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From Abidjan to the big apple: Colette Turmel, CMA, adapts Canadian financial management techniques to support international aid.

United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) has dedicated staff around the world making a difference in the lives of women and children. With operations in more than 150 countries worldwide, the organization needs strong financial management to remain effective and responsive in times of need. At the time this was written, for instance, a plea had gone out for $8.7 million in aid to help children in need of protection in Haiti's volatile political environment. Somebody has to make sure that money gets to the right people at the right time.

Getting aid into war torn countries or nations experiencing other forms of civil unrest isn't easy, a fact that Colette Turmel, CMA, can attest to. Turmel currently serves as the senior finance officer in UNICEF's New York City headquarters. Her department (Finance) acts as the UNICEF banker and manages the organization's income/revenue, which totals $1.7 billion. UNICEF is a highly decentralized organization. It's Turmel's job to manage Finance's field operations and replenishments, as well as taking care of internal control, banking relationships and payment management (of which there are 50,000 a year).


"We have to decide what type of bank and cash account is the best to have in each country where we operate: a local account, a hard currency (USD of Euro) account or a zero dollar account," she notes. "We have to determine how to mitigate risk in emergencies, where the bank has ceased operation, to ensure that our staff is not put in danger because they are carrying money. In countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, for instance, there are certain practices that are uncommon elsewhere. In those countries we often deal with licensed money merchants to bring cash to our destinations."

Turmel and her associates are working on more advanced ways to manage cash flow as well, including introducing e-banking where possible. The major banks have software that make the use of such a system possible--the challenge now is to get everyone properly trained to work that system.

Since arriving at UNICEF headquarters in 2001. Turmel's biggest challenge has been her drive to streamline the finance support function by creating more accountability at other levels of the organization. It was the knowledge she gained working on similar projects for Canadian organizations that brought her into the international aid arena.


Field experience

Turmel has worked for the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) for most of her career and is still officially an employee of the agency on secondment to UNICEF. By 1989, she was director of accounting operations for the organization, with a staff of 48 and a budget of $1.2 billion.

Although this was an impressive position to hold, Turmel felt that working in the field would give her a unique perspective on what CIDA does internationally. With that in mind, she accepted the post of senior financial management adviser in Bamako, Mali.

"At the time, Mali was our biggest operation in West Africa," she says. "We were in the process of decentralizing CIDA's field operations in the region. Among various initiatives at the time, there was a large structural adjustment occurring in the country, which was gradually moving towards a democracy--the first country in the region to do so. I worked with an excellent team there, which made the experience very special to me and my family."

It was during Turmel's posting that Mali witnessed the coup d'etat that brought about the democratic state. "The country was very determined to see democracy work," she notes. "The manifestation of that coup lasted a long time."

Turmel, however, soon moved on. After two years, she found herself in neighbouring Cote d'Ivoire, serving as senior financial management adviser in Abidjan, at that time the regional office of CIDA for West Africa. While there, she advised CIDA's regional director and Canada's ambassador.

Explaining accountability

On her return to Hull, Quebec, in 1993, Turmel became involved with assessing the financial aspects of program implementations and cooperative operations with and in support of United Nations organizations, international humanitarian assistance and food aid. In this capacity, she drafted budget documents and managed expenditures for four major multilateral programs.

All of this experience, and her CMA designation, brought her to the attention of the United Nations. Specifically, she was tapped by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Geneva for a senior financial officer position.

"I was brought on because of my experience with decentralization at CIDA," says Turmel. At UNHCR, her role was to decentralize financial responsibility to field offices. "We wanted to change the mindset of our people in the field, raise awareness of their financial responsibility and through that their accountability."

As Turmel recognizes, UNHCR staff in the field are mainly experts in refugee rights and legal protection, not financial experts or accountants. But knowledge of financial management accountability is essential for good internal controls. Thus, she introduced various levels of financial training. The level of training individuals received depended on their responsibilities: senior managers received two days of training; middle managers received three days; and local staff got five days. More than 1,170 people took part in these training programs during her time with the organization.

"We asked participants, do you want to have more authority and become more autonomous? If so, there are financial responsibilities that you need to be confident with to be in a position to discharge your increased responsibility," she says.

But the enthusiasm of the participants didn't always make it an easy process, as Turmel will attest.

"Working in Geneva was a great opportunity to get to know how the UN operates," she says. "The biggest difference there is the diversity, the multicultural staff and their many different perspectives. When you want to implement something, it takes more time and more strategic thinking. And occasionally that means explaining to people what may seem obvious to management accountants in Canada."

Regardless of the challenges, Turmel was able to successfully decentralize the responsibility and accountability of payment processing to six regional offices and their relevant field offices. Self-evaluation checklists for internal control and payment processing and the three standardized training packages described above are used to maintain this structure.

Undaunted and determined

After just over five years in Geneva, Turmel and her husband felt it was time to come home--or at least a little closer to home. With elderly parents in Quebec, it seemed a good time to look for a position this side of the Atlantic. Happily, it also led to a promotion for her.

When she arrived at UNICEF, there were many processes to review, and Turmel brought a fresh perspective to the organization. "The goal was to minimize costs, and create an effective and efficient field support operation, but there are many factors to consider in such a large organization," she notes. That involves improving financial management in field offices and raising best practices throughout.

Some problems were easily fixed--the organization had a large number of inactive accounts on its books that Turmel terminated. Others aren't so easy to fix, of course. For instance, those who are working in emergency situations don't always have the tools they need to do their jobs effectively. This is one area where Turmel is trying to add best practices to the organization.

"The challenge is that we don't have too many best practice examples to refer to," she says. "There are examples out there, but they are based on less extensive models than our own."

Turmel is working towards the improvement of financial management at UNICEF, but the decentralized structure of the organization raises interesting questions.

"I believe that headquarters should provide a guiding role and global oversight," she says. "We have seven regional offices which oversee our country operations worldwide--who has responsibility for what? What financial role and responsibility will each play in an emergency? How do we adapt best practices across regions?"

There are also a number of challenges that Turmel has no control over.

"Since Rwanda, things are not the same--our field operators feel more vulnerable," she says. "For instance, a UNHCR staff member was kidnapped in the area around Chechnya some years ago. Nowadays, the UN isn't respected in the same way it used to be and the war in Iraq also didn't project a good image. A lot needs to change to bring back the respect to humanitarian workers and the security of our field operators."

Although she's tackling a number of big questions, Turmel remains undaunted. "Large organizations like this need good financial management, and Canada has created financial management precedents for supporting such organizations," she says.

"Beyond that, the CMA designation has given me the strategic knowledge to tackle the wide variety of challenges I face at UNICEF. I can honestly say that there are a lot of excellent opportunities for CMAs in international aid work. Organizations like ours need individuals with those critical, strategic skill sets."

Robert Colman is editor-in-chief of CMA Management.
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Title Annotation:Profile
Author:Colman, Robert
Publication:CMA Management
Article Type:Cover Story
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2004
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