Kerrie-Lee Robertson from the NSW north coast has completed several field placements with Médecins Sans Frontières as Finance and Human Resources Coordinator. This management level role is responsible for coordinating human resources and finances for a number of field projects.
I first applied for humanitarian work (with a different organisation) when I left university, but there was a minimum age of 26, and by the time I was 26 I was living on a boat and sailing. I had also worked in corporate human resources, but ended up working in Aboriginal communities around Forster, NSW, for more than 20 years. I taught skills like bookkeeping, HR and finance, as well as assisting running an aboriginal art gallery and retail shop, and an accounting practice. I don’t have a typical finance background (I’ve got a psychology and education degree) so MSF really put me through my paces with the application! But I got accepted at coordinator level and went on my first assignment, to a tuberculosis project in Georgia, in 2015.
"The role is part of the decision-making team for the project, which to me is great – you’re not just in the back room producing figures"
What does the role of Finance and HR Coordinator involve?
The role is part of the decision-making team for the project, which to me is great – you’re not just in the back room producing figures. The part of the role that I enjoy most is working with the team to plan where the project is going. For example, in Georgia we were implementing a new treatment regime and starting a clinical trial, so the project doubled in size in a short period. That involved a lot of planning, and trying to forecast for HR and finance needs. I really enjoy working with local staff and the coaching and mentoring role, which uses my education and psychology background. Being able to share my experience and train and develop people is very rewarding.
I’ve done a few training courses, and the best thing about training with Médecins Sans Frontières is that you might be in a room with 16 other people all of different nationalities and experiences.
I’ve recently signed a vocational contract, which is a three-year salaried position. I’ll be sent at short notice to different projects, in emergency or stable contexts – whatever is needed. My first placement will be back in Borno state, Nigeria. Part of the reason I was interested in the contract is because at my stage of life, I want a bit of job security.
"Some people question donating to charity, but one thing I always explain is that Médecins Sans Frontières is really strict on managing their money. Every dollar or naira is accounted for"
Why are finance professionals so important to Médecins Sans Frontières’ work?
Some people question donating to charity, but one thing I always explain is that Médecins Sans Frontières is really strict on managing their money. Every dollar or naira is accounted for. Even with the cholera outbreak in Nigeria, every month we have to put in a cash request and do a projected spend – and it’s not always approved. There is a lot of scrutiny and a good audit trail. People with strong finance skills are also important because we’re a big organisation dealing with huge amounts of money.
Could you describe any particular moments that stand out for you during your work with Médecins Sans Frontières?
In Maiduguri, Borno state, Nigeria, I work with two young finance guys who are about the same age as my sons. Usually we’re in the office, but I arranged for them to visit the internally displaced person’s (IDP) camps where our teams work. They’re both local guys and have been indirectly affected by the conflict, but they hadn’t seen an IDP camp before. I really remember their reactions after their visit. They were shocked but also very sad for their people and country, and concerned for all the kids growing up in the camp without access to village life and school.
What advice would you give other people considering work with Médecins Sans Frontières?
You need to be flexible and adaptable, and patient with the limited tools and resources. There are certain things you can adapt and change but some things you just have to accept and work with. You also need to be prepared for long hours. But I would encourage others to do it, and it is also possible for families. It’s not just for young singles or older people at the end of their career. It can work for people in the middle.