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Last Updated: Tuesday, 8 February, 2005, 10:28 GMT
The unlikely volunteers
By Jonathan Duffy
BBC News Magazine

The hundreds of millions of pounds donated to the tsunami appeal have highlighted the need for a new and unlikely sort of aid worker. Step up the emergency accountant.

They don't exactly spring to mind when considering who should be first on the ground in a disaster zone.

But with charities sitting on a mountain of cash given in response to the tsunami appeal, the scramble is now on for perhaps the most unlikely subspecies of aid worker: accountants.

"It sounds crazy - there's a huge disaster and we send out an assessment team of emergency specialists: perhaps a nutritionist, a logistician... and an accountant," says Dominic Nutt, of Christian Aid.

The charity is looking for emergency accountants who are willing to shed their pin-stripes and polished brogues and muck in with the relief effort in the tsunami-hit regions of Sri Lanka, Indonesia and India.

Andrew Vickery
I'm not a great champion of accountancy - I work as an accountant but I don't like to feel like I'm one
Andrew Vickery
With a record 250m donated by the British public, and a further 50m pledged by the government - charities have found themselves overwhelmed by the sudden surge of money. It sounds like an enviable position to be in, but equally it could tip small agencies over the edge.

Christian Aid is working with about 30 local organisations across the three countries, many of which have no experience of handling such massive sums.

"Just like in the UK, when businesses double or treble in size, the most common cause of collapse is not being able to manage the accounts and it's the same when you are dealing with relief programmes," says Nick Guttmann, Christian Aid's Head of Emergencies.

But with hundreds of thousands of tsunami victims struggling with injury, homelessness or the trauma of loss, what does an army of accountants have to offer?

"If we don't record where things are going to and how the money is being spent, we can't be sure that the poorest and most vulnerable are the people who are going to get it," says Mr Guttmann.

"Yes, it's bureaucracy but it's very necessary in order to be accountable," he says, mindful that the public will expect feedback on how their money was spent.

Acehnese refugees
Accountants can help with the distribution of aid
Corruption is also an issue. "With good accounting systems you reduce the risk of corruption and when there's a lot of money going in there's always a risk of corruption," says Mr Guttmann.

The unprecedented amount of cash raised in the tsunami appeal has also forced other British charities to parachute accountants into the disaster zones.

Some of those have come through Mango - Management Accounting for Non-Governmental Organisations - an agency with a roster of finance professionals on 24-hour notice. In the past few weeks it has supplied accountants to Sri Lanka and India for Oxfam, Merlin and Help Age International.

"There's a growing demand for this sort of thing. Across the charity sector there's been a growing move to professionalise," says Mango's Lucy Markby.

Brain drain

But how does this square with the hackneyed image of accountants as risk-averse corporate creatures?

Andrew Vickery, who spent 14 years in the public sector before taking his accountancy skills to Africa, clearly lives outside of the cliche.

Boardroom volunteers?
"I'm not a great champion of accountancy. I work as an accountant but I don't like to feel like I'm one," says Mr Vickery. "I've always felt accountancy is something you do if you can't do anything else."

Mr Vickery, 38, worked for 18 months in Tanzania as an accountant, through VSO. He quickly became convinced that the developing world is crying out for his skills.

"Where money is so scarce they need to manage and control it. Also, the brain drain means what locals there are with these skills are leaving the country."

VSO, which is sending 200 emergency long-term volunteers to work in the tsunami region, increasingly relies on business volunteers.

"Many professionals will find it hard to imagine how these skills can be utilised in a developing country, when they read so much about the lack of access to basic services like education and healthcare," says VSO recruitment manager Stuart Malcolm.

"In fact a strong management and financial structure is vital to ensuring long-term, sustainable development."

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