vehicle accidents and fire safety incidents. A robust first aid, driving education, and fire safety program will go far to mitigate risk for employees. Taking this one step further, NGOs should develop a resident instructor cadre for these skill sets. Ideally, during a new country project set up, an instructor can travel to the new office to run initial training for new local staff. Training local staff to include hired drivers in these skill sets ensures a consistent quality standard. In the best-case scenario, the local staff is trained to a degree where they can conduct internal maintenance training.
With a diligent risk assessment process and a long-term view to employee training, an NGO can invest in developing a sustainable HEAT instructor cadre that will dramatically reduce the risks to its workforce, both expatriate and local. The benefits of this approach include long-term savings and an instructor group sensitive to the company culture. When combined with a disciplined incident reporting system and after-action review process that informs the development of new training scenarios, the HEAT curriculum will evolve with the organization. This will ensure a professional development program that stays current to organizational requirements and strategic shifts.