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Accountants under fire: Our Man in Sudan

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15th Nov 2007
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Geoff Goodier is a chartered accountant working for GOAL, an international humanitarian organization which has responded to nearly every natural and man-made disaster in the world since its inception 30 years ago. Working in war-torn, famine-struck Sudan, Geoff will be writing for AWeb about what it’s like to balance the books in a dangerous country. In his first post he describes how he’s fared over the first four months.

Our Man in Sudan: First Impressions

So how did I come to be working for an aid agency in Sudan? I qualified as a Chartered Accountant with Ersnt &Young, and after a brief spell with Grant Thornton, I then spent 13 years working in the NHS. Last year, I found myself hankering after a different set of challenges, and I left the NHS and started to investigate aid work. After making enquiries with several organizations that did not feel right, I found GOAL.

GOAL is an Irish NGO committed to helping the poorest of the poor. They have a reputation for getting on with the job in difficult circumstances, which appealed to my ex-Army mind, whilst keeping costs down, which appealed to the accountant in me. Actually GOAL’s overhead expenditure is less than 5%, which is definitely one of the best in the sector. It’s charismatic CEO, John O’Shea, founded it 30 years ago, and developed it into an organization that now operates in 13 countries with an income of about €65 million a year, mainly from the Irish, US and UK governments.

After exploring various options with GOAL, and there were plenty of them, we agreed on me spending a year as roving accountant in North Sudan. The role is to provide the finance link between our head office in Khartoum and four field offices, covering an area of 300,000 square miles that has seen floods, famine, and 20 years of civil war, as well as the ongoing misery in Darfur. Much of GOAL’s time and resources is spent building and running medical facilities; training medical staff; educating the population about hygiene, farming and various illnesses including HIV and malaria; providing water systems and sanitation; and distributing food and materials during times of crisis.

My role is primarily to provide professional support to the ex-pat and national managers, as well as our national finance staff, and can encompass anything from teaching them about involved budgetary processes to using a mouse. It’s also vital to check their implementing and adhering to the systems of controls required by our donors.

On my first day I attended a workshop for the field finance staff, which was a good opportunity to get to know everybody. My colleagues range from Indian business graduates to a central African cattle farmer, who doesn’t honestly have that much accountancy or IT knowledge, but he is keen! In fact, enthusiasm is one thing they all share, since working in a technical area for an NGO is one of the few ways they have to better themselves, and in a poor country that can provide massive motivation. Having said that, the local staff have a very different set of values, which may because most of them are Muslims. There is a refreshing ‘family is all’ approach which impacts heavily on work, but also almost an anticipation and acceptance of things maybe going wrong – everything is “inshallah”, or “if god wills it”.

Four months in I have now visited three of the field sites and had the privilege of seeing some of our projects first hand. I have also spent a lot of time with managers at all levels helping them in the project planning and monitoring process, and the submission of requests to donors for funding.

All in all it has been a massive and quite tiring learning process. Quite simply, apart from the basic accountancy and my laptop, everything at work and at play is a new experience. The lessons learned to date are: beware of the expectation gap, work very hard to achieve but do not be too disappointed when things just do not work, and always pack your sense of humour, because a smile unlocks a lot of doors in Sudan.

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