Making sure efforts to save and transform lives all add up

WHEN you’re living in a part of Africa where droughts can go on for years, extreme food shortages are the norm and pressure on scarce resources is made even worse by the arrival of tens of thousands of refugees from other countries, the niceties of Christmas celebrations can seem unimportant to foreign aid workers.

However, Richard Atkinson will enjoy it belatedly when he returns to the UK at the end of this month, catching up with family in Yorkshire and beyond before his next assignment for Oxfam.

The 44-year-old accountant, who studied at Hull University before working in finance at Harrogate Borough Council for 12 years and then as head of financial services at Craven Council in Skipton, decided a few years ago that he’d done that kind of job for long enough. He wanted to do something that was useful in a very different way. Single at the time, and with few other commitments, he considered volunteer work in the Third World.

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He was accepted by Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO) and was posted to Ghana for two years, helping impoverished local communities to access funding for industrial projects that would improve their economy and replace falling incomes from cocoa farming.

“A lot of people who do VSO do it when they are much younger than me,” says Richard. “But I wanted to get something behind me before I did it. I found the two years in Ghana immensely satisfying, because you’re helping people to make changes that will hopefully be sustainable.

“After the two years, the UK job scene had changed dramatically, and I decided to apply to Oxfam for one of three staff jobs they have worldwide as a finance manager in drought response, which often means travelling at short notice to anywhere in the globe.”

Richard’s first posting, in the autumn of 2010, was to Haiti. After the major earthquake tens of thousands were homeless, cholera was taking hold and water supplies were broken down or contaminated in many areas. Oxfam’s major role is in dealing with water supply, and Richard handled proposals for funding from aid programmes, monitored spending of grants given by donor bodies around the world that were given to repair or replace water supplies, and set up systems to ensure that all moneys could be accounted for.

Donor organisations such as the Disaster Emergency Committee (which raised £107m to help the three million people affected by the Haitian earthquake) also send in their own auditors to check on how money is spent and that financial accounting is efficient and transparent. After Haiti Richard was posted to Ivory Coast in West Africa, where Oxfam launched a £10m appeal for an unfolding crisis to help people caught up in the country’s political violence who were trying to escape by fleeing into neighbouring countries. The charity provided clean water and sanitation facilities to more than 100,000 refugees making their way to the border area after battles and violence against ordinary people.

“We had to set up an office from scratch, as Oxfam did not previously run projects in Ivory Coast. Banks in the area had been fire-bombed and I had to make sure sufficient funds were available to do the water and sanitation work, provide food supplies to those who needed them and dig wells. It was a case of taking cash in from Senegal until the banks could be re-established, and before our office was opened I simply had to use the safe of money we took with us as a bedside table.” When he was about to finish his allotted six months in Ivory Coast, Richard got the call to Southern Ethiopia.

East Africa is facing its worst drought in 60 years and 13 million people are facing famine, with many livestock already dead and food prices rocketing. Food, water and sanitation are need to save lives and prevent the further spread of disease, and Richard’s job is to help to keep the cash flowing to the places it is needed, as well as the usual checks on how it is actually spent and the documentation verifying its use for the purpose it was intended.

“The work we do here is so very different to what I was doing back in local government in the UK,” says Richard. “Getting things right, ensuring money gets through and is used properly often makes the difference between life and death. It is a privilege to be able to help. It’s beautiful to be a small part of what’s being done, and people really appreciate strangers coming to help them.”