In a small hotel room Irishman Dave Ritchie sits quietly tapping his calculator and updating spreadsheets on a laptop. The scene is unremarkable – just another audit – but this is not the Hilton or even a budget B&B. For starters there is no running water, the windows are nailed shut, the telephones don’t work and – oh yes – you can hear NATO bombs drop on Kosovo just 20km away.
Welcome to Kukes, a run-down town in northern Albania, which has become the epicentre of the largest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II. Around 300,000 refugees have passed through here, and more than 100,000 are still housed in camps around the town.
Hardly a place to book a holiday but, believe it or not, this is exactly what Ritchie decided to do. The 30-year-old chartered accountant has taken three weeks’ paid leave from his job as an internal auditor at the Electricity Supply Board in Dublin to audit an emergency aid project in Kukes run by Concern Worldwide – a major Irish charity.
Ritchie is one of an increasing number of accountants combining a career at home with spells working in the field for major aid agencies.
Concern Worldwide runs projects in 20 countries and is just one of a number of relief agencies with a perennial need for accountants overseas. In Concern’s makeshift office Ritchie is calmly counting piles of Albanian banknotes while his colleagues bark into satellite phones and short-wave radios (the only way to communicate out here), organising food and supplies for refugees.
‘I wanted to get involved so I volunteered my services to Concern in return for expenses,’ says Ritchie. ‘Apart from it being a good and moral thing to do, it enables me to see what is really going on out here for myself.
‘I watch the camera crews filming out here each day and wonder what makes it onto our screens at home. There’s no substitute for seeing with your own eyes – you don’t see everything on TV.’
A two-minute walk from his office bears this out. There are daily scenes of anguish in the main square in Kukes, as refugees are first separated and then loaded on to UNHCR transports before making the arduous journey to the sanctuary of southern Albania.
But Ritchie’s decision to venture out to the Balkans has nothing to do with war tourism. As a fully trained accountant he has an important job to do. Within three weeks, he must set up basic accounting systems and train local staff and colleagues to maintain accounts and record all types of expenditure.
Emergency relief efforts are notoriously expensive for charities and a huge drain on funds. Aid agencies stress accountability is the only way to justify the cost of relief work to trustees and donors.
If the finances are inadequately managed, the entire emergency operation will be unable to function properly.
‘A lot of people underestimate the role of the accountant in the field,’ says Ritchie. ‘But if I was not on hand to look after the finances, who would analyse costs, train and pay local staff and prepare for ward budgets to keep the whole thing moving?’
Ritchie’s job is made harder by the fact that Kukes is at the centre of a spiralling war economy. The arrival of the world’s media has hiked up the price of accommodation to as much as $200 a night for a hotel room, while small run-down flats fetch rents of $2,000 a month. Then there’s finding a decent translator and a driver, often drawn from the Kosovars themselves, who can command fees of more than $100 a day.
This sits uneasily next to Albania’s unenviable title as the poorest nation in Europe. The entire country is a living testament to the failure of communism and decades of isolation. The unfettered forces of capitalism are in little evidence; there’s not even a McDonald’s or a Burger King in the Albanian capital Tirana.
Meanwhile, the few roads to Kukes are crumbling under the weight of endless aid convoys supplying tens of thousands of refugees still fleeing the violence being meted out by the Serbian security forces in Kosovo.
Ritchie clearly relishes the challenge of working in a testing and, at a times, surreal environment. Prior to training as an accountant with KPMG in 1995, he worked in Cambodia as a civil engineer specialising in water and sanitation.
But returning to the field as an accountant opens up a wealth of opportunity. ‘Out here I have the chance to immerse myself in all areas of the operation. I can follow my curiosity and interests and delve into IT, communications and fundraising,’ he says.
‘At home, this simply does not happen because of the emphasis on specialisation. It’s nice to get away from that controlled environment – even just for a short time.
‘In the field I have the chance to think more creatively and design accounting systems from scratch. I also train others, which is extremely rewarding, and get to see close up how different organisations function under pressure. Most important, I can apply all this to my work back home.
‘I would definitely encourage other accountants to work with aid agencies for a spell overseas. Concern provides first-timers with all the support and training required.
‘I wouldn’t do it full-time because it’s impossible to juggle with my life at home, so the occasional posting strikes the perfect balance.
‘It may not be for everyone and it certainly takes some getting used to, but it teaches you resourcefulness and opens your mind to what really goes on behind the headlines.’
In the past decade, the voluntary sector has largely shrugged off its parochial image and attracted many a financial high-flyer. Large charities such as Oxfam have an annual turnover of £100m, with over a third earmarked for emergency relief work.
But, despite the burgeoning influence of the voluntary sector there are still very few, if any, formal links between large charities and the accountancy world set up to send staff abroad. KPMG, to its credit, has an informal arrangement with Concern to release auditors from time to time but little else seems to fill the void.
Significantly, this is set against a shortage of accountants living and working in the field. Voluntary Service Overseas presently has num-erous placements available for accountants in countries as diverse as Zaire, Macedonia and the Maldives.
But the few accountants willing to put their lives on hold for so long is forcing a change. In March, VSO launched the Business Partnership Scheme to forge lasting links with the busi-ness community.
According to Emma Paulo, spokesperson for VSO, the average time spent abroad will be between three and 12 months. ‘In the last two years we have had double the number of requests for accountants and business advisors. To keep up with demand we need to work more closely with the business community to encourage them to release staff for a manageable period.
In return, volunteers are able to report and research on emerging markets where they find themselves posted and seek out business opportunities for their company.’
Oxfam, the UK’s largest charity, is also considering new ways to attract accountants to supervise auditing and training in the 70 countries it operates. The charity already has five accountants in the Balkans and a further three on stand-by as part of a rapid response team.
Gopal Rao, head of international finance at Oxfam GB, says he is looking into ways of building up a pool of accountants willing to travel at short notice. ‘It’s something we are turning out attention to,’ he says. ‘In the future we might try to set up a database of accountants trained by us and willing to travel at short notice. This might mean six weeks notice for a three month project. Similar systems work well in other divisions of Oxfam so why should finance be any different?’
Rao is more concerned with the type of candidate rather than the number coming forward. ‘At Oxfam we look for people with the mental toughness to handle working in extreme conditions,’ he says.
‘In acute circumstances people could be dying around you but you have to remain professional. Candidates must also demonstrate they are empathetic to the work of Oxfam which is about saving and improving lives.’
Joy Holveson, a 37-year-old finance manager, is the embodiment of this. Now wor-king full-time for a London-based charity called Water Aid, she has spent much of her professional life working abroad and welcomes stronger links between accountancy firms and the voluntary sector.
‘Ten years ago if you went abroad with a charity you were not really thought of as a career accountant. Things have changed and it’s now more common to work abroad than ever before.
‘Whether you go just once or make a career out of it, you will come back a little different. It changes your values and broadens your mind while sitting in the same London office year on year on end will probably result in the opposite.’
TO FIND OUT MORE:
Concern Worldwide (HQ in Dublin): 00 353 1 4754162
VSO (individual enquiries): 0181 780 7500; or email@example.com
VSO (Business Partnership Scheme) Michael Shann: 0181 780 7427
Oxfam (HQ): 01865 311311
WaterAid: 0171 293 4500
Marc Lopatin is a freelance journalist
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