Unless you live in a cave—which for many might seem a sensible thing to do judging by the current level of global risk—you will not have failed to recognize that international tensions are at their highest level for many years.
Wars, diseases, political unrest, natural disasters, sectarian violence, military interventions, and global terrorism have indiscriminately made the world a less safe place in which to live, work, travel, and transact.
Even in statistically safer territories, there is a perception—largely fanned by an over-imaginative 24/7 media machine—that we are all in mortal peril. Although life-changing acts of global terror underline legitimate concerns and have impacted daily life for many, the earth continues to spin. The world of business remains on its axis as more companies seek to expand their operations or do business in parts of the world that are widely viewed as risk hot spots.
Such companies are encouraged to take a global perspective on safety and loss prevention, particularly in light of research that suggests that by 2020 our international mobility levels—whether it is personal journeys of travelers finding themselves or multi-national businesses exploring new markets—will have increased by a further 50 percent. And these territories will carry with them various shades of risk as this wanderlust increases.
Nigeria is the home of notorious extremist group Boko Haram, whose anti-education views and methods of kidnapping and enslaving young schoolgirls have made it one of the world’s most outlawed organizations. But the country is an attractive trading partner for many businesses because the country’s economy grew by 89 percent between 2007 and 2013, and its billionaires dominate Africa’s rich list.
North Africa as a whole is also democracy poor but oil rich. Because of unrest in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, the region is largely seen as a terrorist training ground or a staging post for people traffickers and migrants fleeing to Europe from conflicts across the Middle East.
Retail is among the sectors attempting to increase their global footfall, whether through international expansion in store openings, meetings with suppliers, or logistics directors traveling to view supply chain operations. How do these businesses mitigate risk and unwanted attention? How do they get to understand the rules and protocols of doing business safely? How do they get to know about safety and loss prevention in far-flung territories without committing a crime or dropping a cultural clanger? Irrespective of language differences, how do companies make sure that staff behave correctly and respectably, even to the point of what they regard as harmless gestures?
For example, former UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond committed the ultimate faux pas in 2015 at possibly the most delicate part of the Iranian nuclear discussions, when he was pictured smiling to the world’s press and performing a double-thumbs-up alongside his Iranian counterpart when the deal was agreed. In Iran, the gesture is the equivalent of giving someone the middle finger, and it also has a perjorative meaning in Russia and Greece. If a skillful British politician cannot get the body language right, how does a business person venturing into unknown territory for the first time manage to seal the deal?
The truth is that many do not. According to leading medical and travel security experts International SOS, which specializes in keeping foreign nationals safe all over the world, although there is a duty of care expected of companies to their members of staff, there is a poor track record.
According to International SOS research figures in its travel risk management surveys, 38 percent of businesses said they never carried out research on a country they are visiting, and 78 percent of respondents never carry emergency numbers with them to cover the eventuality of getting into any difficulties.
Yet the same figures reveal a cerebral disconnect. A total of 86 percent of respondents understand that their companies have a duty of care towards them, and half of those asked said they would take legal action against their employers if things went wrong while abroad, presuming they came out of the incident unscathed.
London-based International SOS works hand in glove with its partner company Control Risks to provide risk assessment and business continuity strategy consultancy to companies operating around the world. Whereas Control Risks carries out deep-dive consultancy, International SOS provides the practical and tactical support in terms of medical intervention to full evacuation scenarios.
This multi-layered approach works because the risk map is constantly changing according to global events including disease outbreaks, the rise of the so-called Islamic State, and widespread political destabilization.
According to Robert Walker of International SOS, “The value of our services is that we have functional teams in each of our regions that carry out assessments and give advice, and they are the same teams that deliver the actual assistance. As the situations are actually very fluid, there can be a very fine line between the deterioration of a situation and when we need to actually evacuate people.
“We look at the worst-case scenarios and the most likely case outcomes in order to understand the implications for our clients, and that work allows us to deliver our service effectively.”
Being immersed in the world of international risk management by being embedded in medical corps, for example, allows the business to offer accurate, up-to-the-minute advice to clients active in the field.
“If we are advising clients, we have to be ahead of them in terms of knowledge and be able to identify trigger points and leading indicators linked to specific decisions. An election in a given country will not necessarily lead to a destabilization, but we monitor for how protest movement evolves and what the government response to those protests might be. Protests might start off as non-violent, but then a situation occurs, and the government does something such as putting police in full riot gear on the streets, for example. And this generates a reaction that foments fringe violence. This could initially be confined to the city (or even a focal point of the city, which grows around a few blocks) but by and large does not affect the wider country. We saw that in Tahrir Square in Cairo. But we would look for signs of protests developing in other, hitherto quiet cities or for unexpected increases in the size or changes in the behavior of crowds.
“If the police turn up in riot gear, protestors often want to throw things at the line of riot shields, and that is how situations escalate. So if we saw large numbers of Police stockpiling riot gear, we might start to advise additional precautions and, in some circumstances, to be prepared to stay in a safe location for several days.”
This is what the business refers to as the “death cross,” where the worst-case scenario also becomes the most likely. There is a confluence of events that threatens to overspill into a perfect storm where time to evacuate is no longer an option.
“The challenge in these situations is translating what we are seeing into useful advice before it is too late to do something about it,” said Walker.
Exposure to Risk
The biggest role of International SOS is to reduce the client’s exposure to risk so that they fully understand the geopolitical situation or, in the case of medical emergencies, the level of pandemic that they face in order for them to execute adequate precautions before situations become out of their control.
Information resources available to International SOS, which has been in business for 30 years, include viable and credible networks on the ground including non-governmental organizations (NGOs)—although they are not an NGO themselves—tour operators, medical personnel, and embassy staff who understand the lie of the land, literally and metaphorically.
Retailers Operating Outside Their Comfort Zones
Many international retailers have launched ventures in territories that have not worked simply because the customer homework was deemed inadequate. Tesco’s launch of its grocery offering in North America was abandoned, as was Best Buy’s foray into the UK electronics market, although both looked good on paper.
Operating in other countries is more than dealing with customers’ different buying patterns. In the world of safety and loss prevention, CCTV systems rules differ in various European countries based on their interpretation of the EU Data Protection Regulations, and in the situation of employment law, rules governing the hiring and firing of staff vary significantly.
Imagine trying to negotiate a world where bribery and corruption are the currency of the territory, although outlawed by the retailer’s own country of origin.
“If you were looking to enter a country to do business, for example Tajikistan, we would advise how to travel and provide intelligence on business operations, but there is no replacement for local knowledge to control risks. Corruption and bribery are good examples in many countries, and we would always counsel on Western travelers new to a region to be escorted by a national who speaks the local language and dialect and understands the culture,” said Walker.
Road traffic accidents for foreign nationals are in the top five of medical evacuations from a country, according to International SOS figures, so the organization has developed a best practice package to guide visitors.
“Having a local driver instead of driving yourself is always advisable in the case of road traffic accidents, for example, as the aftermath could be complicated if you have limited knowledge of the language and legal requirements,” said Walker.
International SOS has also worked out the commercial value of failures triggered by not carrying out pre-travel risk assessments. From the company’s calculations, a failed assignment resulting in evacuation due to not performing the right levels of due diligence can cost a business anywhere between €520,000 and €868,000, which is more than two and a half times the cost of an average successful mission.
Failure in the international arena is therefore not a commercial option, particularly as the cost of pre-travel screening is relatively inexpensive and requires mainly common-sense checks and regular touch points.
Presenting at Retail Fraud in the UK in April in 2015, International SOS Regional Security Manager Peter Cooper said, “Businesses must have a communications plan while they are abroad and make sure that they are tracking their personnel while they are away. This involves regular contact and more so at a time of emergency so that the company can make sure they are okay as part of their duty of care to that individual. There are also quick tips for travelers. These include having an itinerary and sharing it with the business. Employers should also consider the employee profile. Are they a novice traveler, for example? The company will also have carried out its own risk assessment of the region to investigate the potential threats while both parties need to be aware of the assistance available and how to access it in an emergency.”
Risk is a perennial travelling partner whether the journey is for business or pleasure. The traveler must therefore plan and pack accordingly and, along with their suits and briefcases, carry an itinerary complete with emergency contact details. Most importantly, the business must have done its pre-trip homework to protect its most valuable assets and as far as possible guarantee the success of the overseas mission before it has even left familiar soil.
This article was excerpted from “International Rescue,” which was published in 2015 in LP Magazine EU.