How can NGOs help protect employees working overseas?

April 09, 2020

As a not for profit employer of international employees, one of the greatest challenges is protecting their physical wellbeing while they are working in remote or volatile situations. 

Ipsos Global Reputation Centre research has found many employers believe risks associated with travel are increasing, and many businesses change employee itineraries in response to security concerns. But what if your NGO is an aid agency or involved in service provision in dangerous areas? For you, changing an itinerary or leaving an area is a last resort. 

Risk to NGO employees comes in the form of civil unrest, disease or natural disaster. As political instability and terrorism is becoming less and less predictable globally, employers have to be more vigilant to protect their frontline employees. Some useful steps that NGOs can take to mitigate the risk to their overseas employees include:

The first step in addressing potential danger in any country is completing a thorough risk analysis of the location. The World Economic Forum’s Global Risk Report is a good place to start when it comes to assessing the risk faced from climate change to violence, and poverty and what it means for those who live and work there temporarily. 

Although standard classroom based pre-departure training is satisfactory for expats going to work in relatively safe environments. If required, NGO’s should consider providing hostile environment training that covers the worst case scenario situations like:

  • Staying safe in hostile environments
  • Being taken hostage
  • Terrorist situations

The most effective courses will involve participants taking part in realistic scenarios following their training, so they have the opportunity to practice what they have learned. A former Deputy Director for Oxfam International said training should take place in the local country, where possible, so the context of a specific situation can be communicated. If it isn’t possible to complete all the training in the destination country, consider a shorter orientation on arrival.  

Each employee should have a thorough health screening in advance of departure. This should identify any existing conditions that will need to be managed while they are overseas as well as vaccination requirements. All employees should be briefed on healthcare in their destination country and be provided with any medical equipment they may have to carry with them e.g. sterile needles, dressings etc.

If a crisis does occur, communication will be essential for a swift resolution. As an NGO, it is worth investing in crisis communication should something unexpected happen. The key to crisis management is:

Have a plan that covers the most common scenarios by destination e.g. in one destination  it may be having a member of staff kidnapped, in another it could be bribery within your organisation.

Have a crisis telephone directory: this should contain emergency contact numbers for your most senior employees who need to be informed if something does go wrong. 

Have a trained spokesperson: avoid putting someone in front of a camera or microphone who has not been media trained. Ensure your spokesperson is clear on what can and cannot be said before they speak to media or other interested parties. 

Encourage preventive behaviours 

Finally encourage employees to use preventative behaviours that make them less likely to be a victim in a dangerous location. This will vary by destination but could include:

  • regularly reporting their location
  • not travelling alone
  • only using pre-approved transport 
  • not going out late at night or early in the early morning
  • taking precautions in their accommodation e.g. keeping doors, windows locked at all times

Protect your NGO employees while they are living and working abroad. Talk to us about our international health insurance products tailored to the unique needs of an NGO.