ABTN speaks to Ajaya Sodha, chairman of charity specialist Key Travel, about the complexities of organising travel for aid workers helping out with the famine relief efforts in East Africa.
Since the UN declared that Somalia has been hit by a famine, has there been a scramble to get aid workers out there?
The declaration of it as a famine has more of an external purpose, in terms of fundraising, getting governments to commit to contributing, as well as of course organisations like the Disasters Emergency Committee being able to try and gain more funds for the work that’s needed. The charities themselves have already been there. They saw the signs months ago and started ramping up their work, albeit from whatever limited resources they had left. But yes, we’ve seen more fieldworkers being sent, to try and help with the flow of refugees. The kinds of money now being raised will enable them to continue to do so.
With recent media reports raising the profile of the famine in Somalia, does that mean the charities are getting more money in and are now able to send more people out?
Yes. There has certainly been an increase and there will be a further increase as the funds come through. They’re able to now look at the programme that they need to put in place. There are two parts to the work that charities do, which the general public rarely recognise. One is the immediate here and now. Here are the refugees. We need to get somebody out there to help with the relief programme, in terms of food and shelter. And naturally they do recruit and have a lot of ground staff from that country in any case. So who they are sending out there are experts in malnutrition, doctors and nurses.
Later the second phase will start. Once they’ve stemmed the tide of malnutrition, the charities look at how they can resettle these people back into their villages and homes, and give them their lives back in the longer term. That could be a project over many years, trying to get homes, jobs, cattle, goats, back into their hands so they can earn their own crust as quickly as possible. There will be an ongoing programme from the funds that they’re raising now. Once the immediate problem has been solved, then they can start looking at how they get the people back into their villages and return to their normal life again.
What has Key Travel seen in recent weeks?
Generally we’ve had an increase in the number of flights being requested, and a fairly hefty increase in the number of visas needed for the people going out. In a lot of countries visas are needed even as a tourist, but because these people are going out officially on work purposes, they need a slightly different visa, so we’ve certainly ramped up our visa service and our 24-hour emergency service. The travel is to a wide group of countries, including Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia and the Congo. People are going into Somalia’s neighbouring countries, as refugees flow any direction they can go to.
What are the main challenges that Key Travel helps charities with?
In a nutshell, it’s about taking the headache away from arranging travel and visas, so they can concentrate on doing the rest of their work. The shifting nature of things is challenging. A lot of the charities may have travel set up for existing refugee camps, but new ones will of course open up so people already out there will need to be shifted sideways to different camps, or new people sent in. People are going in different directions. That’s a big challenge.
You offer special air fares – “missionary fares” – for charity workers. I imagine those are quite in demand...
Very much so. They provide the flexibility that a person needs just in case the travel outbound needs to change at the last minute, due to local circumstances at the other end. A lot of these fieldworkers are going out with flexible tickets, which are really needed, because they don’t know whether they will be there for three weeks, a month, or three months. Missionary fares are perfect for this, because they can go out with an open return, and we’ll arrange the return date for as and when they need to come back.
Are there enough flights to get everyone over?
That’s the big thing at the moment. Our biggest problem is that this is peak time – in August flights are generally full. For us, getting availability in the lowest booking classes is critical. We are managing to get people out there, albeit not necessarily always with the most ideal routing, because the direct flights or the main European flights may be full for the lower fare classes.
Certainly where we’re able to “weight lift” we do. We send nice little notes to our account managers, saying: “Please help!” They do their bit, whether it be putting people on a priority wait list or speaking to somebody who has the authority to nudge a booking. But there are limits to what is possible. Our requests are always met with positive feedback. They are responding as best as they can, given the restraints that they have.
How far does Key Travel get involved in accommodation and transport on the ground?
In general charities, especially in project areas like Eastern Africa, either have their own network of accommodation or they’ve already got plans. Essentially when we get a phonecall saying we need to send this person out to, let’s say, Nairobi, that’s the first bit. Somebody from their own network, their local staff, will then pick the person up and quickly transport them up into the areas where they’re needed. So there’s not a great deal of demand for accommodation at the other end.
We are more focused on getting flights, visas, and making changes to travel plans. Once someone says yes they are are able and willing to go, they may need innoculations. They may not be prepared.
Are there often delays in getting visas?
Some embassies are more forthcoming than others. To give you an example, Ethiopia is brilliant. They’ve changed their requirements so that all our charity visas are turned around within 24 hours. But yes, sometimes you might get somebody up and ready to go, yet we can’t get a visa very quickly so there might be a delay in getting them away.
So it’s a bit of a juggling act?
What about the duty of care side of things. Do you work with charities to help them look after the people they’re sending out?
We support them with our own duty of care products that we have, by taking the right amount of management information, and ensuring that they are asking the right questions, although charities are very good at making sure that their staff are fully versed and aware of the risks. Predominantly most of the people that they send out to to a famine like this have done the job before. They are not novices. The majority of the work is being done by well established charities who you often see working in famine, like Oxfam, Save the Children and Islamic Relief. They are well experienced and knowledgable charities that have their own training programmes and experienced field workers.