Episode 40: with David Clamp discussing volunteering risks in China and how risk management has evolved

Since leaving the UK Civil Service in the late 1990s for a volunteer placement in rural China, David has worked for different NGOs as a Trainer, Programme Manager, Country Director, Global Security Advisor and most recently as Director of Safety, Operations & Governance.  David leads Raleigh International’s safety, medical, safeguarding, governance and training teams, and supports Raleigh’s Country Directors and the charity’s Trustees.  

David also chairs the UK INGO Security Focal Point Network. Be sure to contact him if you want to join this valuable network.  Based on their wide experience of running diverse programmes in a range of risk environments across the world, David and his wife Helen also run their own independent Security and Risk consultancy – DH Clamp Consulting Ltd.   

The International Risk Podcast transcript

Harriet 0:10
Hi. You’re listening to the international risk podcast. This podcast is for CEOs, board members, risk and compliance officers security advisors, and anyone interested in improving operations on this podcast we hear from the traditional to the wacky from renowned risk management experts to Red Bull daredevils, there is something to learn about the way we perceive, manage, and mitigate risk from all of our guests. Your host, Dominic Bowen will ask the questions that you all want the answers to. If you know dominant, then you know that he is well acquainted with his 20 year career Stephen successfully established operations in some of the most complex environments around the world. Dominic has spent most of his career establishing large and successful operations in places like Haiti, Syria, Sudan, Iraq, Lebanon, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and so many other high risk and medium risk locations, joined by our excellent guests. He’ll reveal, innovative ideas on how you can ensure your organization’s thrives in areas with heightened.

Dominic 1:23
Welcome to The International Risk Podcast show today David.

Well thank you very much, Dominic. This is an absolute pleasure I’m really excited. It’s the first time I’ve done a podcast like this. And so, I hope that it’s going to be of interest and value.

Dominic 1:36
Today we’re joined by David clamp. Since leaving the UK civil service in the late 1990s for volunteer placement in rural China David’s work for different NGOs as a trainer programme manager Country Director, Global Security Adviser, and most recently, as the Director for Safety operations and governance. David leads Railey International Safety medical safeguarding governance and training teams, and he supports rarely his country directors and the charities, trustees, David also chairs the UK by NGO security focal point network, and be sure to contact David, if you want to join this valuable network based on the wide experience of running diverse programmes and a range of risk assessments, around the world, David and his wife, Helen, also run their own independent security and risk consultancy th clamp consulting limited. We’re certainly living in interesting times right now David and I wonder perhaps you’ve been, obviously, your first deployment to rural China in the in the late 90s Can you maybe compare what it’s like when we send employees and volunteers overseas today that perhaps your pre deployment briefing and the duty of care, and the informed consent that maybe you gave in the late 1990s to what we would expect today.

David 2:58
Yeah. Do you know what, it’s so, For a start, it’s, it’s a long time ago, I mean it was 1995 that I was going through that kind of process of being recruited to be a volunteer with VSO, it was quite a large group of people who they were interested in getting out as teacher trainers in rural China now, rural China in the late 90s completely different place from well even rural China today, you can imagine it’s the last years of dung shopping, Hong Kong was still under British control, there were no motorways, everything was reliant on on train my posting on my own was 1000s of miles away from the nearest VSO office which was in Beijing I was down in Guangxi province down in the south, working on my own in a Teacher Training Institute, it was, it was a phenomenal prospect to be getting yourself into. And therefore, a very interesting process to go through to be selected for, I think, at the time via so we’re very focused on finding the right sort of people, and then trusting the rest of common sense, and I think that was a very much their traditional approach, and you know what, there was actually quite a lot of good thinking behind it if you get the right people in the right place to do a job, then the chances are that you will be successful. I was very fortunate had three years of relatively incident free experience, but, but had a few years at the civil service, by that point, as a manager. I travelled, I got an interest in the sector, good old geography degree behind me interest in international developments, all of these stood in, in favour but then also they threw a few sort of random exercises in front of us at the selection event, there was something bizarre involving ping pong balls large numbers of potential recruits had to sift through to get the right number of people in a different box with a group of people who didn’t know in a limited number of time and you knew you were being observed. So it’s a fascinating exercise in stress and group dynamics, not in a stressful situation, but they wanted to see how we work together, and actually it did show, even though I still don’t know what the rules were and whether or not I succeeded, it did show how people worked under pressure and I think that kind of test was actually really interesting. And actually it’s not totally dissimilar to some of the more scenario based exercises that many of us are familiar with, so it was actually a good process to get the right people, we did all go up to a training centre in Birmingham for a little bit of language a little bit of cultural orientation to make sure we were able to take that little bit of informed choice. And then another. Gosh, three weeks, when we arrived in China being shipped out to Cheyenne straightaway for intensive language and more cultural orientation, and then get this. They actually at the end of that process, put us all basically got us all train tickets because, as I said that there was very limited air or road travel, and we all headed off in our separate directions my train was over 24 hours, and one by one, people would get off the train in the middle of nowhere. Just trying to recognise the town, they’re in by the characters, the Chinese language characters which we were all used to recognising and gradually saying goodbye one to another, 20 people on the train and starting the journey. I was the second last to get off 24 to 30 hours later, But could you imagine doing that today. It worked. It was fascinating, but it was a very, very different process than how I would run one today, for, for any organisation. I don’t know how does that sound to you.

Dominic 6:48
It certainly is interesting. I like your point though that VSO, put a lot of time and investment into finding the right people. And I think that is a really important step and we will talk about that most organisations talk about their most important asset is their people, and we also know that when it comes to risk management people are often also our biggest liability too but I think if you can pick the right people, that then you can add to that and some good training, some good frameworks and good support and mentoring, and then you’ve got a winning, winning formula but yeah, I’m not sure that I necessarily put a bunch of brand new volunteers on a six hour train ride just pat them on the back, but as you said, that works for you and I’m sure the people you worked with a lot of benefit from your time there as well.

David 7:30
Totally, I think it’s how you add value later to that because obviously we were all going to independence placements then so I was off with my teacher training college working training 18 to 21 year olds, living in my own little flat going out and do my own shopping, relatively sort of support free, that was great but what was important was then to come back every now and again and actually touch base with the experiences that other people were having. And I think over the years, and this was what’s interesting throughout my journey with VSO and now with rally has been that the investment and the support and the commitment and training have just added value, all the way along and of course later on in the journey. I got the opportunity to go back and work with volunteers in quite high risk environments and take them through security and training and enabling them to think a little bit more carefully about those, those concepts that we use a lot of like risk appetite and what that actually means a few years after I’d been a volunteer. I’ve been a country director, I then started working as a security manager. What was great was I was going out and working with volunteers in quite rural areas I was doing one in particular in North Cameroon, which is not the easiest place to work, but it certainly wasn’t at the time it isn’t now, but amazing at the same time, and the work that was done there was incredible. And what we did is we brought everybody together, the volunteers into a room and some of their project partners as well. And we asked them some basic questions about risk appetite, you know, What would they be prepared to do what, where would they be prepared to travel to in the nearby area, what would happen if there was unrest in the nearby town. What did they think they would do. We got out a piece of string sorry I was very basic technology got a piece of string capable suites that sounds terrible, doesn’t it, but then they would have to put the sweets down a lot along that line. From the sort of, I’d be very cautious ends to the other route care, and I think that was a really interesting sort of basic introduction to risk appetite, so they were putting the sweets down on cautious note on this, and then discussing those. But then, what made that valuable was then coming back and saying what Okay. Put yourself in my shoes now you’re doing my job. I’m responsible for a group of volunteers in Cameroon. What do you think you would allow your volunteers to do in, and then run through each of those scenarios again, but it’s fascinating to see how they modified their answers. Once they were taking responsibility for something someone else and it just gave a springboard into some really good conversations about managing risks that came alive for them. You know, I think, having been a volunteer in that position and a lot of my career has been involved with the volunteer management side of risk management, which is a quite unique sector, in itself, having been that volunteer, I could really see why they were saying the things that they were and why some of them were saying, oh no I know this country well enough, perhaps I would be prepared to take a risk, but then to modify that when they actually realise, somebody has a responsibility for them. Somebody has that duty of care they need to be able to guarantee to ensure that people are working within an a set acceptable level of risk taking,

Dominic 10:53
As you said you worked your way up and became someone who’s ultimately responsible for security and risk management within VSO, how did your learnings from the field influence how you manage risk once you were in a headquarter position in a very senior leadership role.

David 11:08
That’s been quite tough I think in some ways because I think as you get further away from regular contact with the people who you’re trying to support and serve. Then you can find yourself making generalisations, and I am probably as guilty of that as anybody. I think now in my current role at rally I’m probably, you know, supporting more people in a more complex way than I did at any point while I was there so, but I do think it’s so important to maintain those contacts, maintain the links, speak to your partner organisations, understand wherever possible, but also never assume that you understand the context better than the people in the area that you’re working, I mean, one of the things I’ve been quite interested in, in the last couple of years, is working with colleagues across the sector and thinking about localization. Now it’s a massive buzzword at the moment, in the NGO sector or maybe it’s been a buzzword for a couple of years and maybe I’m just a bit behind the times. But we’ve certainly been talking about it for years, and this is where you’re enabling and supporting your country teams to manage security in a way that possibly we would always have the big cheese, sitting in London, New York, wherever, sort of dictating who can do what go where. And there’s a lot of empowerment that we need to do to ensure that actually people can use the locally appropriate knowledge that they have, have access to goods geopolitical analysis to understand what the implications of that might be for their area, but without putting them at risk by having that information as well. And it’s a really nuanced complicated piece of work that I’m hoping to be able to do more in the next few years, because one of the joys of what I’m doing now is I work very closely with I NGO security managers and professionals from across the sector so I’m not just looking at the volunteer management sector I’m also working alongside humanitarian organisations, but working right across the board with the big ones the small ones, and trying to support them so that there’s a better sort of collaborative sense in the sector we can all jointly identify what the priorities are.

Dominic 13:38
That’s really interesting and I think it’s it’s very valid and I think we’ve also seen a lot of changes in the sector and a lot of advancement and a lot of maturing and of course, different organisations are growing at different speeds and I know even the ISO standard 31,000 and now there’s some new additions to that coming on board which are really exciting about emerging risks, and also about shovel risk management. I think they’re gonna add a lot of value to risk managers around the world. There’s been differences in the amounts of tools and resources and even funding and even the background for security managers where they’re where they’re coming from, but can you maybe unpack that for some of our listeners about the biggest changes that you’ve seen over the years

David 14:22
when it comes to shooting. Absolutely, I feel quite privileged to have been part of that journey or at least been a bystander in that journey, certainly since I started getting involved in the sector in about 2008 So, by that point I’ve been a volunteer work with VSO for a while I’ve been a programme manager and a country director, and the organisation really recognised that it needed to get to grips with its understanding its duty care and delivering a nuanced, and appropriate level of security management. And so I actually got involved with just setting up if you like that sort of scoping for what such a project would look like because I didn’t have any security expertise at the time, and I went out to a couple of other key people in the sector, and said well how does Security Management International NGOs work I mean, what is it I literally was starting from zero, and I was very fortunate. A couple of key people, and that’s the ISF, the European Interagency Security Forum. Now, g is the global at an early stage of its development, and they have set up this amazing network and resource bank over the years since then, which is the absolute first port of call I would say for anybody interested in the sector now. But I also met some key individuals who worked in some of the other organisations both humanitarian development volunteer management, and just brutally asked them, you know, what do I need to do, how would we so actually put all of this together and it was apparent that it was only eight years previously that I think rubber bands have been writing his texts on security management in AI NGOs and really starting that whole sort of the academic side of how you do it, and people was just starting to get used to that. In those years since then I’ve certainly seen some great institutions like aI SF CISF interaction etc etc and the network’s join up and collaborate, and I’m really pleased that you know I have a little part in that so I chair the UK network of I NGO security professionals and we’ve come together every three months or so and chat about issues that affect us all. Whether it is COVID obviously at the moment or cyber issues or is localization and just very very openly sharing and collaborating, what the big issues are and how best to address those. And I found that incredibly valuable because I’ve seen so many people coming into the sector who’ve had to learn the lessons in the same way that I have. And I just think the key to it is just be prepared to ask the stupid questions because as we know there is no such thing as a stupid question, and learn some basic concepts, and be able to apply them and understand them, and people will be prepared to support you because often you’ll find somebody who’s working that where there’s overlap and they’ll want to share. Obviously there’s confidentiality issues as well but that’s fine we can all work through that. And there’s, there’s some amazing organisations in the sector who have grown up to tighten these roles. And I think that’s what really excites me that there are more initiatives and collaborations coming on spring all the time of world away from where we were in 2008. And I think for me that the key bit was starting to go to those CISF meetings, meeting other people, sharing ideas, asking stupid questions, which I’m still narrowly doing on a regular basis.

Dominic 17:58
I think that’s always a good lesson, a bit of humbleness and being able to ask those questions and realise that we don’t have all the answers is a great step David. You’ve certainly had the benefit of learning a lot, and obviously realise how little you do know and how much more we all need to learn, but you’ve worked dmg HDRC and Nigeria, South Sudan Pakistan Ethiopia and Zimbabwe and the list goes on and on, really challenging countries there’s some beautiful countries and some fantastic people and just amazing cultures. But what have you learned from working in such diverse communities around the world and what have you learned about risk management.

David 18:37
Yeah, that’s a really good question. I, the funny thing is, he said, you know, working in some absolutely beautiful and amazing places, and I think my biggest regret actually is. I haven’t seen all of the beautiful and amazing places in those countries because I’ve tended to be heading in the wrong direction and going to see where the trouble has been and generally not seeing the beautiful areas and I probably need to build more time in but you know, during this period. Having a young family and all the rest of it and I was looking to do an effective job and work through, I mean, having said that, you can’t go anywhere and how can you Guinea and not be struck by the beauty of the country. It is phenomenal. But it’s such a complicated country to work in. And that was actually where I started at VSO going out to do a six week security with you in PNG, obviously taking a lot of advice beforehand, working very closely with our in country team getting out there visiting places where we have worked in the past, places where we wanted to work but we’re a little concerned about the security environment, and trying to get a sense of the vast complexity of that particular environment and for anybody who hasn’t worked there you’ve got such a combination of tribal politics, you’ve got the most amazing sort of cultural diversity there and cultural practices, you’re on the ring of fire so you’ve always got the opportunity as a volcano cropping up or something a little bit more natural, you’ve got incredible, incredibly difficult roads to get down, and I have to say, every Friday night or pay day, it really can be a little bit hairy anywhere near where alcohol is being sold as well so there’s a unique set of risks associated with PNG and what a place to start. I think the one consistent see is, as I said earlier, using the people who understand the risks, and your own particular exposure to them. Now in my case, working with VSO obviously that’s largely the partner organisations who are based and really understand the risks in each location. It’s the people who’ve been exposed to it and that sort of VSO staff etc but it’s using a consistent approach and I think that’s where I really started developing a sort of risk assessment methodology that worked for volunteer management, and it’s no different, really, in theory from anything else other than just defining a set of risks that actually apply to that particular kind of activity and the exposure that you would have and I see when I talk to other organisations about their methodology working in very different environments, it’s, it’s all the same basic principles that are coming together. And I think I learned that in practice, I had a glorious six weeks but I genuinely felt a little bit threatened at times, in certain situations, but I think they’re also I did learn one thing which is the grey mounting. I don’t have a military background and I know many people who do but learning to blend in, particularly when you don’t blend in and, and you are easy to see just not drawing attention to yourself, I think is extremely important as well. Now, you know, we know about the, the NGO workers who do, and I’ve done this as well you know sail into a town in the big hierarchs and naturally there are an awful lot of assumptions made about made about you as an individual, doing a piece of work, and I absolutely understand that and see where that’s coming from but it’s a recognition that you need to understand what the implications for you might be going on to some of those other countries you mentioned as well and many more besides that, I was very fortunate to have done that with the so often the person to go to a country when there had been a particular issue recently. Or, and this is where it got really interesting, where they were interested in opening in a country that hadn’t worked in before. So I went to South Sudan, just before independence that was my first visit. Once Pakistan as you’ve as you’ve mentioned and that was that was in 2008 That was a really interesting point when it was becoming apparent that the old norms, working in Pakistan, the VSO had had worked through where volunteers would be placed out on their own in the kind of way that I was placed in China. We’re not going to work any longer. I went up to visit volunteers posted in the shower in various quite remote locations, about about this is before anybody realised that some of the non was was inhabited, and it was definitely becoming the time to, to remind people that actually we needed to move to a different way of working in that environment, which they did successfully and so Pakistan is an amazing organisation. Some of my very dear friends who’ve done credible work over the years that continue. I think the organization’s that hold on, has been incredible in a changing world, but it’s still relevant. It’s different from how it was many years ago but it is still,

Dominic 23:38
Very relevant. Now our listeners, David they’re based all around the world and we have CEOs and Risk and Compliance directors working with large corporations, and we also have listened to the programme managers and risk advisors work with not for profit organisations. What do you see is the most significant difference between being a risk manager for an NGO, in comparison to someone who does risk and compliance work for a for profit corporation, or even a government department.

David 24:08
I think the underlying principles are exactly the same. I think we all look at risk and manage the risk in a similar way. But we, I think in our sector are very conscious, particularly, as we’re speaking in June 2021 of the economic pressures on the organisations that we work in some organisations have better resource than others. That’s always the case but I NGOs are generally made it very, very passionate people who really want to see a good job done and are prepared to go the extra mile in order to do it. And it’s not the best paid sector to be in. It’s got the most resources, but people are absolutely committed to do an incredible piece of work and I’ve seen both VSO answering particularly now in rally people giving it their everything being prepared to work really hard, when they don’t necessarily have the resources that other organisations have, and I think what that puts on to us is that it’s critical that we make sure that we’re putting in the support where we can I mean I know as we’ve been through tthe COVID year, year plus with all how important well being is and keeping our own mental health and to be perfectly honest, it’s been tough for everybody I think continues to be really tough. We also see that the funding environment has changed, and certainly some of our key donors have reprioritized, and we’d have projects that we’re going to have to close or that we thought were going to start that aren’t going to start when we’ve all had to reprioritize and reshape ourselves, as we’ve done that and I think while we do that we have to recognise that we still need to manage risk effectively. But there is a sort of line below which. It’s hard to go and I suppose as a security risk manager in an NGO, that’s, that’s your key role is saying, Okay, this point, this is, this is the point below which we can’t continue to work right. Because when you are working with less resource that become absolutely critical. So, I mean simply resource always it’s more important to me. I’ve had a career, enjoyed most minutes of it, rather than most of them in the NGO sector so haven’t had the experience of working in the more corporate sense but I, you know, I know it is, it is somewhat different proposition. That said, I love the opportunity to talk to my colleagues and counterparts in corporates and find out, you know what they’re doing, how they’re doing it because we still have ideas to share.

Dominic 26:55
That’s very interesting and it touches on important points I think about risk and David and often I think there’s sometimes a disconnect between a board or a trustees appetite for risk and what they think the organisation should be exposed to. And exactly as you said at the very start of this conversation about what our employees and advisors personnel at the far end of the project the sharp end where were they, collecting the minerals were selling the goods, to find the products we’re building the hospitals to the organisation can sometimes be very different. Have you find that, can you describe some of the work that you do when you’re working at the strategic level with trustees and boards.

David 27:35
Yes, absolutely, and I do have to place our board on a regular basis, particularly at the moment you know this is a time that trustees of any organisation are concerned about how the organisation is coping, and I’m very pleased to say our trustee border rally international are a bunch of tough cookies they know this stuff, and feels like they’ve given us a really good grilling, and they want to understand not just the rich environment but the wider environment that we work in a lot of them weren’t necessarily rallied or I should say for people don’t know rally International, it’s not quite as old an organisation is VSO but it’s still got a sort of 40 year history, it’s a sustainable development organisation that works through young volunteers and we rally volunteer today’s is likely to be a young Tanzanian or a young Nepali or young Nicaraguan as they are. A young international policy, you know, a break, working in somewhere else, but working on the genuinely impactful projects and building leadership for tomorrow. Anyway, that’s, that’s what rally International is today. It’s quite different from where we started, But it’s still got that same sort of spirit and change in youth leadership is excellent. They went away on a Raleigh exhibition in the 80s again. It was a very different sort of environment. Choice, all of these concepts is absolutely critical.

And I find it really important to have those conversations about breaking down risk appetites into sort of manageable comprehensible chunks. So for instance, what we did is we looked at, sort of organisational where we can actually analyse over reasonable space of time, what our risk appetite was with respect to each of those operational objectives, and in some areas that might have impacted on which countries we operate in, or what the age of the volunteers we work through what sort of projects, to get involved in, or what kind of donors were prepared to identify and get to your security risks, so I’ve sort of made that transition from just talking about security risk.

So excited to now operations governance and much more looking at the whole suite of risk, whether it’s reputational financial, operational, you name it, they’re all in there. And also actually to answer this, doing a significant piece of work in safety and safeguarding area as well which is absolutely critical. So, what I found really important without trusting is to go on that journey with them. And again, ask the stupid questions with them, get them to where they are comfortable, and it’s not really that dissimilar to that old exercise in Cameroon. So now that we have to go through with them and then compare our results and say, Well, okay, maybe we need to consider some other ways of managing risk here. And, and wish we have more time with our trustees to, to have those conversations. We were quite fortunate that we had a really good set amount of time with our trustees in early 2020. As a result of that we did an extra bit of testing, crisis management comms and crisis management plan testing. I think everybody should have that sort of spidey sense that something’s coming at that point, we can see some indicators, and I’m obviously delighted that we did. That has helped us be reassured that when we’re having those conversations with the trustees, they had the initial conversations with us about what an appropriate return to the organisation and we were able to challenge some of the things that they assumed, and they were able to challenge some of the things that we assumed, and that’s a very healthy debate to be able to have with a very good set of scenes is going to be a pretty diverse group of people, they’re going to come from different walks of life, different backgrounds, young, old, obviously, youth, it’s important for us as a new risk appetite and understand what it is. And I would say you know if anybody is perplexed as to how to start that compensation. Reach out, there’s many of us, but don’t shy away from it because it’s a very very important conversation to have, and if you’re not having a conversation and somebody needs a conversation to need to be heard and trusted to be challenging, a really robust process so I’m doing that David like lately I have to say I mean, you know we’ve all been firefighting for quite a bit quite a time and one of the things I regularly hear from trustees at the moment is. We really want to have some of those strategic conversations, again, sort of saying well, can we work here. Can we work at all. And then moving from from one state to another and I’m really hoping you know I’m sure we’re all hoping that we’re moving into a space or starting to move into a space where we can have those more mature conversations again, and well done to anybody who’s been able to continue to have them throughout the whole process because it’s not an easy thing to do.

Dominic Bowen 36:58
Well thanks very much for coming onto the podcast today David it’s been a great conversation, it’s been really great to hear from you.

David 37:05
I genuinely really enjoyed it, I can tell from the time of my watch that it has so I obviously trip down memory lane. And it was a great conversation about international risk.

Dominic 37:23

I really appreciate hearing David’s thoughts on the value of listening to local advisors about the improvements that were made in risk management in the last 20 years. And of course the value of adding support and risk mitigation to where it’s most needed.

Harriet Tyler 37:36
You’ve been listening to the international risk podcast, hosted by Dominic Bowen. Thanks for joining us. Please go to wherever you download your podcasts and give this podcast, a five star review your positive reviews on this podcast and subscribing to future downloads is critical for our success. If you know someone who has experience successfully working with risk has a great story to share, and would like to be on the show, send me an email at contact at the International risk podcast.com. Thanks for listening, and join us again next week for your fix of risk related stories.

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