Managing Risk on Mission Trips

by Steve Summers
Posted on 1st January 2013

Faith groups and travellers have a duty to protect their missionaries and themselves on the move. Chief Executive of non-profit travel specialists Key Travel, Steve Summers, explains how.

Missionaries travel to some of the remotest and inhospitable parts of the globe. Although many trips pass without incident, risks - including the threat of crime, civil unrest or natural disaster - are never far away.

However, all organisations and travellers can take steps to reduce the risks to themselves and their staff and volunteers abroad. This doesn't need to be daunting or expensive. Here are some of our top tips for staying safe on the move:

Have a travel policy

There is no 'one size fits all approach' to risk management. However, depending on the size of an organisation implementing a travel policy can help. This usually consists of a set of guidelines that travellers can consult, and which identify risk and set out what staff should do if they run into trouble.

A travel policy, which needs to be regularly updated as circumstances change, can include guidelines on things such as which airlines and hotels to use. The policy should also spell out who is responsible for what in case of emergency, with clear lines of communication planned in advance between those working abroad and colleagues at home.

A 2012 survey of Key Travel customers found that only a third of faith groups have a travel policy, compared to over two thirds of charitable organisations in general. Help is available for organisations who want to put a travel policy in place - a specialist travel management company can work with you to design a policy tailored to your needs, size and budget.

Do your homework - and be prepared

You can never be too prepared. Some organisations brief all travellers beforehand and say that no one is actually allowed to travel until they have filled out a travel form and read a country briefing - which might contain key cultural and political facts, social and religious norms, useful phrases, up-to-date conflict reports, and any country-specific protocols to follow in case of emergency.

This approach might be too elaborate for some. However travellers should still research their destination before they set off and be able to answer the following key questions:

  1. Where are the nearest airports?
  2. What is the quickest, safest form of transport to use?
  3. Where are the nearest hospitals?
  4. What should I do and who should I report to in case of incidents like disaster, attack, injury or sickness?
  5. What are the best evacuation routes?
  6. Who is responsible for what? And to whom should I report?

Staying in touch is important. Travellers should share their itinerary with colleagues at home and agree to check in at pre-arranged times.

Paper back-ups of important documents should be carried whenever possible - particularly for those working in the field. Any traveller should have a list of important contacts and information - including details such as their transport on arrival, any country directors and details of the embassy or high commission. Copies should also be made of insurance, travel, passport and medical details.

Some specialist travel companies, including Key Travel, also offer internet-based cloud document storage services so that travellers can retrieve data - such as passport information - should they misplace their documents.

Has everyone received training?

A faith organisation may not have the time or resources to develop its own formal training tools, and individual travellers may not always know where to look for the help that they need. In this case, travel management companies and risk management consultancies offer affordable travel awareness programmes which may be provided for a fixed cost for the whole organisation or to individual travellers for as little as £4 per head. Online risk training courses are also available. As with all training, content should be regularly refreshed and procedures rehearsed.

The tale of American aid worker Flavia Wagner demonstrates the importance of briefing travellers - and the possible consequences of not doing so. Wagner, who was abducted and held for 105 days in Darfur in 2010, filed a lawsuit the following year against the Christian relief organisation that sent her there, because she felt they did not have sufficient contingency plans in place to deal with the threat of kidnap and had not adequately trained security personnel.

Stay up-to-date

It is a good idea for individuals and organisations to keep informed of potential risks before, during and after travel. Of course, it is not always possible to keep up to date with television or radio news when travelling in a remote region, far from the nearest town or city. Fortunately alternatives are available. For example, risk alerts can be synchronised with travel itineraries so that they report risks in real time - delivering updates and alerts directly to a mobile phone.

Travel monitoring tools can also help in an emergency. Special software will look at travel itineraries and compare them with the latest security and risk information. If a traveller is due to travel to an area where he or she will face a high level of risk this will automatically be reported back to colleagues at the home. Prompt action can then be taken to ensure that the traveller is kept safe and sound - and away from danger.

Peace of mind

Travel by its very nature is stressful and may bring with it increased levels of anxiety and stress. These concerns are also shared by the family, friends and employer of someone who is travelling regularly as part of their work. Knowing that people are "OK" and assuring travellers that they can easily stay in touch helps provide peace of mind to all concerned.

Steve Summers is Chief Executive of Key Travel, a leading Travel Management Company (TMC) dedicated to the not-for-profit sector. For more information about Key Travel or to discuss your needs with an expert in your field visit or call 020 7843 9600.