Call of the wild

Janet Humphreys with Petrolina Akello

In the northern Ugandan town of Kalongo Janet Humphreys, the financial
controller for aid agency GOAL, has to be back within the confines of the town
by 4pm for security reasons. If she is outside the town’s limits she has to be
in radio contact at all times. Once back in town she has to be safely locked up
in the Irish NGO’s compound by 9pm.

There can’t be many financial controllers anywhere that have to observe such
security measures, but then, of course, there are few FCs that work in places
like Kalongo.

The town, one street of shabby concrete shops, cafes and hostels, surrounded
by hundreds of neatly thatched mud huts, sits in the lee of Mount Kalongo, one
of the few features to punctuate the surrounding arid plain in the Padar
district. This area was once at the heart of the Ugandan government’s 20-year
war with the bizarre but brutal Lords Resistance Army.

Once tagged as the world’s ‘forgotten war’, by former UN secretary general
Kofi Annan, the conflict saw the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) launch raid after
raid on the local population perpetrating massacres, raping indiscriminately and
kidnapping children to become child soldiers. The fighting managed to displace
up to 1.7 million people, or around 90% of the local population.

At the height of hostilities the population of Kalongo leapt from around
9,500 to a staggering 35,000. Indeed, night shelters had to be built to
accomodate at least 11,000 people each night to protect them from LRA raiders.
These days, peace talks with the LRA are well underway, the population is down
to around 14,000 as people return to their homesteads and the night shelters are
barely used. Despite the poverty here, there is an air of optimism about the
town and its people that is remarkable given recent history.

Even so, remnants of the LRA are thought to be camped in the bush outside
Kalongo and the rigid security measures remain in place.

Sanitation and health remain difficult problems. When the troubles were at
their worst there was little or no running water and few wells. The lack of
clean water and hygiene quickly turned from problem into crisis and risk of
disease including cholera, respiratory illness and the ubiquitous diarrhoea. A
big part of Goal’s work in Kalongo has been building effective latrines and
ensuring they are properly emptied ­ a crucial step in maintaining public

Crisis recovery
But when Humphreys visits from her office in the capital Kampala, GOAL has
shifted from dealing with an emergency to what the non-governmental organisation
(NGO) professionals call crisis recovery. The sanitation and hygiene work
continues but so does health education, especially against the rate of HIV
infection which stands here at 8%, against a national figure of 6%.

Humphreys is in town to see that record keeping and delivery of the local
projects are being maintained to the highest standard.

Her enthusiasm for the work is obvious and, unlikely as it may seem,
Humphreys ends up sitting on the porch of a nearby hut in the warm glow of an
African evening to review cashbook reconciliation statements with finance
assistant Petrolina Akello.

They had wandered out among the huts of Kalongo ostensibly to pose for
photographs.But as soon as they were in position they began a very real
conversation about the cashbook.

Earlier, Humphreys said: ‘I can’t understand why more people don’t want to
work in the NGO sector.’ And as she sits there in the village, in the peace of
the evening and Mount Kalongo looming in the background, it’s difficult to
imagine why a recruitment would exist.

Humphreys is CIMA-trained and has been with GOAL for two years previously
spending nine years with Xerox as a currency manager in the UK, US and Ireland.

She hints that she used to be very well paid, but working for an NGO had been
a long held ambition, one she finally sought to satisfy after a soul searching
conversation with a colleague. The difficulties under which she now works seem
justification in themselves for stepping out of the high paid corporate post she
once held.

‘I know I could have perhaps taken a good job in New York, and it would have
been very different. There are stresses and strains here, but that’s what make
it so worthwhile.’

Those ‘stresses and strains’ are self-evident. For starters there’s the much
more modest pay, then the task of being financial controller for a budget of
?7.8m (£5.8m) and the security situation, already mentioned.

Then there’s the difficulty of working with local culture, customs and
administrative regulation. Finally there’s the unexpected. As if to underline
this point, as she arrived back from Kalongo Humphreys learned that GOAL’s
project in the west of Uganda, at Bundibugyo, had closed down following an
outbreak of Ebola, which reportedly killed 16 people. No staff were affected.

Through all this it becomes apparent after a week with GOAL in Uganda that
Humphreys and her staff are imposing an extraordinary level of financial

At a GOAL project in Bugiri, four hours east of Kampala, I am treated to a
tour through cash and safe book routines that indicates that every single
Ugandan shilling of spending is tightly controlled and accounted for.

Even a small sum for a project worker to fill the petrol tank on a motorbike
goes through three levels of sign off.

As a result, any preconceptions that NGOs might neglect record keeping or checks
evaporate as quickly as a puddle in the African sun.

Humphreys is unequivocal and earnest on this matter. ‘NGO work in the new
millennium is all about accountability, accountability, accountability. We are
responsible to donors and even more responsible to the beneficiaries ­ we owe
them that respect.’

Bugiri does raise some interesting questions however. GOAL is the funder of
local charitable groups in the area, asking in return for a framework of checks
and systems to be put in place to safeguard the money. It also provides expe
rtise, advice and pays for audits of local projects. But local groups also have
to reapply each year for funding.

Fair enough. But the application process can take up to six months while they
go through GOAL’s checks.

This can result, sometimes, in funding gaps as groups end one funding year
before having the next year’s in place. Perhaps then the systems are too rigid
to deliver the aid in time?

Humphreys once again, is forthright on this. ‘I’m a strong believer in
systems and processes, working in a timely manner. My corporate background means
that I don’t want to put systems or processes in place for no reason.’

In Kalongo the same issue arises over the tender process put in place for
local contractors drilling wells and bore holes. ‘Our contract process, though
detailed, is saving a great deal of time later. What we have to be careful about
is that we don’t reinvent the wheel each time someone new comes along.’

In fact, what really appears to concern Humphreys is making sure she and her
team are adding value by making sure the systems that they do have function well
and ensure the money is spent in the right places.
‘We have gone from closing accounts in 10-12 days to six, which frees up time
that we can devote to the challenges that face spending.’

Humphreys wants to develop a firm idea of what the future will bring.
‘We have been working on forward projections and we can see a problem with
funding going down. But it means I can highlight the needs back in Dublin,’ says
The battle is also finding funding, especially cash from state agencies that is
only guaranteed for 12 months at a time ­ not exactly the ideal period for
managing an aid project.

‘There’s not enough donors in the world,’ says Humphreys. And then adds:
‘Budgeting and making the most of the funds we have is the biggest challenge I
have as a financial controller.’ You can’t imagine she would have it any other

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