Taking a career break to work for Doctors Without Borders

Wellington management professional, and NZIM member, Mee Moi Edgar, has taken two years off from her career to work for the humanitarian aid organisation Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders). In 2013 Mee Moi spent 10 months working as a Finance-Administration Coordinator in Amman, Jordan. 

She is currently on her second field assignment with the organisation in Juba, South Sudan. In December 2013, escalating violence in South Sudan led to some 70,000 people fleeing the capital, Juba. In the Juba emergency project, Mee Moi manages the project finances and training.

 

How did you start your career in management?

I majored in International Business for my commerce degree and also have a background in Management Studies and Labour Relations. 

I have been a contractor for more than 15 years, usually on large programs of work in different roles, most commonly as a project coordinator or a business analyst. I started in technology projects but then more lately been involved in a number of company mergers and acquisitions. These projects have given me experience in organisational design and change management since I would be present at a time which is critical for staff whose jobs may be restructured, redesigned or made redundant as a result of my project. 

I have been an expatriate overseas in Australia, Greece, Hong Kong, Jordan, South Sudan and England. In this way, I can combine my love of travel with earning money. 

 

Why did you decide to work with an international humanitarian aid organisation?

I don’t often like to admit it to myself but I am getting older each day. I had polio as a child in Malaysia so there was a risk that maybe I would have limited mobility in future and thus be a burden when it was important for all staff look after themselves in an insecure context. My family is a mixed family with three adopted children from Malaysia and China. We all have a strong social conscience as a result. 

Earlier in my career, I was busy building a reputation and strong networks. I started researching volunteer organisations a few years ago to see which organisation appealed the most to me. I short-listed two organisations; ICRC and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). 

Up to that time, I wasn’t sure if there would be a strong need for my skills because both aid organisations were medically focussed. 

However, after attending an information evening I saw that there was a need for support services in logistics and administration. MSF has a finance/HR/administration category of resources so I was interviewed for selection into that resource pool.

 

What was your role in Jordan?

My role was the Finance and Administration Coordinator for the Iraqi mission, based in Amman, Jordan. All the coordinator roles are members of the country management team so I was a Senior Manager in the mission, overseeing the administration staff in the capital city and technically responsible for related staff in projects outside of Amman. 

It was to be a short term assignment as we were closing down the border clinic for Syrian refugees in Al Qaim and mental health project/base office in Baghdad after seven years of operation in Iraq. 

However, after a review of an emergency project in Ramtha, Jordan became the nucleus for the start of Jordan operations and both Jordanian and Iraqi activities were managed by Jordan management teams. Both the logistics coordinator and I worked on both teams. The purpose of the Ramtha project was to set up a war surgery hospital for Syrian refugees in an empty part of the government hospital. My contract was extended to be ten months in total. 

I was in the unique position as a first time field worker to open a country mission and to close a country mission at the same time. It was a great learning experience with a steep learning curve. 

For Jordan, we were learning how to operate in a country where previously we had been a non-operational entity. There were legal, HR and financial implications to building a new hospital that would operate 24hours x 7 days a week with a new medical team.

 

You are currently in South Sudan. Could you describe the work you are doing?

The needs of MSF determine what I do so in my present mission in Juba, I look after finances as the Finance Coordinator. South Sudan is the largest MSF mission with more than 1300 staff in over seven locations so it is not possible to get one person to look after administration. 

I manage a team of bookkeepers/cashiers, finance administration staff and three deputies. The deputies oversee the projects and coordination locations. The coordination team is split over South Sudan and Kenya. In my current role, my team also has technical responsibility for the finance administration personnel in the projects.

 

What does your role involve?

At this moment, I am heavily involved in the operational side of finances and training because my staff are all new at their roles, including my two deputies. The crisis in Juba that started in December 2013 has led to a backlog of work which we are now only completing. 

I have been in this role for two months now so am reviewing the new team structure and finalising it, based on my observations and inputs from other coordinators. It is hard to understand the South Sudan context until you’re here but the sheer volume of work and staff can be overwhelming at times. 

By targeting the issues that generate the most work for my team, I can prepare action plans for sharing with the rest of the management team and then implement these plans with the relevant teams.   

In the near future, once my third deputy arrives and is brought up to speed, I will be able to focus more on strategic goals and on developing standard procedures for the mission. The finance policies were reviewed by my predecessor and I am working on these with head office.

 

What does it take to go into the field?

You need at least two years experience as a supervisor or manager. A Business or HR degree is required for new coordination positions. It also helps if you have worked overseas or for a non-governmental organisation (NGO).  You also have to be able to commit to a minimum of 12 months in the field. 

I think it’s important that you’ve worked in a multi-cultural setting before with staff from other nationalities. You should also be prepared to put aside your western attitudes about the “right” way of doing things because sometimes things are done differently here for a reason. 

You definitely need patience because your fellow expats can drive you crazy. Even with a small group of international staff, group dynamics can be such that you are always mediating or separating people. With a lack of other diversions, food can take on an almost mythical importance with fights occurring over who ate the last piece of fruit.

 

Does working in conflict ridden and resource poor settings make you better at your job?

Funnily enough, yes. MSF suits my style of working because I like working in crisis situations. I become calmer as situations become more chaotic. 

Having a strong purpose (saving lives) for my work outputs focuses me on doing as much as I can in a week. There is a lot of work so in order to cope, I have become better at prioritising and less procrastinating. 

 

How has the experience changed or affected your life?

I understand more of world politics now that I am experiencing the impact of international decisions and lobbying in affected countries. It has made me more cynical in some respects because while I appreciate the work that MSF is doing, I also question whether we can make a permanent difference. I would still support MSF in future but I would be wary of contributing to anything that promised world peace. 

It has been difficult on my partner who is in New Zealand but as he is very busy with his own job, it helps detract from my absence. My friends and family alternate their emotions between despair and envy at my current life choices. MSF is not really in holiday destinations. 

 

Do you have any advice for other management professionals considering work with an international medical aid organisation?

First of all, understand yourself properly. If you can understand what is driving you to apply for an aid position is perhaps unique to you, then it is easier for you to understand other people have different drivers or motivations. 

You should also set your own limits. As other staff come from different backgrounds, they may encroach on your personal boundaries unknowingly so it’s up to you to define and let others know what is acceptable or not acceptable to you. In an emergency situation or where you are living and working together, boundaries can often be shadowy or non-existent. 

Also it is important to not be over-ambitious with your new staff based on how your team were back home nor dismiss them too easily. They may not know the normal recruitment process but they certainly know how to look after themselves in the bush. Your safety in part relies on the local knowledge that your staff can bring so you in turn should offer them your support by training and mentoring them. 

Cultural perceptions of what is considered important in a manager can also differ. Shouting is always unacceptable but age could be important. You need to know what management traits are desired by your staff. 

The most important thing to do though when you are in the field, is to make time to visit and spend with your local staff and patients. There will always be reasons not to, especially as international staff management can take up a lot of time but it’s important to connect with the people that you are there to help.

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