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Some international consultants have made subtle changes to how they operate abroad as personal and data security were brought into focus by a pair of recent incidents.
To mitigate the risks that come with working in developing democracies, consultants in the field have often employed armed guards, aliases and a general level of subterfuge to avoid attracting unwanted attention.
John Phillips, who heads Aristotle International, said it’s now better to be as visible as possible.
His view was shaped, in part, after he was detained in August along with Andreas Katsouris, a company VP, while working in Kenya for the opposition during the country’s presidential election.
The incident, which Phillips said was “the scariest 26 hours of my life,” ended with both men being deported from Kenya.
“It used to be you wanted to be very quiet, and not let the newspapers know that you were involved,” Phillips told C&E in a recent interview. “That’s not the case anymore.”
Before starting work in Kenya, Phillips said he alerted the U.S. embassy and Canadian High Commission (Katsouris is Canadian) in Nairobi about their involvement on the presidential campaign of Raila Odinga and his National Super Alliance.
“We don’t try to skulk around. We try to make it as obvious as possible,” he said. “It makes it, to some extent, more difficult for the government to just grab an employee and take off with them.”
He also generates some local press, which Phillips said helps his clients.
“You bring credibility, which means they can raise some money, which means they can get on the air, and do polling and show that polling to people who are backing the campaign,” he said.
International work has long come with an accepted level of risk and incidents continue to happen – even in relatively safe locales. To wit, Matthew McMillan, president of BuzzMaker, was detained in Saint Kitts last December as he prepared to board a flight back to the United States. While in detention, McMillan was pressured to divulge the passwords to his electronic devices.
Still, those risks could be increasing. For instance, the security consulting firm AT-RISK International notes that Latin America will experience a “difficult regional security environment in 2018.”
That instability coincides with the region hosting presidential elections in lucrative markets like Mexico, Colombia and Brazil. Undoubtedly, American practitioners will be involved.
But AT-RISK International warned in a recent analysis: “Ongoing deterioration of Latin America’s security environment has not forced corporate security planners and managers to re-evaluate their strategies in the region.
“Crime and kidnappings, the argument goes, are nothing new in Mexico and Brazil, and still disproportionately affects local companies. This view may foster complacency in a year that could have transformative impact rather than just operational implications.”
Some consultants have even taken to the use of burner phones and laptops, while traveling under an alias when working abroad. Still, Phillips said there are limits to what practitioners can do to protect themselves.
“Should we have more armed guards? Would that have made a difference [in Kenya]? Or would that have just caused for there to be a shootout where people are killed?
“Should we insist on security guarantees from the host government through the U.S. embassy? Possibly.”
Despite the incidents and reports of instability, some American consultants who do work internationally told C&E that they’ve taken no new precautions as their work has remained steady.
Meanwhile, Phillips said increasing risks won’t impact whether he continues to take on international clients. He finds the rework rewarding, and it’s a chance to scout talent.
“Some of the most talented people out there want to do international work,” he said. “It’s helpful to our business that we’re involved in these campaigns.”