Nigel Cohen was among the millions shocked and moved by the devastating Boxing Day tsunami that shook southeast Asia. In its immediate aftermath, floods of donations swept into the relief campaign. But Cohen, a chartered accountant from Burnham, was determined that the compassion and support should not dry up once the powerful images disappeared from the media.
Cohen, 45, qualified as a chartered accountant in 1982. For the past five years, he has been involved with the Maidenhead Interfaith group, which brings together representatives from the major faiths.
The group has a strong community focus and promotes respect and harmony among the eight major faith groups in the Thames Valley area. It was this group that met, in the wake of the tragedy, to design a plan for sustained long-term help for an area where generations had been wiped out and that will be haunted by the disaster for generations to come.
‘It is easy to get totally overwhelmed by the scale of the disaster,’ Cohen says. ‘There are a huge number of people affected, there are massive geographical distances involved and there is virtually no organisation at all.
‘But we were determined to remain focused. Just because we could not help everybody, did not mean that we could not help anybody. We decided to focus on a village, Ban Laem Pom in Thailand, with which the Interfaith Movement had connections. We maintain an ongoing dialogue with them so that we can accurately assess the villagers’ needs.
‘We can’t undervalue the importance of compassion and human care. Others need financial help, many need homes. We have several ideas of how we can help the victims. The orphans of the village produced batiks, helping them to express their feelings about the tsunami through painting.
‘The finished products were incredible – they were colourful, bright and attractive and we will be bringing these back to the UK to sell for £1 each – money that will go a long way back in Thailand.’
Cohen’s qualification as an accountant has prepared him well for helping with a task of this magnitude.
‘This is an extremely challenging environment and handling a crisis of this nature is outside the skill level of most other professions,’ says Cohen.
‘There is a compulsion to know that the help provided, financial or otherwise, is being properly applied. There have been so many stories of resources being siphoned off. An accountant’s presence helps put a stop to this.
‘We are putting systems in place to identify the villagers’ needs, the range of resources at our disposal and to ensure they are properly applied. Having accountants on board this kind of project is invaluable. Accountants are able to set up procedures for gathering capital, authorise expenditure and maintain feedback on the application of resources. They can also apply their expertise to the unusual challenge of setting up systems for non-financial accounting.’
Cohen is adamant that other accountants, who want to get involved with charity work in general, or in helping the tsunami victims in particular, should come forward and do so.
‘Throughout my professional career, I do not know a single accountant who hasn’t been involved in some kind of charity work, voluntarily or as part of their job.
‘The trouble is, they do not sufficiently value the substantial help they give. Accountants’ skills can make the difference between success and failure. With the tsunami it will mean the right help, going to the right people, at the right time – it may well mean a difference between life and death.’
Cohen is one of the applicants to the Everybody Counts awards scheme, an initiative run by the ICAEW giving members the opportunity to win a financial donation of £2,000 for the voluntary project they have been working for.
For the Maidenhead Interfaith group, this kind of boost would be invaluable. Cohen says: ‘Winning the award would enable us to reach outside of the village we’re working in now to other areas. We must remember the effects would be amplified in Thailand since money goes 10 to 20 times further over there.
‘It would also enable us to raise awareness among other accountants of how valuable their skills can be to others who are in need of human care and kindness.’
The Accountancy Age-sponsored ICAEW Everybody Counts award winners will be announced on 7 June at the President’s Dinner at Chartered Accountants’ Hall. For details on becoming a volunteer, see www.icaew.co.uk/everybodycounts
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