One of the most common questions asked is the safety aspect of working overseas for international development organisations. Whether you are involved in some kind of disaster relief or a long-term project maybe involving education, there are many aspects to consider with regards to safety. Thankfully, international development organisations are legally obliged to protect their staff whether working on a voluntary basis or salaried. So, how do international development organisations keep their staff safe?
Building relationships with communities
When working overseas in a foreign land there can be many simple misunderstandings which can prove potentially dangerous. As a consequence, the majority of organisations will already have a relationship with the local community. It is important that international development workers appreciate the local culture while also taking the relevant precautions to ensure their own safety. There will be a degree of trepidation on both sides when international development workers begin tackling various issues within local communities. Ensuring there are no misunderstandings, no cultural clashes and everybody knows what to expect, is vital.
Keeping staff informed
Communication, communication and yet more communication! This is vital to the success of any international development/relief project. To be forewarned is to be forearmed is a simple saying but so very real. Risk assessments are also an integral part of any relief project, whether long-term or short-term, as well as potential evacuation procedures. Unfortunately, many of the areas of the world covered by international development organisations tend to have volatile political landscapes which can change very quickly. Keeping staff informed if situations change is extremely important.
The role of an international development worker can be stressful, it can be traumatic and organisations have a legal obligation to put in place post-traumatic support. Someone to talk to, offer advice about physical side-effects and a degree of guidance can be invaluable. We have seen occasions where volunteers and salaried staff have suffered horrendous post-traumatic stress with little or no support from the organisations. This potentially opens up the opportunity to pursue compensation for negligence and personal injury.
As with post-traumatic support there is also a need for international development organisations to put in place reporting structures. This ensures that any issues can be reported in confidence and addressed in a structured and sensible manner. In the past we have seen many occasions where complaints have been “lost in the system” only to emerge many years later causing significant reputational and financial damage. Many people automatically assume that development/aid organisations are somehow above the law – they are not.
Leading by example
From the boss at the very top of the organisation to those joining in a relatively junior role, everyone should lead by example. The culture at the top of many international development organisations has changed in recent years. Where once they were seen as “one man bands” they now take in a range of different cultures, ethnicities with a greater balance between men and women. It is fair to say that some organisations have endured reputational damage as a consequence of corporate/structural failures, but many have learnt their lesson.
More information for donors
There have been occasions where international development organisations have been “stuck in the past” and failed to update their procedures and ways of working. In many ways it is the individual and corporate donors who are in a unique position to place pressure on these organisations. They can demand specific reports about how their funds are used, how the organisation is set up and the treatment of staff. While the majority of organisations have perfectly adequate procedures it does tend to focus the minds of those who have potential shortfalls.
Assessing security risks
It is all good and well assessing the security risks of an overseas project from the head office in the UK or other country. Everything is black and white, the numbers are crunched and the assessment is made. Unfortunately, we have seen many occasions where international development workers land on the ground to find a very different situation. Security is something which should be constantly assessed, reports produced and paper trail created. This is a legal obligation of international development organisations as a means of showing they have done everything they could to protect their staff.
Working with other organisations
We know that funding for international development organisations can be extremely tough to secure. We know there is competition amongst individual organisations for the funding which is available. However, there will be situations when various organisations will need to communicate and work together. This may involve using contacts on the ground, paving the way for new international development workers or simply working together for the good of the overall community.
Taking a break
When it comes to international aid/development it is very easy for the heart to take over the head. The adrenaline is pumping, your moral compass is as straight as a die and you know exactly what you want to do next. Moving from one project straight to the next one may feel right but can be both physically challenging and mentally challenging so you may need a rest. Spending some time with friends and family will bring you back down to earth again, allow you to relax and put life in perspective. After recharging your batteries, you will no doubt be ready for anything and you would be both mentally and physically better off for the break.
Even though the most international development organisations will have their own safety/security department, some environments may necessitate outside assistance. While there is obviously a cost of this outside assistance, it is extremely dangerous to put funds before the safety of employees and the potential long-term success of any project. Some organisations may require outside assistance for other areas of the project where perhaps their own experience/skills are slightly lacking.
To Conclude –
While many of the above procedures may seem relatively obscure in isolation, the cumulative impact can be significant with regards to employee safety. Even though the project on the ground is obviously very important, the safety of employees is above and beyond everything else. It is also imperative that all employees are protected, whether volunteers or salaried staff, and know they are valued and safe.