By Megan Taylor
We live in a society where career options are endless and as children, we imagine what we want to do when we grow up. We want to be astronauts, ballerinas and professional sports people. I, for instance, at the age of eight, wanted to be a fashion designer. Then we grow up, and with our personalities (and a strong sense of reality) at the fore, our desired career paths become far more practical. For those people who have a thirst for action a police officer, fire fighter, pilot or joining the armed forces seems like the perfect choice. A compassionate person with a compulsion to help others may choose to be a nurse, a doctor or an aged care worker.
We also hope that our chosen career path will bring us opportunities for progression either by promotion or through the commencement of our own businesses. I chose to be an accountant at the age of 15. I had an aptitude for numbers, a curious nature and an eagerness to expand on the basics that I had already learnt in high school. When I chose this career path, I hoped that it would bring me not only success and a sense of self-pride, but also many new opportunities for personal and professional growth. However, in all of my hoping, I would never have thought that my chosen career path would eventuate in an opportunity for me to travel and provide accounting support to a not-for-profit organisation in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
With the help of UK based organisation Accounting for International Development (AfID), I gained a three-week volunteer placement with All Ears Cambodia, a health care provider specialising in audiology and essential ear health services. For me, this volunteer placement was a challenging prospect given that I had never had exposure to the not-for-profit sector and had also never travelled to a developing country. The thought of venturing into an impoverished country on my own was admittedly terrifying yet the lure of a new adventure was too strong to resist. So, I viewed this placement as another challenge and hoped that it would reignite my passion for a career that I’d put my heart into for many years.
On day one of arriving in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, I was collected by a driver to be taken back to my hotel. As soon as we left the airport and turned into the main street, my initial thought was “what on earth have I gotten myself into”! The roads and traffic were nothing short of chaotic and there didn’t appear to be any road rules. It seemed to be perfectly acceptable to drive into oncoming traffic so long as you didn’t run into anyone and there was absolutely no limit to what you could put onto a single motorbike. Needless to say, my first night in Cambodia was spent indoors, contemplating my new surroundings and hoping that I would survive the few weeks that I was going to be staying there.
On the first day of work with All Ears Cambodia, I was collected by Head of Administration, Hannah Chroston. Hannah was kind enough to give me a quick orientation of the local area by Tuk-Tuk and took me to the clinic to meet Glyn, the Director, and the staff. Upon arrival, I was given a tour of the clinic and was privy enough to be able to sit in on consultations and examinations, view the ear mould manufacturing process and have a chat with Glyn and his staff. I used this time to try to get a feel for not only the operational aspects of the organisation, but also its culture. My first impression was that of an extremely efficient, well administered operation with a patient service standard focused on timely and effective treatment and additional emphasis on staff and patient education.
My first impression of the accounting system? Excel hell. Little did I know at the commencement of my placement that the excel spread sheeting system in place would be the centre of my working universe for the next three weeks. I used this spreadsheet to prepare the annual financial statements, review cost centre allocations and analyse donor income. This process was not only a lesson in the intricacies of Excel, but was also a test of my adaptability. Being the methodical and logical accountant that I am, I also created an in depth year-end checklist in the hope that Hannah would be able to undertake part of the year-end process herself prior a visit from the next accountant. The intention is that this process would free up the next accounting volunteer to work with her on other areas such as Quickbooks Online software training and more in depth analysis of other operational aspects.
Throughout my weeks working with All Ears Cambodia, I couldn’t help but compare the challenges that both not-for-profit organisations and the clients that I work with face every day. For example, throughout his fourteen years as director or All Ears Cambodia, Glyn Vaughan has had to acquire many additional skills on the fly. He has had to learn how to interpret financial data and manage cash flow. He has had to learn how to be an employer and the Human Resource considerations that go along with hiring staff. He has had to learn about budgets, compliance and accounting procedures. I would ask our clients to think about when they commenced their businesses. Does any of this sound familiar to you?
In addition to these common challenges, I learnt that All Ears Cambodia have their own unique hurdles to jump over. Firstly, corruption within the governance structure makes compliance a true struggle. New laws are generally tested on the not-for-profit sector and are often amended on a regular basis, making the goal posts for meeting compliance requirements ever changing. All Ears Cambodia is also unaware of when and where their next funding will come from. Given that operations take place in Cambodia, it is unlikely that any significant funding will be obtained domestically. Instead, it is imperative to the ongoing survival of the organisation that wide spread international donor networks be established and maintained. Additionally, funding restrictions will result in minimal spending measures ensuring that all available cash will last until the next influx of funding is received. Lastly, there are many cultural aspects to be taken into consideration during the decision making process to ensure that the confidence of both patients and staff is maintained.
Working in Cambodia proved to be very different from my everyday job here in Australia. Walking to work was always an adventure and crossing the street felt like a game of Russian Roulette. Sometimes the traffic would go around you and sometimes they would stop altogether, but on the odd occasion, neither of these things would happen. The sounds that would filter into the office from the street outside created a different atmosphere. Street vendors and monks would call out to the workers inside and recyclables collectors would make their squeaking noise to signify their passing by. The best part for me? Not having to wear shoes in the office. Workplace health and safety is more of a conscientious effort rather than a regulation in Cambodia.
One of the most lasting impressions that I will take away with me from my time with All Ears Cambodia is the dedication and level of support that all of the staff have for their patients and each other. They are a very close-knit team of varying personalities and their commitment to the mission of All Ears Cambodia and the cultures and values of the organisation is unquestionable. One of the clinicians, Vaesna Khan, made the comment to me “if I was a millionaire, I would give money to the people. But as I am not a millionaire, I think that this is the only way for me to be able to help”. This was a sentiment that seemed to be echoed throughout the team and in building a lasting future for themselves and their families, the staff understand that they are also making a contribution to building a much brighter future for generations to come. Hearing these words from not just Vaesna, but a number of staff, felt very soul warming and gave me much more hope for a brighter future for Cambodia and its people.
For me, this experience has been a lesson in gratuity. Personally, I am so much more grateful for the things and people that I have in my life. Often, I am guilty of focusing on what I am yet to achieve and tend to overlook what I already have. I also feel very fortunate to be living in a country where access to clean water, safe housing, electricity and sanitary conditions is a standard and obtainable for all. These luxuries are not something that the majority of Cambodians have access to, particularly those living in provincial areas. Professionally, I have a far greater appreciation for the educational opportunities, the employers and the mentors that have all given me the chance to obtain the knowledge and skills that I needed to do a job that I love.
If volunteering is something that anyone has considered getting involved with, I would urge you to try it. You may feel that your skills are ordinary, but in my experience, there will be someone who will find you and your knowledge to be completely invaluable.