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Riding the Wave of Civil Unrest in Today’s Global Risk Landscape

Considerations for managing the challenges of demonstrations and violent protests

By: Joe Gleason


Metro fares in Chile. An extradition bill in Hong Kong. Corruption in Lebanon. What do all of these seemingly innocuous issues have in common? All have been the initial impetus for demonstrations that have become violent.  In many of these cases, the original demands of protesters expanded over time, along with the scale of the demonstrations. Some of this civil unrest has led to significant change – Prime Ministers in Iraq and Lebanon have resigned, and a major international conference was relocated outside of Chile. Despite disparate origins, these demonstrations, and others around the world, present a potential challenge to those working in or traveling to these destinations.

As many travelers will know, demonstrations in different countries vary in intensity, as well as geographic spread. Despite harrowing pictures on TV, many parts of a city may be calm and “business as usual” with civil unrest isolated to specific, known neighborhoods or flash points. In other places, such as Hong Kong in recent weeks, locations of demonstrations vary unpredictably. Unrest is an ongoing feature of the risk landscape in some countries, such as Haiti, while in others, like Chile, it may be a rare occurrence.

So, how do organizations operating globally manage the risks associated with civil unrest? For many people working or traveling globally, the biggest challenge demonstrations present is snarled traffic. But, as demonstrations turn violent it’s essential to understand the risk and exposure. This almost goes without saying but, as always, the details matter:

  • Where and when are demonstrations occurring and how close are they to work locations, accommodation or transit hubs?
  • Are there curfews or restrictions on movement or public gatherings?
  • Any mobile phone or internet disruptions? Governments are increasingly blocking communication tools to limit demonstrations with significant impact on routine and emergency communication for those traveling to or working in the location.
  • What are the underlying causes of the demonstrations and could the organization or travelers be targeted – by demonstrations or security forces?

With an understanding of these local dynamics, travelers and those working globally can begin to adapt activities and operations:

  • Alter plans to reduce exposure – limit movement, change meeting venues, avoid certain parts of town, etc. Monitor developments closely given the inherent fluid nature of environments experiencing civil unrest; risk exposure can change as location and level of violence change.
  • Avoid the temptation to see what’s going on no matter how interesting it may seem. This helps reduce the chance of being in the wrong place at the wrong time when violence flares or security forces crack down.
  • Recognize that host country staff will likely have additional exposure. Many may have to transit through areas impacted by civil unrest, so consider flexible working hours or the ability to work from home. Be aware of potential tension within the team related to the underlying causes of the civil unrest, and be prepared to address the impact in the workplace.
  • Understand if the nature of an organizations’ work increases exposure to risk – either by putting people in places near flash points or by working on issues related to the underlying causes of unrest.

While many organizations weather demonstrations by adjusting activities without significant disruption, it’s essential to dust of contingency plans in the event unrest escalates:

  • Evaluate the need to restrict travel, or even reduce the number of international team members and dependents in country. If travelers or others can’t get work done due to the impact of demonstrations, it may be time to curtail travel or draw down personnel. Reducing the number of international personnel and allowing host country staff flexibility in coming into the office lowers exposure to risks and also makes the remaining team more agile in the event the situation continues to deteriorate.
  • Ensure shelter-in-place plans are in place, including necessary supplies such as water, food, generator fuel, etc. to support the team remaining at the office for at least 72 hours (or longer in some locations).
  • Review plans and procedures for evacuating international personnel, suspending on-the-ground operations and supporting the host country team.

The current wave of civil unrest around the world is likely to subside, but demonstrations will continue to be a part of the global risk landscape. Organizations working globally will need to remain aware of the challenges unrest brings and adapt travel and operations accordingly.