When I was in primary school, I am used to the arrangement where my Mom would give me my total 5-day allowance at the start of the week. And it was up to me how to spend it – whether I want to live a “grand” life, from a kid’s point of view of course, by spending it all in just one day and then suffer for the rest of the week or be strategic so I can afford my transportation and meal for 5 days in school. But being a typical kid, I did experience both. There were good weeks, where I have survived it seamlessly, and bad weeks too, where I have to beg money from my older sister. It’s not that my Mom wouldn’t give me additional allowance but I just didn’t want to undergo the ordeal of interrogation before she will hand me additional bucks just enough to cover my expenses for the remaining day/s. This was one of the few responsibilities that my mother taught me at a young age. She didn’t give me any reward though for any successful week but later I realized that it was self-rewarding. I was able to save some money, accumulate it, say, until Christmas and buy the stuff that I want.
So to speak, that was my early exposure to budgeting. As a child, my concept about budgeting was pretty simple and basic. That is, if I was able to spend within my allowance, I did a good job. Even better if I was able to save a few bucks. Underspending was always my goal so that my piggy bank gets heavier week after week. And of course, if I asked for more money then I did mess it up!
However, the case is exactly opposite to my early understanding about budgeting fastfoward to my PULSE assignment in Lesotho. We are being asked to understand the bottlenecks of the Ministry of Health’s (MoH) budget absorption capacity and then to provide recommendations. Underspending does not always mean good afterall. There are suggestions that a country with low budget absorption capacity should only receive what it can absorb, that is coming from a donor’s perspective. Just imagine the impact not just to an individual but to the whole country when health needs for which funding is unavailable may go unmet! If you search and browse online for reference, you will be surprised to know that this issue was and is pressing in other African countries as well . And there were successful mechanisms put into place to mitigate if not totally avoid the occurence or re-occurence of this issue.
Inorder for us to provide solid recommendations to the said issue, we need to understand the details of the process. From the time the budget was approved, to when a donor committed to the funding, and even to when the district hospitals raised their request so on and so forth. Useful information must be collated together with its minute details. It was a rigorous and extensive process as it did not just involve obtaining strong and reliable data to support our documentation but also tapping the correct people to help us get those data. And when technology seems to fail, we have to travel to far-flung districts to personally meet the people involved and get the information that we may need. We have met and sought help from various people and organization – be it from the District Health Management Team (DHMT), MoH Finance Department, UNICEF’S technical consultant and also from donor’s representative to get their point of views on the issue. This I have to say in full transparency that I am not the only person involved in completing these activities. In most cases, I relied to my teammate as most of the persons that we dealt with were more comfortable speaking to a local. Where I came in is when data analyses are needed.
I consider myself lucky to be in a team, whose energy doesn’t seem to perish and knows the value of urgency (which is one of CHAI Values as well). As my supervisor would describe it to me, working for an NGO is very dynamic. And for sure it is based on my first-hand experience! It turned out that my assingment became more qualitative than quantitative in nature. Coming from a reporting and analysis background, I appreciate numbers, graphs and fluctuation analysis more than a paragraph or two of descriptions. With all sincerity, I did struggle learning the trade plus the fact of my self-imposed pressure to learn quickly as I only have limited time with my assigned NGO. It is for a fact a very humbling experience as I have realized that I still have a lot of things to learn.
Working for an NGO also gave me a lot of firsts! I have been completely honest with them in cases where the things they’re asking for help were out of my expertise and comfort zone. At the end of the day, I want to give help the best way possible and not to put anyone in a compromised situation. But the level of faith and trust they had in me was so intense that I have decided to agree in doing it. As Richard Bronson would say, “If somebody offers you an amazing opportunity but you are not sure you can do it, say yes – then learn how to do it later!”
I was also given the opportunity to be involved in other activities within and even outside of the organization. Aside from my Health Financing team, I have to say that I have worked with almost all of the people in the office – from the administration, HR to project team people! Here is a round-up:
MS Excel Trainer – Once every two weeks for almost two months, I have conducted Microsoft Excel training session in the office. This is definitely a first as most of the time I am the one attending excel training sessions. I know a few spreadsheet hacks and tricks as I frequently used it at work but never did I imagine myself conducting a class. I realized that doing your thing in excel is easy but explaining the logic behind it is not. Nonetheless, it was rewarding to witness all of their “Aha!” moments.
MS Excel Consultant – I have enhanced my NGO’s existing leave tracker in a way that the number of credit leaves are accurately calculated depending on the start date of each employee. It may sound just like a piece of cake but understanding their current challenges on this require a good solution. Every organization encourages their employees to have good quality breaks so as to sustain the demanding activities at work. However, with no proper monitoring this can be an issue. Myself, being an advocate of work-life balance hopes that this will be of great help to them.
A simple request from our Country Director for me to create a template that only shows the remaining days before the 2019 National Quantitative Exercise turned out to be promising. It paved the way for me to help them structure a template with detailed activities for the whole year across different MoH departments leading to the quantitative exercise. What it makes more special is the fact that the Supply Chain Coordinating Unit of MoH Lesotho is leading this exercise (and I myself is with AP Hub Supply Chain Team). This quantitative exercise is one of their major yearly activities and it is very critical as this is the time where they finalize all across the districts of Lesotho the number of commodities that they are committing to supply.
Researcher – It is not an exaggeration but doing desktop research has become a staple in my schedule. I am fine in doing online research for my personal needs but doing it to document and substantiate a proposal is a different story. Doing this activitiy gave me two realizations: (1) I thought that I am already well-informed of what is happening around me – but no! It is good to be in the place of interest to understand the situation better. (2) I couldn’t even put more emphasis on the importance of accurate and relevant data. A proposal will be even stronger when it is substantiated by strong and reliable data.
Scope Planning – This is a “shoot-for-the-moon” activity as requested by our Country Director. I never ever had done any project scoping in the past. What it makes more interesting is that, the topic is about Green Energy. This project is something new to the organization and it gives us excitement about its potential impact to the country. Doing the scoping made me realize that not all Basotho people have access to electricity grids or in the absence of it, to solar power. Just imagine the situation in district clinics where a patient needs to be attended but proper medication couldn’t be given due to lack or worse absence of electricity. Medicines could not be stored properly in the fridge/freezer, medical tools and equipment could not function properly and etc. I have to consider that doing this scoping was one of my best efforts and I have felt sense of fulfilment when our Country Director commended me so well.
Retreat Facilitator – This will tick off the box of me having the chance to facilitate an activity during a retreat. I have experienced report presentations which I am comfortable in doing but not yet facilitating a strategic planning discussion as I am usually the participant. Being one of the appointed committee members of the said retreat, a question was raised on how to best structure a local 2019 Strategic Planning discussion based on CHAI Global Programmatic Area of Focus. And I have suggested to use the concept that I have learned when I used to be my ex-team’s “War on Defects” representative in BSC. Though exhausting, it was a beautiful experience as I have realized that it doesn’t need to have a big number of participants inorder to design a strategy. Everyone was actively participating during the discussion and what striked me the most was that regardless of their function, either from the Administration, Finance, Health Financing or Project Team department, they gave their own thoughts and ideas. It was a good team collaboration indeed!
After that activity, I was even approached by one of our Admin guys and said that the activity was personally challenging for him but in a good way. That comment for me was like a cherry on top of an ice cream.
It has been a roller-coaster ride for me. It’s really true that being a PULSE volunteer, you will experience all of the stages in the change curve of emotions. Good thing that I have good support and I shall talk about this in a separate blog. Looking at the brighter side, wearing several hats can be both exciting and challenging. As the saying aptly goes – “Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable!”.