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We need to talk about HEAT

I’m a fervent believer in hostile environment courses. I must be otherwise I wouldn’t run an organisation that facilitates approximately 24 of them a year. Almost every other week, Safer Edge has a hostile environment awareness training (HEAT) running somewhere in the world. Each year we train nearly 500 humanitarian and development workers to enter challenging work environments.

But that doesn’t stop me from being their harshest critic and what I’ve seen over the past three years of delivering these courses has led me to ask – is this the best we can do?

HEAT courses go by a myriad of different names but are normally three to five days in length and aimed at preparing people – mostly international staff – to enter challenging or remote environments to deliver relief and development work.

As a values-driven organisation that cares deeply about making security work for everyone – no matter their ethnicity, socio-economic background, gender, and sexual orientation – we believe it’s time to ask some soul-searching questions about HEAT courses.

  • Where did hostile environment trainings come from? What is their history and how did they come to be used by most large international NGOs and organisations?

  • What’s the basis for their use? Or, what evidence do we have that they are the best way to train people to enter difficult environments?

  • How are they constructed, certified or regulated?

  • Who teaches them? What are their backgrounds and qualifications?

  • How were the learning methodologies adopted as the best preparation for complex environments?

  • How are these courses monitored? What evidence is there that they’re achieving their learning goals?

  • What’s included in a normal curriculum and why? What’s left out and why?

  • What types of participants are these courses made for? Or, who benefits the most from them…and who doesn’t?

  • Are these courses safe and accessible learning environments for everyone? Non-native English speakers? Those of non-traditional genders or sexual orientations? Those from non-Western cultures?

  • How have these courses kept pace with wider developments in the humanitarian and development sector as well as social developments?

  • Are there any aspects of these trainings that could harm, or damage people - such as people living with trauma?

  • Are these courses truly professional development or are they ‘edutainment’ – a sort of ‘Tough Mudder for aid workers

NGOs, in the UK alone, are investing hundreds of thousands of dollars training their personnel with these courses – not to mention the amount spent by the UK government. I don’t want to discourage any preparation given to those who will be working in hostile environments but I do think it’s time we stopped, evaluated, and made these courses the best that they can be. We owe that to each other as humanitarian and development professionals as well as the next generation of aid workers.

We don’t have all the answers so over the next few months we’re going to be exploring these issues along with a number of professionals working in, and alongside, the humanitarian and development community. We hope to contribute to a better understanding of what works well on these courses and what needs to change if we truly want to prepare everyone who attends them for the work they’re being asked to accomplish.

Investing in keeping people safe is what we help organisations do every day. We believe it is one of the best investments an organisation can make but we want to make sure we’re investing wisely so, let’s talk about HEAT.


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