How to Run a Successful International Development Program During COVID-19

Interested in international business management? Listen to episode #7 of NAVIGATE, the travel podcastwhere we talk about business challenges created by the pandemic.

Managing international development programs throughout the pandemic – Amy Gildea

Voice Over

0:00:01 – 0:00:19

Welcome to Navigate. The podcast that helps you safely and securely traverse the globe. Alongside travel industry experts and global travellers, we’ll gather insights and advice that help you manage any pitfalls or problems that may occur while you’re away from home. Our voyage of discovery starts now.
Rodger Cook

0:00:20 – 0:00:33

Hello. Welcome to Navigate. My name is Rodger Cook, I’ll be your host. And today we’re very happy to have with us Amy Gildea, the managing director of Tectra Tech International Development for the Asia-Pacific region. Amy, thanks very much for joining us.
Amy Gildea

0:00:34 – 0:00:37

Thanks very much for inviting me. Rodger. Great to be here.
Rodger Cook

0:00:37 – 0:00:45

Amy, if you just let everybody know a little bit about your background, the sort of work that you’ve done over the years and also the work that Tectra Tech are doing in the Pacific?
Amy Gildea

0:00:46 – 0:01:26

Definitely. So I’m actually a nurse by background. That was my first career and I spent many years deep in the field working with Médecins Sans Frontières or Doctors Without Borders in post conflict and post disaster settings, predominately in West Africa, East Africa, the Middle East and the Caribbean, and so really brought those skills back to Australia and was a good fit for Tetra Tech International Development, stepping back into that space but taking more of a development focus lens to the work that our teams do overseas and currently now am managing director for our Asia Pacific operations.
Rodger Cook

0:01:27 – 0:01:31

So when we talk about Asia- Pacific what countries are actually talking about?
Amy Gildea

0:01:31 – 0:01:52

So Tectra Tech International Development are currently in 14 countries across the Asia Pacific, inclusive of Australia and New Zealand. But we also therefore then operate in Papa New Guinea, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Fiji, Tuvalu, Nauru, Vanuatu and Tonga.
Rodger Cook

0:01:42 – 0:01:53

Wow, all throughout. There’s no way I’ll remember all those!
Amy Gildea

0:01:53 – 0:01:57

And Timor – That’s the 14! I always forget Timor.
Rodger Cook

0:01:58 – 0:02:07

Exactly what sort of programmes are Tetra Tech running? Is it varied?
Amy Gildea

0:02:08 – 0:03:12

It is varied. So we manage a significant number of scholarship programmes or Australia rewards programmes on behalf of the Commonwealth government. So we manage nine of thirteen Australian funded programmes in that space which has a real focus on moving people from country of origin to Australia to study and that also requires infrastructure, people and assets on the ground in those countries to support mobilisation to Australia.

We also manage a range of different basic or primary education programmes, particularly across the Pacific and also programmes in policing and building police capability and servicing court responses to domestic and family violence in those jurisdictions.

We work with the Law and Justice and Court sector in Tonga. We also manage an impact investing programme throughout the Pacific, which is a regional programme working with social enterprises, getting them ready for investment, which is important given the current economic recovery climate, as a result of Covid.

Rodger Cook

0:03:12 – 0:03:24

How’ve, you know, I’m sure all those programmes have been impacted by Covid and you talk about the impact of investment, has there been a reticence to go down that road and look at that investment given the current climate?
Amy Gildea

0:03:25 – 0:04:40

There’s certainly been a big shift in people’s appetite for investment and I think that’s really shifted with people’s understanding of economic recovery and the imperative for recovery in home countries, and so that what people are willing to invest overseas has definitely shifted and we’ve also seen a real shift from the current trajectory and delivery of what programmes were aspiring to achieve 12 months ago. There’s been a lot of talk around pivoting and pivoting programmes in sectors that you wouldn’t ordinarily think might intersect with health, but pivoting them to provide some form of support for economic recovery and security in those countries for those host communities.

And so from a Covid recovery perspective, for example, we’ve done a lot of work in our education programmes about moving, teaching online, about supporting through radio programmes, providing coaching and support for parents on how to teach the kids at home and so some really great innovations but a much needed shift in how we deliver the programmes as well.

Rodger Cook

0:04:41 – 0:04:55

What’s been the biggest – obviously, the root cause of the shift has been Covid. – but what’s been the biggest transition or the biggest reason to move? Has it been not being about to get people on the ground or access to staff? What’s been the biggest reason for these shifts for you?
Amy Gildea

0:04:56 – 0:06:49

Yeah, absolutely. So we had close to 500 staff spread across those 14 countries in March last year, 12 months ago. A significant proportion of those staff were local staff to those countries so and we worked really closely on a case by case basis with all about international staff around whether or not they were happy to stay in country or be repatriated together with their dependents and so absolutely that ability to offer safe passage to and from different countries was one of the, I guess, the biggest considerations for how we continue to deliver our programmes on the ground and the type of talent and staffing how we staffed it.

And obviously together with the general sort of profile of what Covid was doing in those particular countries. So in places like Laos, for example, they went a good 6 to 9 months without any formal reported case of Covid over last year. They locked down their borders pretty early on towards the end of March-April and it was actually that complete closure of all air and land borders that I think created the most level of nervousness with our staff. But we certainly had staff who have remained there on the ground this entire 12 months, and we also recently, at the end of last year, mobilised some more staff together with their family and children over there.

So it’s certainly possible that we’ve been working through. Internally we’ve developed our own bespoke deployment decision framework, and that’s really been helpful in working through with staff in a very transparent way. Any concerns they have, what the situation on the ground is, what any potential risk factors they might have that might place them at a higher risk and sort of working through quite diligently in line with that and in line with our duty of care.

Rodger Cook

0:06:49 – 0:07:11

When you look at every country globally, they’ve all had their own Covid journey, and you mentioned Laos, they’re being very effective and also keeping their borders shut and keeping the pandemic under control. Out of the 14 countries that you’re responsible for, what’s been the most surprise – the country, to surprise you the most of the way they’ve gone about handling this?
Amy Gildea

0:07:12 – 0:08:05

That’s a great question. I think every country has handled it differently as you’ve outlined, and they’ve experienced it differently. I think what’s probably been most testing for our staff and for us has been as a business, those jurisdictions, like in Indonesia and the Philippines, where there’s been significant, consistent, lockdown since March last year. So all of our staff in both of those countries have been working from home since March last year, and then that starts to create, sort of moves from an initial emergency response type scenario to a sustained response type scenario where mental health issues and wellbeing start to come into play. You know, often in confined spaces with the added stresses of perhaps young children and needing to home school children. So there’s some significant challenges in that sustained response in those kinds of countries.
Rodger Cook

0:08:05 – 0:08:12

When you talk about sustain responses, really looking at business as usual or treating it as this is their day to day now, this is how we are going to operate?
Amy Gildea

0:08:13 – 0:08:47

That’s right. Absolutely. We’re entering that phase now where we need to have a policy position on vaccination on Covid testing because it’s gonna be part of our life going forward and so as a business in terms of the medical insurance that we provide if we’re mobilising people, you know, what is our position on vaccination efficacy and the costs associated with that?

You know, some numbers or some members of our staff have had nine Covid tests easily over the last couple of months because of the movement that they’re undertaking and depending on what type of test and country you’re in there’s a significant cost to that.

Rodger Cook

0:08:48 – 0:09:06

Yeah, absolutely, with that in place and you know the deployment decision framework and the really tight controls in the day to day treatment of Covid response, how have your staff received that? Have they looked at that with regards to sort of duty of care and how you looking after them and their families?
Amy Gildea

0:09:07 – 0:10:45

Yeah so, the feedback we’ve had from staff to date has been really positive, thankfully, but I think it’s some of the feedback we have had is that the level of communication that we undertook, and I think that’s what underpins anything, right? Is that particularly through a significant global event, is how well you’re engaging with your staff, how informed they feel to make decisions which are in their best interests and so that they’re fully informed to do so and understand all of those risks, so that we’re also as a business making informed risks and meeting our legislative and work health and safety requirements and all of the other boxes we have to tick as well when we send stuff over.

But over and above that you know,  we’re sending staff into contexts which are uncertain and which is continuing to shift and you know, not only the risk of what being infected by Covid might mean for themselves or for that host community if it’s transmitted by travellers, but also the just the general uncertainty of living in a third country and everything that’s involved as well with that adaptation and none of those other risks that you might face in a country like Papa New Guinea go away just because Covid is there. If anything, they’re potentially also heightened in terms of personal security, movements and vehicle security, all of the other infectious diseases and things like that. So this is just another layer to that if you like and where communication is important.

Rodger Cook

0:10:45 – 0:11:08

You talk about the impact of Covid, but then, yes, the risks that are associated with it, what’s the economic downturn that you’ve seen across these countries? And there’s a lot of some of those countries relying on tourism. Some rely on different mining, and manufacturing has been a massive economic downturn in those areas that have been impacted sort of the social fabric of these countries?
Amy Gildea

0:11:09 – 0:12:44

Absolutely. So certainly across the Pacific, we’ve seen that probably a heightened level of impact, particularly because a lot of those economies do rely on tourism as you suggested so particularly Fiji, Vanuatu and you know, we are hearing about a looming fiscal crisis in those areas.

We’re certainly seeing the increase needs and the level of, I guess seed funding or grant funding for civil society organisations which are often best placed to respond in these kinds of scenarios. And so certainly seeing emerging needs in those areas. And I think we may see, if not managed carefully, those needs shift towards humanitarian needs which need to look at those sorts of basic requirements around food and water and housing.

You know, certainly Fiji got hit pretty hard with a cyclone just pre-Christmas and that level of vulnerability also tends to exacerbate that already fragile economy. And so I think we will continue to see in line with the Australian government’s Economic Partnership for Recovery Policy we’ll continue to see investment in those areas and economic recovery going forward.

I think we’ve also, we hear about and read about in Australia as well, but certainly through the Pacific with already increased levels of the experience, lived experience of women and children of domestic and family violence. I think we’ve certainly seen an increased vulnerability and level of domestic and family violence that has sort of stemmed from Covid and the impacts of Covid in those countries as well.

Rodger Cook

0:12:45 – 0:13:04

Is there a concern that this sort of funding and this humanitarian assistance will get lost in the need to roll out the vaccine, where countries like Australia will have, and rightly so, will assist the Pacific with rolling out the vaccine? Do you think that will be at the detriment to these other programmes?
Amy Gildea

0:13:06 – 0:14:32

No, I don’t think so. I think we have seen certainly in the federal budget that came down last year, the first increase in total aid spending that we’ve seen probably for the last political cycle. And so that’s certainly a very encouraging shift. We’ve also seen a reorientation of more funding coming into the Pacific as opposed to some other places like southwest Asia, for example, which is just recognising the different needs.

I think of the Pacific and perhaps timely as well, given Covid and the probably larger impact on the economy that we’re seeing in Fiji. So we have seen some shifts in funding and pivoting from, of money from some programmes towards a Covid recovery, but I think overall, we won’t lose the shape of the current aid programme and the imperatives that it’s trying to address and we’ll see probably a more modest support for the vaccine rollout.

What we’re seeing in a lot of jurisdictions is multiple countries supporting vaccine roll out, which is really encouraging. So in the Philippines, for example, The Oz chamber is supporting a vaccine roll out. The government is supporting vaccine rollout so there are a number, it’s almost like a race actually to see who can roll vaccines out first now.

Rodger Cook

0:14:32 – 0:14:35

That’s a good thing isn’t it?
Amy Gildea

0:14:35 – 0:15:11

It is. It raises the question for us, and one of the things we will need to tackle pretty quickly, too, is vaccine equity. And so again, in a lot of the countries that we work in, what is available to our locally engaged staff versus what might be available by or to our international staff, depending on their country of origin, will soon see some people being vaccinated before others. And so again, from a corporate perspective and duty of care perspective, making sure that there’s equitable access to all of those preventative measures will be important for us.
Rodger Cook

0:15:12 – 0:15:22

It’s an interesting point, and then we talk about your staff you know, going into these countries when Covid first came on the scene was a lot of xenophobia and we all looked internally, a little bit and countries sort of closed their borders, and then we’re a little bit suspicious about people coming in from different areas. Is there any feelings that your people felt that they were coming into a space like Fiji or one of the other island’s where they might have at-risk personnel? Health care is not that great, we might be bringing something in?
Amy Gildea

0:15:45 – 0:17:40

I think for our staff and certainly for the business, one of the risks we’ve been very cognizant of is what we bring in, particularly through transit. So trying to minimise the number of stops in transit on a way through to an end point is a real key consideration for us. There’s been a number of countries whose borders have remained closed to us the entire time. We’ve stopped operating in Kiribati since September last year, but certainly between March and September, we extracted all of our international staff, given the state of health care there, and those borders closed very, very quickly and thankfully they have not seen any Covid infections, but there was certainly, I think, significant fear that if there was an imported case of Covid there, that would have an extremely detrimental impact onto the community there.

The last, overseas trip I did was end of February last year and managed to go to Vanuatu, just as sort of Covid testing and temperature checking was happening. And so there certainly was a heightened level of xenophobia coming into the airport there and, really based on physical appearance, a streaming of people through one line or the other. And, you know, if you were Caucasian, you kind of got pushed through pretty quickly and seen as a low risk, rightly or wrongly, wrongly. So, yeah, that’s certainly very interesting. And I know on the vaccine front there is certainly a lot of trepidation around where vaccinations are being manufactured and sort of how that affects whether people will voluntarily be vaccinated or not.

Rodger Cook

0:17:41 – 0:17:51

Have you started to see countries in this, in the Pacific particularly look towards China for the vaccine or are they still open to exploring in the region?
Amy Gildea

0:17:52 – 0:18:21

No, everyone seems to be open to, I think fundamentally first and foremost from a public health perspective, people are looking at access to vaccine irrespective of where it’s manufactured and then certainly from a government perspective, and then on an individual level, I think certainly, from our employees perspective, supporting them to make choices that are in line with whatever decision making criteria they might have around. That is part of the dialogue that we’re having with them.
Rodger Cook

0:18:22 – 0:18:53

If we look farther to our north, I guess give the Pacific a bit of a rest. We are friends with Indonesia; obviously they are a large trading partner with Australia and a key holiday destination for a lot of Australians as well. I know that their handling of the pandemic at least initially was quite poor, and they didn’t really record any cases. And I think they were counting pneumonia cases at least initially as potential. What’s changed there? And do you see an improvement in the way that they have responded and the public health sector has responded?
Amy Gildea

0:18:54 – 0:19:22

So I think we’re certainly seeing greater level of communication out of government around how they’re managing it, what their expectations around, certainly, from a business perspective, the business community is in keeping our workplaces closed, keeping our staff safe and what government benefits or testing processes are in place to support testing of the populace. So we’re certainly seeing some of those shifts, I think, which have been encouraging.
Rodger Cook

0:19:23 – 0:19:28

And their vaccine rollout, are they trying to keep up with the Philippines?
Amy Gildea

0:19:29 – 0:20:17

To be honest, I haven’t heard too much about their vaccine roll out so, and I get you know, in general part of it comes down to bandwidth of the various different government departments to also manage not only a significant vaccine roll out like that, but just the fundamental health system strength that exists and the resources that government has available to it. If I compare that to the wherewithal of the Vietnamese government, for example, they were undertaking five generations of contact tracing and so a really rigorous response to any potential identified infections and then the ability to test as well. So it’s interesting to see those different contrasts.
Rodger Cook

0:20:18 – 0:20:35

Yeah very much so. So where to for the programmes that you currently have post Covid, we start to open up, hopefully at the end of 2021 and we are right back into the swing of things in 2022. How do you see your programme’s running going forward?
Amy Gildea

0:20:35 – 0:23:51

Hmm, so I think we will continue business as usual. We’ve certainly, we only saw a sort of a drop in maybe 10% of our activity and since pivoting that we’ve really recouped that. So for us, it’s continuing to, continuing on that trajectory. But being cognizant of whatever curveballs might be thrown in the uncertain environment that is Covid and shifting, we did start re mobilising staff and their dependents. I think I mentioned earlier a few months ago that takes sort of 3 to 4 months of planning to get the appropriate approvals in place and they’ve all mobilised safely and so continuing to as necessary mobilise staff.

But what all of this has also thrown up is how talented our local staff are and how this really creates an opportunity for stronger localisation, stronger regionalisation agendas from a from a people and talent perspective. And I think we’re certainly, whilst we’re able to mobilise some people out of Australia, we are starting to see constraints around mobilising individuals and teams and families out of the U. S. and out of the UK with different variants strains coming so it is going to put greater pressure on where we source out talent from and so really create those opportunities, which is, I guess, you know, looking at that perfect storm scenario where there are economic challenges in some of these countries, providing greater employment opportunities for local staff is what is going to also contribute to making a difference.

And so, looking at how we can increase the employment of local staff in those countries, how we can support their professional development, how we can mentor and coach them with other technical experts will be really important too. So that’s certainly a key priority for us over the coming 12 to 24 months, and I think it will continue to be so in the future. Covid’s certainly not going away in five years even, it’s going to be part of a part of life going forward and so I think not only does it reshape that opportunity for locally engaged staff, but if I also think about the challenges around deploying staff with sort of pre-existing medical conditions who fall into that high risk category on who may choose not to go or we may choose that the risk is too high for us to bear and that we can’t provide the right level of evacuate, medical evacuation. You know, with the constraints on commercial flights, et cetera, that provides opportunity for younger career professionals or those in other type of professions to make that leap into international development as well. So, you know, I think there’s some positives to come from that on what the talent and what the people side of international development could look like going forward.

You know, challenges notwithstanding, there’s a lot of opportunity and international development still, and we’re still doing a lot of exciting work and still achieving a lot of great outcomes, which aligns with our purpose, certainly from a Tetra Tech International Development perspective, where we want to contribute to people, communities and the planet to thrive. So thanks for having me along.

Rodger Cook

0:23:51 – 0:23:53

Excellent, my pleasure. Thanks very much Amy.
Voice over

0:23:53 – 0:23:58

Thank you for listening to this episode of Navigate. The World Travel Protection podcast that steers you in the right direction, helping you to explore the world safely. For more information on how we protect millions of global travellers each year, visit worldtravelprotection.com or follow us on LinkedIn, we’d love to connect. Finally if you enjoyed this episode and you want to hear more from our experts, be sure to hit subscribe or follow, or please leave us a review.

Until next time, keep travelling and stay safe.

Has your job been significantly impacted by COVID-19? Well, spare a thought for the business challenges faced by Amy and her team.  

In this episode of NAVIGATE, our host Rodger Cook speaks with Amy Gildea about how she went about adjusting Tetra Tech’s international development programs and efforts during COVID-19 in her role of managing director, Asia-Pacific Region.  

She provides a fascinating insight into managing an organisation during a pandemic that’s operating across 14 Asia-Pacific nations – from Papua New Guinea and Indonesia to Fiji, Vietnam and beyond.  

With staff and programs deployed across the region, the impacts of the economic downturn, closed borders, government enforced lockdowns, and travel bans were only some of the business challenges she and her team faced. And they needed to overcome them, fast – their global programs that support education, investments, court legislation and humanitarian assistance relied on it.  

So, how do you balance the risk and uncertainty of sending staff and their families into developing communities during COVID-19? Amy reveals how Tetra Tech has managed and overcome these adverse obstacles, lead the charge in a regional response, and the long-term and lasting impacts of the pandemic upon global workforces.  

With a variety of programs that were pivoted to support economic recovery and security, listen for her thoughts on what to expect moving forward with funding, programs, re-deploying staff and vaccine equity.

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