Protecting your workforce in humanitarian crises: advice from the Red Cross

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This article features an interview to Alberto Monguzzi, who works as Global Lead in the Business Continuity, of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). The IFRC, established in 1919, is a global membership organization operating in the field of humanitarian protection and assistance for victims of war and armed violence. It is active in several fields, such as disaster preparedness and disaster response, climate risk, accessible education, equality and inclusion, and humanitarian diplomacy. To date, it employs over 20,000 people and it is active in more than 100 countries.

In the interview below we explore different aspects of crisis management with Alberto Monguzzi, focusing on the complexity of orchestrating a response across different countries. In doing so we analyse the implications of Covid-19 in the humanitarian sector, the importance of cultural competences and the structure of a crisis communications plan.

All the views expressed in this piece belong to Alberto Monguzzi and they are not to be intended as an official communication of the IFRC.

What are the key factors in deploying a successful crisis response in your experience? 

Due to the nature of my job, I often have to address crises that encompass different countries and remote areas. Our staff usually travel to areas affected by a crisis to assist the community and provide humanitarian support. Thus, it is of the utmost importance to have a local detachment for several reasons. First of all, you must be able to tap into information from local media, security agencies and authorities, such as municipalities or regions. Furthermore, local staff might enjoy fewer limitations in moving around without exposing themselves to potential risks, while also being able to develop a local network and gather intelligence. In terms of preliminary work, you need to carry out an accurate analysis. This can be performed through a desk review or horizon scanning techniques and it should allow you to acquire the necessary knowledge on a specific area. Personally, I find the CIA Factbook very useful. These arrangements are useful since the perception of risk can be completely different depending on whether you are a local or someone based in a different country. Unfortunately, many organizations do not adopt such rigorous processes, putting their staff at risk due to the lack of knowledge on the territory where they operate.

What are the main factors or variables that can affect the response to a crisis?

We must differentiate between external and internal variables. The impact of external variables depends on your knowledge of the territory and the robustness of your previous analyses. Obviously, unpredictable events such as certain types of natural disasters can challenge your plans, but it is still key that you do your research on the environment where you operate. As for internal variables, availability of key staff is pivotal to a successful plan. For instance, the Covid-19 crisis has had a very tangible impact, since different countries have access to health aids and vaccination at different times, often at the disadvantage of developing areas. This can hinder the free movement of key staff across countries and therefore affect response capabilities. Finally, the psychological impact of managing a crisis should not be underestimated. It is important that mental health support is provided to all individuals affected by an event.

How important is a crisis communications structure and how can you build a successful one?

Communication is key. It is extremely important to have an internal structure to avoid disinformation, which can negatively affect the response and create confusion. For example, if a member of staff on a mission abroad is hospitalized the organization must be able to receive clear and timely updates. Inaccurate news in the context of an emergency would probably lead to inefficient or counterproductive responses, worsening the entire situation. Furthermore, establishing clear roles, responsibilities and policies helps avoid sending out confidential messages that could undermine the crisis management process. For instance, an inappropriate message could have serious repercussions on staff working in the field, who could easily become targets. In our teams we tend to have two separate figures: an internal communicator and an external communicator. It is important to always send out a consistent message with predetermined spokespeople when communicating to the public. The rest of the workforce must then receive clear directions or even a script in case they are approached by the press. For our organization, the way in which we report on the response can also become a way to engage other stakeholders for financial support and improve our reputation.

What is the impact of different cultures and backgrounds when responding to an event abroad?

Very significant, because not everyone has the same perception of risk. Different cultural backgrounds create different ways to perceive risk levels in specific environments. For instance, in my experience an employee who grows up in an environment affected by destabilizing events (e.g. political turmoil, natural catastrophes) will probably have a higher risk tolerance. Furthermore, cultural differences can bring different perspectives, especially when managing crisis situations. For all these reasons, having a local partner with a different background and perspective in the crisis team is a must. Diversity ensures a healthy level of constructive debate through strict collaboration with individuals who are also extremely knowledgeable about the field and understand the context where the organization operates better than anyone else.

What are the main soft and hard skills needed for the job?

Soft skills include diplomacy, collaboration and leadership, as well as the ability to summarize relevant information and different opinions. It is also very important to be able to handle stressful situations in crisis contexts. In some cases, if appropriate, a sense of humour can go a long way in keeping up morale in difficult times. As for hard skills, knowledge of the right process and procedures is pivotal, which allows you to differentiate between assisting a client during a crisis and responding to a critical incident affecting your own organization. This is especially valid for humanitarian organizations.

What type of training and education would you recommend for someone who wants to work in your field?

It depends on previous education. From an international cooperation perspective, generally you would have to specialize in public health or anything that has an international range. For instance, if you are an engineer, you should specialize in those engineering projects that are most relevant for developing areas on a global scale. This can be done both through master’s degrees – as long as they are not too theoretical – and professional training courses. As for crisis management training, I would recommend professional certifications, to be complemented with additional training on a case-by-case basis. Furthermore, it is key to remember the importance of exercises and crisis simulations, as they are a very effective way to absorb lessons from real-life scenarios.

In conclusion, can you give us a word of advice for the new generation of professionals in crisis management and resilience?

First of all, it is really important to understand your motivations for getting involved in crisis management and, in my case, international development. Then I would advise upcoming professionals to get ready for a steep learning curve. It is often the case that after finishing university studies a newcomer will need to learn what it means and what it feels like to work in the field, experiencing real crisis situations. The job entails a lot of sacrifice, but it is really rewarding as you get a chance to have a visible impact on communities all around the world. Salary is important but that should not be the primary motivation. As a starting point, it might be worth doing some volunteering while at university. This will help you get used to interacting with those that have undergone a traumatic experience. On this note, it is pivotal to develop empathy with those you are assisting. Most people that experience a crisis are not equipped to process the situation and react correctly; hence, a good crisis manager must take this into account too. Finally, it is necessary to take the time to learn, without trying to take shortcuts to become an expert, as growth must be structured and organic.