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Humanitarian Support

Thursday, 22nd June 2017

On Monday I returned from a 8 day visit to Malawi in Africa after travelling there in support of The Umoza Trust which is a UK based charity that provides and supports the provision of mental health services in Africa, and the UK.

This is the one time of the year where I give something back to organisations and good causes by providing specialist advice and guidance free of charge as opposed to just making financial donations. I believe that this is of greater benefit to the organisations and enables me to support in a way that reduces personal and operational risks to the individuals and organisations as a whole.

I travelled to Lilongwe and on arrival a great smile came across my face. Unless you have lived or worked in Africa you might find it difficult to understand but the simplicity of the airport, openness of the area, the lack of hundreds of planes, vehicles and buildings all buzzing around somehow made me feel at ease and very glad to be back in Africa.

As with many airports in Africa the security infrastructure is not as you would expect from a capital city and there were vulnerabilities evident. I believe that there would be suitable opportunities for governmental support to be provided in enhancing and developing not only the physical enhancements but also the operational and training practises that exist. This may have happened, but if so it was not evident.

The initial part of my stay was in Lilongwe, the capital city where I met with representatives from St John of Gods, with whom the Umoza Trust have an agreement and provide support to. By coincidence the senior management team had arrived from Ireland and there was going to be the official opening of a mental health hospital unit that was being developed by St John of Gods to mirror an existing facility in Mzuzu, Northern Malawi.

I had commenced my initial assessment of the threats, risks and vulnerabilities that existed in Malawi prior to departure and this was followed up with meetings with security representatives, diplomats and other third party contacts. Everything that had been identified was supported by these discussions and included the threats posed by endemic corruption, street crime and an increase in hijacking type events; but far lower than in most African countries.

I started my support by conducting a threat, risk and vulnerability assessment of the new facilities and future facilities that were planned. This included reviewing the operational procedures and practises undertaken to ensure that the practises and facilities did not increase the risks to members of the Umoza Trust. As a risk to the personal safety and security of the medical and support staff was evident I was allowed to provide a workshop (PSSW) that enables people to readily identify and understand risks to their personal security and safety and actions to take in order to reduce, manage and avoid those risks. I found the thirst for knowledge of these staff to be really rewarding and hopefully they benefitted from the session.

Then it was time to travel to Mzuzu. This is a 4 hour journey up the M1 motorway. Now for those who have never experienced driving or road conditions in Africa a motorway is not a motorway that you would always recognise. Poor infrastructure, maintenance (including potholes) and terrible driving standards means that probably the biggest danger you would ever face in Malawi is from a road traffic incident.

It is for this reason that all organisations should have a travel risk management procedure in place that includes as a minimum:

  • Types of vehicles to be used.
  • Continuous maintenance programme.
  • Check in and out processes.
  • Communications process.
  • Travelling with emergency equipment (mechanical)
  • Travelling with suitable medical equipment
  • Zero tolerance on drink/drug driving.
  • Emergency/breakdown procedure.

On our journey we say at least 4 major accidents and were forced to drive off road 3 times. Without doubt the biggest threat most organisations would face whilst in Africa and one that unfortunately many still do not recognise as such, until it is too late.

At this point I have to confess that I did not really understand the work that the Brothers and local teams of St John of God actually deliver. Not only do they deal with mental health issues but they have provided a college to provide the local population with higher level skills and abilities, they provide vocational training courses for the community as well as arranging self help finance initiatives to help small businesses to grow and develop. The services and work that they deliver in Mzuzu blew me away and certainly caused me to reflect on many aspects of life.

In Mzuzu I was able to meet with two of the trustee's of the Umoza Trust (Caroline and Amy) and to provide them with feedback on my initial findings as well as arrange for them to be present during second workshop that I was to deliver. I was able to conduct a further threat, risk and vulnerability assessment of the Mzuzu facilities and operations before providing a summary of my findings to the senior management team of St John of God.

The following day I returned to Lilongwe, past more motorway hazards; before flying back to the UK after a very compact, and busy 8 day programme.

What did I get out of this trip? Well I was able to identify security and safety issues that could impact the Umoza Trust and which can be addressed within their risk management strategy that I will prepare on their behalf. But I was also able to help the St John of God team not only identify but also introduce suitable risk reduction measures that protected their staff, operations and integrity; which in turn further protects the Umoza Trust team and volunteers who will travel to Malawi in years to come.

I was able, on behalf of my organisation, to understand first hand what challenges, risks and vulnerabilities exist when operating in Malawi. I was able to learn about the different cultures and socioeconomic factures that can impact operations in Malawi and I was able to increase my own personal operational knowledge of some of the regional threats that directly impact Malawi such as illegal poaching activities and international smuggling routes.

This trip also helped me put lots of things into perspective. For example, money isn't everything. I saw a university educated person acting as a driver and being paid the equivalent of £100 pcm. He was happy and appreciative that he was supporting others within his community to live better lives. I saw orphans and street kids who lacked education or an ability to have proper meal being helped and supported by international organisations that are really making a difference.

At times it is so easy in the UK (and Western world) to become preoccupied with money, status and power to worry about small things. We don't really realise the suffering that is happening in the wider world (Malawi is not in a conflict situation so multiply the levels of suffering a vulnerabilities that exits in those areas). I am humbled by this trip and even more determined to continue taking time out from a busy schedule to have a reality check that helps keep my feet firmly on the ground by supporting others.

I have arrived back home tired, but totally refreshed and invigorated by the experience. I will do the same again in future years and I would encourage others to give it a try. It can be mutually rewarding for all concerns.