In 2013 there were 174 reported attacks on aid workers, involving 346 victims, and resulting in 125 deaths. The death toll marks an increase of 81 percent over the previous year, and has more than doubled over the past 10 years, during which time aid worker kidnappings have quadrupled. Aid work, then, while perhaps not as dangerous as coal mining in China or commercial fishing (anywhere), or working as a Sherpa, is not the world safest profession (that would be potato farming).
Large aid organizations have security teams that implement situational and behavioral security protocols, but attackers/kidnappers don’t discriminate among aid organizations: everyone in a conflict zone is at risk, and everyone – at the home office and in the field – should be conscious of security risks and proactively take measures to minimize them.
Over the years I’ve talked extensively about security with a couple of friends who are former elite unit soldiers, and now work in the private sector, developing and implementing security measures for corporate clients and individuals. Their advice, which I will try to recap here, is mostly common sense, but requires individuals and organizations to think about security, and to act on that thinking every day.
Traveling by vehicle
The most obvious “security measure” anyone can implement, especially while traveling in the developing world, is to wear a seat belt while traveling in a motor vehicle. Obvious? Sure, but do you do it? What’s the point of obsessing about the possibility of being kidnapped if you’re going to die in a traffic accident? Don’t think it can happen to you? If you work in the developing world and don’t know someone who has been involved in a serious vehicle accident, you’re in a tiny minority. Fun fact: India and China alone account for roughly 400,000 road fatalities a year.
Road accidents aside, basic security measures to take in a vehicle include keeping doors locked and windows closed, especially in stop-and-go urban traffic. If your vehicle is involved in an incident, e.g. a collision (which may have been staged in order to get you out of your vehicle), do not permit your driver to get out.
Indeed, professionals will tell you that if you are in a collision you think may have been staged as part of an attempted attack, keep driving. Drive to the nearest safe place (perhaps not always the local police station), then report the incident (to your organization’s security team, to local organization managers, to the authorities and perhaps also to your country’s embassy/consular staff).
Ideally, keep a spare ignition key with you or in a location inside the vehicle known to staff. This will preserve the possibility of escaping in the vehicle if your driver is unable to drive you (e.g. if he has been removed or ordered from the vehicle, or if he has been separated from you at a rest stop).
It goes without saying, though I will say it, that vehicles should be well-maintained – oiled, watered, with good tires and a basic repair kit – including a tow rope – onboard. Another obvious one: know how to jump start a car/SUV.
Vehicles should be fueled wherever possible, so they are ready to go in the event of a problem, and vehicles should be locked when unattended, with valuables stowed out of sight. Another obvious point: don’t leave the keys in the ignition. [I can see you smacking your forehead with your hand and saying, “Duh!” but people actually do these things.]
Traveling on foot
On foot, wallets and passports should be kept in front rather than back pockets. Emergency numbers should be programmed into phones so they can be dialed with a few key touches (perhaps even while blindfolded and crammed in the storage area of a vehicle being driven by kidnappers who forgot to take your phone from you). Bags should be zipped or closed, and if you are walking along a street or road, your bag should be carried on the side away from the vehicle traffic (thieves can ride up on motorbikes and rip your bag off your shoulder; if all you lose is your bag, you’re lucky).
Make a photocopy of your credit cards and the pages of your passport that have your photograph and passport number, as well as relevant visas, and stash in a safe place (i.e. not with the original documents). If you carry mission-critical documents on the road, keep copies on an encrypted USB drive in a secure place/the room safe (and in the cloud). You might also want to back up your mobile phone’s address book to the same USB drive, so that if you lose your phone or have it stolen, you have quick access to important numbers.
Obviously, traveling alone on foot at night – even in the developed world – can be risky, and known trouble spots should be avoided. Perhaps less obviously, pedestrian footbridges should be avoided (you can be easily trapped, with no exit that doesn’t involve a possible broken leg/legs).
Finally, it’s worth carrying spare “give-away” cash that can be handed over in the event of a robbery (which you should not resist; as with the bag snatching, if all you lose is your “give-away” cash, you’re lucky). Put a lot of small notes in a “throw-away” wallet, including a few old credit cards/plastic cards (e.g. old membership cards from video stores, etc.).
I guarantee you I can get into your hotel room.
I was on a plane a few years ago, traveling from Hong Kong to Shanghai, and when the plane landed, I helped the woman sitting in front of me get her carry-on down from the overhead bin. As I handed her her bag, I noticed she was using a luggage tag that contained her business card, visible for all to read. Her name was Victoria Chan and she worked for Goldman Sachs. Okay, her name wasn’t Victoria Chan and she didn’t work for Goldman Sachs, but if you had been there, you’d know – as I do – her name and the name of her employer.
I explained to her that she really shouldn’t do that, and when she looked at me uncomprehendingly, I explained why. Knowing the name of her employer, I could easily have guessed (then made a few calls to confirm) what hotel she was staying in (even without taking the taxi after hers). Then, knowing her name, I could easily have talked my way past the front desk or housekeeping staff into her room.
“Excuse me, my name is Robert Jones and I need to drop this bag off in my colleague’s room. Victoria Chan, Goldman Sachs? I’ve forgotten the room number, but I think it’s on seven?” “No, Mr. Jones, it’s 612. Would you like to leave it here with us?” “No, this is her computer and she asked me to deliver it to her room personally.” “Certainly, sir, I’ll send someone up with you right away.” I now know the room number, I’ll be shown into the room, and there’s a possibility I’ll even be able to grab her extra key card while I’m in there. If I can’t find the room card, I can come back later, when she’s there. “Ms. Chan? Leon Wong from the Concierge Desk. One of your colleagues left a package for you earlier this afternoon, and I’m afraid we forgot to pass it to you on your way back in to the hotel. Very sorry about that.” She looks through the peephole, I’m wearing a black suit and a tie … and she opens the door.
What else? In a high-rise hotel, ask for a room below the 7th floor (but not on the ground floor, which is vulnerable to crime). [Most fire truck ladders can reach to the 7th floor.] Identify the emergency exits and familiarize yourself with staff uniforms.
Keep the door locked at all times, and keep it latched when you’re in the room. In China in particular, hotel staff tend to announce themselves after they’ve let themselves into your room via their passkey. I have a funny story about teaching a housekeeper in a 5-star hotel in Shanghai a lesson by walking out of the shower stark naked and covered in soap suds, but I’ll save it for the next time we go out for drinks.
Use the peephole in the door before you unlock it. The door lock is probably stronger than the security latch. Keep valuables in the room safe, if there is one. [Don’t forget to take them with you when you check out.] Watch your luggage when you check in and check out.
If you’re a woman, all this goes double for you. I can’t tell you how many women I’ve met who never think about this stuff at all. Just because nothing bad has ever happened to you doesn’t mean nothing will. A (female) friend said to me the other day, acknowledging her own carelessness in security matters, “You are absolutely right, bad things do happen and if they only happen once, it’s once too often.” What she said.
What if something happens?
If you work for an organization that has a security team, they will have given you clear instructions about what to do in the event of an incident. An attack, a robbery, an attempted (or successful) kidnapping, a rape, a bomb threat, a medical emergency.
As I wrote above, everyone should have a few important numbers on speed dial. Locally, your security officer and manager, and at headquarters, the head of the security team and the managers responsible for you and your team in country.
Plans should be in place to handle kidnappings (ideally those plans will call for the involvement of security professionals). The locations and transit times to the best available medical facilities should be known by drivers and staff, and key personnel should know how to initiate a medevac, in the event one is required.
It’s important to remember that even if you’re a heavily armed elite unit soldier, your most important “weapon” against attack is your brain. You want to avoid behavior that attracts trouble (e.g. walking through a crowded market with your bag wide open), be alert to danger signals (e.g. a knock on the door from “Housekeeping” at 10 o’clock at night), and know how to react in the event trouble is unavoidable.
I’ve covered only the basics here. If you’re interested in learning more, buy your organization’s security chief a coffee or a couple of beers, and ask for a few tips. You’ll probably get a few war stories as well, and it’s from the war stories you’ll learn the most memorable lessons. [If your organization is too small to have a dedicated security team, or person, I’d suggest contacting a security company (and I mean a company that offers serious protection services, not elderly men in uniforms who sit in the lobbies of office buildings after hours), explaining who you are and what you do, and asking if they’ll give you and your team a security lecture, and perhaps offer a local or global personnel and facilities security plan at a non-profit price.
As the man said in the TV show, “Let’s be careful out there!”
Roberto De Vido is a communications consultant who has lived and worked in Asia for 25 years. He is the editor of Aidpreneur.com and producer of the Terms of Reference podcast.