two people in a cornfield wearing masks

Returning to Travel and The Questions That Come First

Stephanie ManciagliCOVID-19, Field Team Blogs, Travel

While borders have mostly reopened around the world, albeit with travel restrictions and potential quarantines, Whole Planet Foundation has continued to work with our partners virtually while monitoring the global situation, as WPF’s Global Program’s Director outlines in this blog.

After 18 months of working virtually, in stark contrast to the ~140 days our field team members each spent on the road in 2019, we are optimistically cautious as we slowly begin to resume traveling. Our approach to travel will be deliberately guided by questions of ethics and responsibility. Noting the recent and overdue calls for reform within the international development space, WPF has used this past year to reexamine our obligations, as highlighted in this blog. How we travel is an integral component of the foundation’s philanthropic approach. Our team is resolute in our commitment to planning business travel in concurrence with our partners’ ability to host, while ensuring the continued deployment of our funds to the organizations best prepared to absorb them.

Several criteria will determine when we begin to conduct in-person due diligence again:

  • Getting our team vaccinated: Before traveling, our team has been vaccinated to protect ourselves and the communities we’ll visit. It is critical that we take all precautions to reduce transmission, especially in the many communities we visit that lack robust healthcare systems.
  • Gauging how our partners feel: We are communicating with partners about their comfort and capacity to receive international visitors. We will ensure that all staff and client health is considered and that we identify ways to observe operations in a way that permits proper care and biosecurity. Beyond wearing masks and maintaining sanitary practices, this may include arranging our own transportation to and from meetings, as well as using outdoor areas rather than office space.
  • Determining if the trip is essential: When travel resumes, we will prioritize visits based on program need, including significant changes in partners’ operations, upcoming disbursements, and those projects that require immediate attention. We will hold off on visiting long-term, well-established projects until later.
  • Reviewing quarantine mandates: Whole Planet will visit countries where stringent quarantines are not in place and where rapid Covid testing is conveniently available, so that we may meet travel requirements upon returning to our home countries.
  • Understanding partners’ daily operations: Many countries apply Covid restrictions at a municipal level, rather than at a national level, so restrictions vary across regions. Inter-city travel remains limited in some places, as does public transportation, making it impossible to visit certain communities during Covid peaks. Many places also have nightly curfews to limit gatherings. We will work with partners to understand which of their communities could be visited without cumbersome travel arrangements, all while taking everyone’s safety and time into consideration.
  • Monitoring Covid waves and vaccination rollouts: As new Covid variants emerge and cases surge, we are keenly reviewing incoming data around vaccine efficacy against the variants. We are hesitant to visit countries with striking Covid peaks so as not to contribute to transmission. We also want to avoid burdening fragile healthcare systems, in the event that we would need care for an illness while traveling. Moreover, we are cognizant that border closures could happen suddenly while traveling and are thus cautious of entering countries with Covid waves. We will continue to maintain virtual meetings with partners facing particularly high cases.

BRAC Tanzania’s COVID-19 awareness training for staff.

As we prepare for the right moment to travel, there is a sense of urgency to return to in-person site visits. We highly value our ability to visit partners firsthand and observe regular day to day operations to gauge partnership opportunities, especially when it comes to adding new partners to the portfolio. We select partners on their social and financial performance and permit them to use the interest generated from our free capital at their own discretion.  Maintaining these relationships requires that we first conduct detailed due diligence, observe operations, understand the nuances of our partners’ methodologies, speak with our partners’ clients, and build rapport. When we cannot travel, identifying new potential partners and conducting the necessary due diligence review becomes increasingly challenging. We’re also prevented from brainstorming with current partners, who use the time together to cross pollinate and seek introductions to our expansive network. When we cannot travel, partners are burdened with using more resources to demonstrate their concrete need and justification for funds.

women in guatemala standing with bags of food

Whole Planet Foundation’s microfinance partner Friendship Bridge in Guatemala provided food, masks, and hygiene kits to clients and their families.

When we weigh the options to begin traveling or to continue waiting, we’ve asked ourselves what factors we should consider such as vaccine rollouts, travel restrictions, and levels of risk. Due to the unequal rollout of vaccines worldwide, current estimates say it will take well into 2023-24 for everyone who needs a vaccine to receive one. Many of the communities we serve are being devastated by the economic repercussions of this pandemic and, thus, we feel an obligation to travel long before 2024, to push out capital to the strong organizations creating economic opportunity through microcredit. Travel will look different and we will be ready to adapt or pause if and when necessary.  Nonetheless, we are confident that with our partners’ guidance we can begin meeting safely again and look forward to doing so!