George Holloway

'In Sudan, my staff was quite large, and so the day-to-day management of a large number of people of all nationalities who were doing quite varied functions throughout a lot of project locations was quite a test.'


What did you do before joining MSF?

I was an investment banker at one of the bulge bracket banks in New York.

Why did you apply to MSF?

I knew I wanted to spend a period of time doing aid work. I had a preference for well-regarded, secular organizations, international organizations, and NGOs working in the health sphere. MSF fit all of those things.

What was your role and day-to-day responsibilities as Financial Coordinator?

Financial Coordinators are one of four people on the management team for the country. You have responsibility for everything from getting funding from large international donors to administering the day-to-day business of the mission, such as making sure the local workers get paid, helping procure locally bought goods, and dealing with legal and human resources matters within the country for both national and international staff. 

Describe the biggest challenges in each of your assignments.

Darfur, Sudan
It was a massive intervention. We had 75 to 85 international staff and 1,500 national staff scattered over five project locations throughout South and West Darfur. The scope of need combined with the complexity of the conflict made the situation for aid organizations very challenging.

Given the end of the Liberian civil war, other medical actors were beginning to come into Liberia. This enabled MSF to reallocate its resources to countries where there were no other actors. As a part of this process, MSF closed a number of projects in Liberia. So there were a lot of challenging human resources and administrative issues to handle, as you can imagine, associated with leaving a country. We were concerned about the timing of the closings; handing over our programs properly; making sure that the patients were transferred to responsible actors who can continue a high standard of treatment; and helping our national staff find jobs, so that they could continue to provide for their families. Some staff had been working for us for more than 20 years, so we really felt an obligation to help them find new work. What was also important was to set in place open contact with our established networks, so that if MSF were to return, we could be up and running quickly.

What did you observe about going on multiple missions?

Somewhere around my third assignment I started to lose touch a bit with friends and family—that was something that I found difficult. This just has to do with being out in the field for long periods of time. Being in places like Liberia and Sudan, it is hard to travel back to the US for the small things: a wedding here, a birthday there. After a while a distance begins to build and I felt a strong need to get back home to reconnect with my friends and family.

What professional skills do you think were most put to the test while in the field?

General management experience was probably the most important in my job, maybe even more so than finance experience or any particular administrative experience.

You’re responsible for all human resources, so that includes a lot of legal issues, knowing the work regulations in the country for national staff and for expats, knowing the international work regulations, knowing how to get people in and out of the country, get visas, and those kinds of issues. In Sudan, my staff was quite large, and so the day-to-day management of a large number of people of all nationalities who were doing quite varied functions throughout a lot of project locations was quite a test.

There were always issues of cross-cultural communication. English was the native language in only one place I worked. In Uzbekistan, there were four languages (Uzbek, Russian, Karakalpak, Tajik). Sudan is an Islamic country, so there were a lot of cultural issues to consider.

What kind of training did MSF provide pre-departure. Was it sufficient?

I was sent to a financial controller course, which was well done, but until you get out in the field, it’s the difference between book-learning and experience. So although the training is good, it can only take you so far. Fortunately, when you arrive in a new mission there are always a few old timers around to aid in the transition.

What did you find most rewarding about your work with MSF?

The interaction with my staff, both national and international, was most rewarding. I am proud to say that our office assistant in Uzbekistan started out making copies and answering phones, but by the time I left she was our main financial national staff professional. One year later, she applied to work as international staff as a financial controller and has now been on a number of missions. She’s contributing to MSF in a huge way.

Did you have much interaction with the local communities?

In Uzbekistan and Liberia, I was able to be in the local community, but in Darfur due to security reasons our movements outside of our compound were restricted.

What resources and tools were available to you in the field?

We had laptops with basic financial software, which was all we needed since we were doing basic financial work. The issue was available electricity and internet access. The office had everything that was needed to be functional.

What recommendations do you have for financial and administrative professionals interested in applying to MSF?

Think carefully about whether this is a commitment you want to make and why. Working in the field is not for everyone, and the adjustment can be difficult.

You’ve worked for MSF and observed other NGOs in the field, what do you think distinguishes MSF from other organizations?

MSF’s principles and its commitment to our patients stand out. We really are a singularly-focused organization and all of our principles and goals point towards that one goal, which is addressing the medical needs of our patients.

Do you have plans to work with MSF again?

I’ll definitely return to the field at some point.