'If you go in with this idea of how you’re going to do things, it’s not going to be anything like that. Most times, you’re just trying to keep things running.'


What did you do before joining MSF?

I was working in the corporate and private sector as a Certified Public Accountant but wanted to transition to working abroad for NGOs, so I went to graduate school to study non-profit administration. I didn’t think that I had anything to offer MSF because it is a medical organization, but I met an MSF nurse who told me that they also need finance and administrative people.

Describe your role and responsibilities as a Financial Coordinator in the field

As a member of the coordination team, you are based in the capital cities. In Freetown, Sierra Leone, I managed two to three accounting assistants who did most of the daily work. I was responsible for the banking, bookkeeping, financial reporting, budgeting, and liaison with tax authorities, national staff management, and administration.

In the field, I spent a lot of time crunching numbers and counting cash, or sitting in traffic in Freetown trying to get to the bank or various ministries. I found the work challenging and interesting, but also tedious at times, though every day offered something different.

What sorts of unexpected situations occurred?

In Sierra Leone with 50 employees in Freetown and another 100 in field projects, I spent a lot more time on national staffing issues than I expected, such as hiring and disciplinary actions. I worked closely with the logistics team on budgets and customs paperwork to bring in our supplies. These are the types of things that require immediate attention to keep things running.

How often were you required to visit field projects?

As “Fin Co” you’re the staff member that needs to go to the field site least, especially if it’s an emergency project. I was lucky in Sierra Leone because we could drive easily to the projects; and my Head of Mission encouraged working on site.

What did you find most challenging about your work in the field?

The human resources work was most challenging because, as an employer, MSF needed to understand and comply with local labor laws, so that was an education. In most places you have a local staff member who is in charge of this, so this was helpful. Also, managing any staff has its inherent challenging issues.

Beyond professional duties, what was life in the field like?

The first time out particularly, you have to deal with being away from your support network of family and friends, being in a new environment and a new job.

Were you able to communicate with your family and friends?

Phones were accessible but calling was expensive. Luckily, we had internet and e-mail access.

Did you develop a new support network where you were?

Yes—it takes time—but you definitely become very close to the people you’re working with.

Did you get to interact with the local population?

Since I worked in the capital cities with large national staffs I had a lot of interaction with the local community, but sometimes it was a bit difficult. You’re dealing with two very different cultures, and some people are better at integrating with the local culture and community than others. It’s easier for the staff in the field, in the smaller towns, because it’s a much more intimate environment; they are able to play soccer and do other things like that.

Upon reflection, what suggestions can you make to help others considering field work?

I would suggest that you be flexible and adaptable and put your preconceptions behind you. If you go in with this idea of how you’re going to do things, it’s not going to be anything like that. Most times, you’re just trying to keep things running. If you want to feel any sense of accomplishment, you really need to try not to tackle the whole world. A good tip is to choose two or three things that you would like to accomplish before you leave.