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Into the Lion's den

21 December 2009 11:57

How do charities cope with buying business travel to some of the world's most dangerous locations? By Amon Cohen, 11th May 2009, Supply Management

If rock climbing and skydiving are "extreme sports", then the equivalent in travel management must be running a programme for an overseas charity.

Four aid workers were killed in the line of duty in the first week of 2009 alone.

"Charities send their people into places where everyone else is coming out," says Robin Wilson, head of account management for Ian Allan Travel, which has a specialist charities division.

In procurement terms, while not a matter of life or death, buying conditions for charities are also about as problematic as they can get.

So how do these organisations tackle the tests they face? These days, many organisations in the private and public sectors seek to replace much of their travel with virtual communication, but Kay Burgess, Save the Children UK contracts manager, says: "We use Skype and video-conferencing as much as we can, but we really need to be there."

For those who do travel, there may be no flying in business class, but their requirements are expensive all the same. Aid workers journey to varied, remote locations, many of them only reachable via routes with a supplier monopoly. Moreover, itineraries are liable to late booking and frequent changes, making it impossible to buy the most highly discounted fares.

Another barrier to lower-priced travel is that online booking tools are not an option because of the unusual travel patterns and need for carefully planned support, such as visa and security arrangements.

A recent survey by Key Travel, another charities specialist, found only 8.5 per cent of aid organisations were interested in a self-booking tool.

Business acumen

As if that were not enough, charities rarely maximise what little buying power they have. In Wilson's experience, they lack business acumen and, according to Key Travel, their devolved structure is not conducive to setting and enforcing coherent travel policy.

It means that, while charity workers will happily shun pricey Western hotels for locally run hostels or fly indirect routes adding hours to their journey, they are liable to undo the good work by booking trips independently. This often proves more expensive than booking through the authorised programme, once cancellations and amendments are taken into account.

"Everyone knows they should use the policy, but discipline can be poor," Steve Summers, Key Travel commercial director, says. "Charities are not usually organisations that like to impose rules and regulations, often because each department has separate financing for its projects."

Specialist agents

When Kay Burgess started to look for a travel management company (TMC) for Save the Children, it became apparent it was essential to choose one experienced in handling charities' highly unusual requirements.

"The specialists understood that whatever may be happening, we need to be there. They were much more in tune with what we need."

It is not only cultural empathy which is important. The specialist TMCs say it takes many years to build up knowledge of managing travel to destinations in the developing world, often involving strange routes with obscure airlines. They also offer 24-hour service and are accustomed to dealing with the volatility that can disrupt trips of this nature.

Specialists are also used to dealing with the vagaries of airline charity fares, also known as missionary or humanitarian fares. Essentially net fares with preferential terms, these are made exclusively available to specialist TMCs by carriers to sell on to charities for a small mark-up (as a result of which TMCs do not normally charge a transaction fee for handling the fares).

Most charity fares are not cheaper than ordinary published fares, but they do provide greater flexibility. In particular, they can be changed or cancelled. One client of Key Travel recently bought 114 tickets in a month and made 117 amendments to them - typical for this sector.

Another benefit of charity fares is that the baggage allowance is much greater. This is a crucial advantage, according to Wilson. "If you are going to the Congo for a year, you are not going to be carrying 20kg."

Using charity fares is complex for other reasons. They cannot be used by all institutions with charitable status - private schools, for example, are not entitled to them. Even a charity which is usually allowed them can be barred if the flights are for a project receiving UK government funding.

Just to make things more complicated, some government aid has strings attached, such as an insistence that flights must be with an airline registered in the donor country. Even more problematically, charity workers sometimes find themselves having to use airlines they would rather not be on.

"We have to think about carriers banned from the European Union. Luckily, we receive support from insurers who will cover us," says Burgess.

It is a reminder that the norms of travel-related health and safety are quite different in this sector. Yet that is no excuse for failing to exercise duty of care - but there is much evidence to suggest failure is all too common. A recent article by aid worker Michael Kleinman for the website Humanitarian Relief stated that many non-governmental organisations give their personnel no security training whatsoever.

Increased risk

Meanwhile, the TMCs say smaller charities in particular are only now beginning to understand their legal and moral obligations. Uptake of risk management tools, reports Summers, is low despite the relatively small cost of services such as traveller tracking.

Especially worrying is that attacks on aid workers have increased significantly over the past decade, according to Nick Downie, who until the end of April was head of security for Save the Children UK (see box opposite). In part, this reflects increased anti-Western sentiment, but aid workers are also targets for criminals and there is more awareness of their presence owing to the internet and satellite TV.

However, Downie is keen not to portray aid organisations as victims. He believes the way they handle themselves in the world's most hostile environments carries valuable lessons for others. "Our people cannot travel around with guns in bulletproof 4x4s," he says.

"We are still in Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan - and not just in the big cities. The private sector can learn from how we work with people, enabling us to go into communities where no one could go before."

* Amon Cohen is a freelance business travel journalist


AT SAVE THE CHILDREN Somalia, Sudan, DRC Congo, Gaza and Zimbabwe are all destinations to which the Foreign & Commonwealth Offices advises against some or all travel, but Save the Children (STC) sends staff to each of them. So when Nick Downie, speaking to SM before he stepped down as head of security, says: "We operate in some of the most insecure places in the world," he's not exaggerating.

With a career in the army and police force behind him, Downie was responsible for the safety and security for Save the Children UK and the challenges he faced were formidable.

Even where security is not a problem, personnel frequently have to deal with weak infrastructure, ranging from intermittent to no electricity to poor or non-existent roads. As a result, although STC uses technology such as traveller tracking systems, training staff to be self-reliant is essential.

"Our people are often without communications. Technological tools won't work when the electricity fails, but tools in the mind will."

There are four types of security training at STC to cater for different staff.

The first group are "security focal points" - designated personnel at each of the charity's locations responsible for communicating messages locally about security.

"They have to communicate at all levels, from the cleaner and driver to the country manager," says Downie. They are also responsible for ensuring visiting staff are briefed properly. "If someone visits and does not know how to behave, they can put everyone at risk."

Staff travelling abroad for work are the second target for training. It is mandatory for all personnel to be briefed within 24 hours of deployment to a location. Every country has its own security plan and procedures, and there is a great deal of experience among those already there which is passed on to new arrivals. However, they do not arrive entirely green. STC also encourages new and existing staff to attend intensive three- to five-day courses in the UK.

The other two groups are senior field managers, such as country managers, who are taught how to create security plans; and senior executives, who ensure the security implications of the strategic decisions they make are never far from their minds.

In addition to this, STC has a carefully prepared crisis management plan which, unlike in some organisations, has no chance of gathering dust. All staff are drilled to know their part.

However, enacting a crisis plan does not necessarily mean the charity will evacuate staff - although there are plans for those contingencies too. "There are very strong reasons not to leave. If we leave for 24 hours, it looks like we are running away, and what message does that send out? Often we adopt a policy of lowering our profile instead - by hiding vehicles, for example."

Downie also started to build up health training, ranging from the threat of Ebola in the Congo to snake bites in the Sudan. He is conscious too of how the mental health of aid workers can be affected by the conditions and risks they face. "Our workers are sitting in the mud or in a tent where they can often hear the bombs and bullets."

Yet STC personnel are a hardy lot and Downie finds complacency about security can creep in. The "tools in th

e mind" he is trying to implant are as much aimed at the consciousness of these seasoned veterans as of those entering the field for the first time. "We need to have fear," he says. "It's the fearless I worry about."

MORE INFO Estimated number of NGO workers killed, 2008

Somalia 36 Afghanistan 33 Sudan (Darfur) 11 Chad 4 DRC Congo 2 Sri Lanka 2 Pakistan 1 Total 89


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