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In March last year, the queue to get into Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila snaked around the terminal building. Despite the urgency, volunteers there pleaded for an hour longer to finish off their work before evacuating.
It was a similar story for thousands of aid workers posted around the world. Emergency repatriations didn’t just pose logistical challenges for charity organizations; it meant abandoning their communities.
The professional volunteers in the Philippines were just a handful of hundreds that work for UK not-for-profit organization Voluntary Service Overseas, which rushed to bring them home earlier this year as the pandemic hit.
VSO has 700 staff globally, and 300 international volunteers — mostly technical experts — who stay one or two years in a country. Work can vary from teaching villages about crop rotation and building wells, to emergency aid for countries affected by cyclones and other natural disasters. To date it’s worked with 80,000 volunteers.
But with limited travel options, VSO, along with the wider humanitarian sector, is figuring out how to continue its international development work, which spans 24 countries across Africa and Asia.
“For the non-governmental organization sector, travel isn’t a nice to have. The stuff they do really makes a big difference. It’s crucial, otherwise for some they might as well not exist,” said Gary Dobbins, account manager at Diversity Travel, which works with VSO.
While most businesses have migrated to Zoom, video conferencing isn’t an option for “in the field” operations, not least because remote areas rarely have the required internet coverage.
The sector now faces a unique set of travel challenges in 2021, from navigating border closures to sourcing airlifts.
Resetting the Clock
Travel is such an integral for this sector because much of the work involves flying technical experts to remote communities, where they’ll spend long periods teaching them best practice around aspects such as health or education. “As a volunteer organization, we specialize in having the right people in the right places, to build resilient communities,” Anthy Kapsalis, global travel and facilities manager at VSO, told Skift.
March was a “big shock” for her, as there were also 500 volunteers from International Citizen Service, a division of VSO, needing immediate repatriation. In Africa in particular it was difficult to keep track of government protocols. Tanzania and Uganda, for example, had contrasting views: Tanzania kept borders open, while neighboring Uganda made it hard for even nationals to get back into their country. “Every day you have to update yourself on who’s letting who in,” Kapsalis said.
Meanwhile, in areas like western Nepal the lockdown meant people weren’t allowed to leave their homes, apart from designated time slots to shop. “One volunteer wanted to drive to Kathmandu to renew her visa, but there was a danger she wouldn’t be allowed to go back to the field, with the different movement restrictions that were being put in place,” Kapsalis recalled.
The travel manager, who has 20 years experience in travel, and comes from a “long line” of agents, said while it was heartwarming to see volunteers want to stay on, it was “at the same time annoying because you knew you had more work to do.”
At the start of a new year, that work is far from over. As with traditional business travel, the charity sector was hit hard by airlines reluctant to refund cash, and other tactics to recoup lost revenue. VSO, along with its travel agency Diversity Travel, was impacted by some airlines charging fees for ticket changes.
While most carriers waived these fees, some in the Middle East opted not to. It’s problematic for VSO as a lot of its travel is routed through Dubai — a key gateway to deploy volunteers across Asia and Africa.
Some 2,500 trips are booked each year, and change fees used to come without charges. “I’m not going to name names, but some airlines have been seriously cashing in as there are fewer options out there,” Kapsalis said.
Diversity Travel’s founder pioneered the concept of the “humanitarian fare” 30 years ago. It gives passengers extra baggage allowances on airlines, and more flexibility, and the agency negotiates them with airlines on an individual basis.
In 2021, there will be question marks over how airlines will continue to make these types of fares available, but Diversity Travel thinks they’ll bounce back. “We know our clients are going to need flexibility and given humanitarian fares offer changes, are refundable and can be held for longer periods of time, they add value to our clients and can help manage travel budgets more effectively,” said Matt Truin, director of global supplier relations.
Air fares will also be volatile in the coming months, and charity organizations could see their travel budgets explode, especially as the typical advice of booking in advance to save money goes out the window. “Our booking habits will have to be adjusted, and the type of fare,” Kapsalis said.
Turning to Technology
Where travel hasn’t been possible, aid organizations have ultimately turned to technology, and in some cases embraced it. Another international development company discovered video conferencing allowed it to expand its reach.
For DAI‘s Asegurando la Educacion (Securing Education) project in Honduras, it was forced to end face-to-face interaction with educators. But it found that instead of spending staff time and resources on logistics, transportation, food and venues for separate in-person events that reached 100 principals in three or four cities, it was able to reach 1,000 participants in 230 cities.
“By means of webinars, videos and a digital awareness campaign, we are reaching record numbers of beneficiaries. Transitioning to remote learning has not only forced us to rethink our strategies for reaching students — it is prompting us to rethink how we reach beneficiaries more effectively,” the company noted.
British Expertise International attempted to tackle the same subject during an online event, “Delivering Aid Programmes During Covid-19 — Lessons & Experiences,” in December last year, examining how delivering development programs required creative solutions, remote work and digital solutions.
VSO has adapted, but Kapsalis said a lot of its work relies on experts passing on knowledge in person. “Some things we’ve been able to do remotely, like crisis management, rather than operating as we would want to. Zoom has become everybody’s best friend, but that’s generally just keeping things going,” she said. “Coronavirus has sped things up along the path we were on in the first place. We’re discovering more ways to connect, but travel will remain an important part of delivering our program.”
Travel Cuts Were Already in Motion
As with most facets of corporate life, coronavirus has accelerated many trends that were already in place, or dormant, including sustainability and greener travel. VSO had previously embarked on a mission to look at ways to reduce the level of carbon emissions it produced, relevant for any organization working in this kind of sector.
Before the pandemic, it was looking at finding the most effective way of getting from point A to B. VSO also carried out its first carbon audit last year, and plans to look at essential travel only, meaning staff will unlikely attend the big conferences. “When we present a business case, we have to say why it can’t be done remotely. There’s a lot more tightening up around travel,” Kapsalis said.
However, while direct flights may be better for the traveler, and environment, the travel budget will inevitably rise, especially with fewer options due to airlines cutting back their networks. The argument emerges that if a connecting flight in Dubai is half the price, that means VSO can send two people for the price of one.
The balancing act of protecting the planet versus emergency relief work comes into focus as VSO works on a polio vaccination program with the Gates Foundation in West Africa.
“We’ve got a health emergency, getting the vaccination centers set up. We are having a nightmare when it comes to red tape. You have one health emergency stopping the other one from being managed,” Kapsalis notes.
It will need to travel to countries including Burkina Faso, Mali, Cameroon, Chad and Ivory Coast, and without offices in some of those destinations it will lean on other platforms, including International SOS, to help navigate the complex world of border regulations and visa requirements. Diversity Travel also uses Teldar, a division of Accor Hotels, which has one million accommodations across the globe, including 53 African countries. It tends to offer more “vetted” properties, Diversity Travel’s Dobbins said.
But while the organization will look more carefully at how some of its work can be done remotely, one advantage the charity sector has is the determination of its volunteers. The nature of the work means its staff are more willing than most to travel, and are used to dealing with outbreaks and other disasters.
And Kapsalis points out the value of having an agency partner in place. “Full credit to Diversity for reacting calmly to ensure our volunteers got home as safely as possible. Even with borders closed and restrictions in place, every staff member made it back, although through some creative routes, in one piece. We’re ready and waiting to start flying again and continue our essential work around the world.”