Clare Cannon, 26, has worked for the British Red Cross as an international
delegate for the past year. For her, auditing takes on a whole new meaning when
carried out in disaster zones. Not to mention the extra skills needed.
Her tour of duty has, so far, taken her to the Maldives, to the Banda Aceh
province of Indonesia and to Sri Lanka. Two of these areas have recently seen
armed conflict and although a peace process is working in Banda Aceh, Sri Lanka
is still a war zone. Sensitivity and good preparation are particularly
important, as is strong support from HQ.
When disaster strikes, public generosity and government donations direct huge
sums of money to help survivors and repair local economies. However, what
happens next is out of the donors’ hands.
They have to trust that the various aid agencies and organisations overseas
are directing funds to bona fide projects and individuals. Auditing is
essential, but in the difficult situation of conflict and natural disaster, it
needs more than a keen eye and a head for figures.
Serve and protect
An auditor for the British Red Cross is a key part of seeing that its risk
and resource management is independently assessed. This puts a premium on robust
risk management and internal audit to make sure that the British Red Cross’s
management arm, the BRC Society, is not exposed to unnecessary risks.
This sounds like any other job description in the world of accountancy, but
the reality of overseas work particularly when conflict and disaster strikes
is certainly not run of the mill. Anyone who wants to be part of the BRC audit
team overseas needs to have a keen interest in international development and
Cannon completed her training at PricewaterhouseCoopers in its public
services and tax departments. After which she worked for a year as a chartered
accountant with the firm before she was headhunted for the job of auditing aid
to countries devastated by the 2004 tsunami to ensure aid was going to its
intended recipients. This involved a two year secondment from her UK job and she
has just completed her first year.
‘Before going out, the team had to create an audit programme for post-tsunami
finance, construction, logistics, and cash grants. We were looking at the risks
attached financial, our reputation; money not getting to the right people, and
not making the right impact. Our job would be to make sure that the
international projects are running effectively,’ Cannon explains.
Most important, from the British Red Cross’s point of view, is that the
auditing team trains local people to take over and continue the oversight role
once the BRC and other aid-agency staff have left the region.
‘It can mean tight security timings,’ Cannon says. ‘We may well have to rush
into an area, packing a bag at a moment’s notice, to deliver grants and then
rush out again. The International Committee of the Red Cross regularly updates
us on the national security scene.’
Although the team’s Sri Lankan work is based in a relatively safe area,
Batticaloa, there have been close calls.
‘We had to pull out of Batticaloa and head for Colombo because of attacks.
Then, there was a suicide bombing attack in Colombo. We could hear bombs going
off and the rat-tat-tat-tat of guns,’ Cannon says. ‘We have all had security
training, and we had a vehicle on standby.’
Ordinarily perceived as a dull job, auditing can prove a tricky business in
such circumstances. ‘In each country, there’s a base office where the records
are kept. We go there first, spending a few days a week as a rule. Then, we have
to check the progress of actual construction, for example, and see that stock
held in warehouses matches the records. These are quite dispersed, so it may
mean getting on a boat, sleeping in a tent and then going to an office also in a
tent,’ she explains.
Nevertheless, BRC auditors generally get a far warmer welcome than their
counterparts in industry tend to.
‘They like the fact that we are interested, so we don’t have the usual
stigma. We can spend time with them, and that builds trust.’
On one occasion, a visit ended with a volleyball match alongside six
Maldivian women who spoke no English, but the international language of sport
won the day.
Lost in translation
However things can often become lost in translation. ‘The local language can
have nuances not found in English, and it can take us hours to get a document if
we are not specific. Tenses can also confuse, as many of these languages don’t
have tenses as such. So, we can find that something we think has been done turns
out to be not done yet.’
The job can bring unusual stresses, such as the entire team becoming seasick
on the fishing boat taking them between islands in the Maldives. Then, there was
the time that the boat used by the local bank to transport cash to its island
branch capsized,’ Cannon explains. ‘It is quite a logistical problem. Auditors
need to know when the boat is due, so that the cash is to hand when we need to
give out the grants.’
How grants are allocated varies in the Maldives, these go to groups rather
than to individuals, whereas in Sri Lanka, some grants are paid directly to
Secret to success
The key to successful BRC auditing is ensuring that the money goes to the
people who are directly affected by conflict and disaster. But how easy is it to
establish who is bona fide? ‘Village chiefs and local knowledge are very
important. We put up the names of the beneficiaries publicly, so that people can
tell us if someone is not eligible,’ she says.
Local people can pinpoint where houses and businesses used to be and who
owned them very important when records are lost. The work, however, is very
rewarding and BRC auditors can see concrete results.
‘The cash grants we give out are always quite interesting. We follow through
all the paperwork, and end up being introduced to the cow that the grant has
bought, or being taken around the new shop that results.’
Not all her time is spent overseas. Cannon returns regularly to Britain to
write up reports and to deal with head office work. Next year will be a
consolidation of the hard work put in this year, by BRC and by the people of
these devastated lands. ‘It’s amazing how people are getting on with it and
rebuilding their lives. They are so strong, and so positive.’
In the zone
An auditor who wants to work for the British Red Cross as an international
delegate needs to have auditing experience, preferably in an international
arena, but the recruit must have a demonstrable and keen interest in
Delegates are employed on fixed-term contracts, from six months to two years.
Although the BRC does not guarantee career security, it is committed to
re-employing and developing delegates who suit the work and who want to stay
with the organisation. Sometimes, it can employ staff on secondment from their
Red Cross finance development delegates salaries start from between £22,688
and £24,311, depending on the role. They also receive a per diem (daily
subsistence allowance), which is paid in country and depends on the country of
Income tax and national insurance are deducted at source unless exemption can
Delegates are given six weeks annual leave a year, and the BRC provides
travel, medical and baggage insurance for all delegates.
Deirdre Mason is a freelance journalist
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