Sushila Desai CPA: A life without borders

Sushila Desai (second from right) with hospital staff from The MSF Emergency Burns Hospital in Sulaymaniyah, Kurdistan, Iraq.

CPA qualifications proved invaluable to Sushila Desai during two rewarding stints as a volunteer in Iraq and Ethopia with Médecins Sans Frontières.

Growing up in Kenya, Sushila Desai was aware of the differences between the haves and have nots.

“There was always this voice that nagged at the back of my mind that we have such an abundance of skills in the Western world that we could impart some of those skills or make use of them wherever they’re needed,” she says.

Desai is the senior project manager at the Tasmanian Department of Economic Development, where she handles diverse projects, including the Tasmanian Government’s sponsorship agreement with the Hawthorn Football Club.

She immigrated to Tasmania in the 1990s, and then had a spell working in Papua New Guinea.

On her return, she realised she wanted to do more than auditing and corporate finance, so she answered a call for non-medical personnel from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), also known as Doctors Without Borders, which has 24,000 field staff around the world.

Desai volunteered with MSF in Iraq in 2008 for six months and Ethiopia in 2009, also for six months. Both positions called for her to manage payroll, business systems, human resources, inventory and fixtures and fittings. Her qualifications were applicable wherever she went.

“There’s a globally accepted accounting standard for budgeting or cash flow. It’s a bit like [the] English [language] in that it’s becoming international,” Desai explains.

In Kurdistan in Iraq, she managed a 100-bed hospital for burns victims.

“At any one stage from MSF you would have epidemiologists, physiotherapists, anaesthetists, plastic surgeons, microbiologists and nurses at the hospital,” she says.

Although the medical staff changed, Desai and an MSF logistics manager were a constant at the hospital, and it was imperative they developed good relationships with staff and suppliers to ensure the facility ran smoothly.

Desai lived with doctors in two shared houses.

“We got to know our neighbours and built relationships with their kids. We lived like we were in an ordinary neighbourhood,” she says. But the daily taxi ride to the hospital was preceded by a bomb check every morning.

The situation was very different in Ethiopia, where Desai was winding up MSF’s emergency response to a drought and food shortage. Every day, six trucks would deliver supplies to surrounding villages. Children would be weighed and checked for diseases.

Above all else, it was the local people that made Desai’s volunteering an amazing experience.

“You would mingle with the locals every single day at work, as neighbours and as colleagues. And when you start taking an interest in their language, their religious festivities and families … then doors open and they invite you to weddings and dinners. It was heartwarming.”

MSF’s small world

Volunteering with MSF can change at a moment’s notice – it’s a matter of going where you’re needed in the world.

MSF runs excellent training programs for volunteers – Desai did hers in France – and has developed robust systems, such as common accounting software, to be used globally.

MSF goes to great lengths to ensure that its volunteers are ready for what they will face in the field.

Desai and other trainers mentored and coached locals wherever they were stationed so that they left behind skilled staff who could continue their work.

Desai says she would volunteer again in a heartbeat after her two stints.

“It’s something that still lives with me – that we need to give back to communities. I’ve been fortunate and privileged to acquire a qualification that is transferable globally, so I do volunteer my time.”

Visit Médecins Sans Frontières for more information 

This article is from the April 2014 issue of INTHEBLACK.

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