The Irish Times 31 Dec 2011

JANE-ANN McKENNA , the new head of Médecins Sans Frontières’ Irish office, explains why she gave up a career in finance to help others

You left a job in AIB to work in Darfur. Were you motivated by altruism or a desire to work somewhere more exciting than the bank?

Jane-Ann McKenna, Head of Office, MSF Ireland
Both. I’d worked in a Romanian orphanage when I was in college and loved it. But I was never going to be a nurse. The idea of working at a strategic level was something that really appealed to me. I did a Masters in International Business and wrote my thesis on NGOs. But it was very difficult to get a job in the aid sector. The message I got was, if you want to contribute that’s great. But you need to bring something to the table. So I took on a job in the corporate banking sector.

So you were working in an Irish bank, handing out loans. Then suddenly in 2008, you decided to leave the country on short notice. That sounds a tad suspicious.

No, I quit AIB in 2007. I left because I’d qualified as an accountant. This meant I could work overseas for an NGO. I’d spoken to a few aid organisations, but MSF was always my first choice.

Your first overseas posting was in Darfur. Did it feel like you’d been thrown in at the deep end ?

The height of the conflict was probably 2005, so this was a couple of years later. But, yes, I was financial coordinator for MSF in Darfur and it was a big responsibility.

Did you ever think, this is a huge mistake?

No. Early on, I remember going out with a doctor to set up a mobile clinic. We drove for hours through the Jebel Marra and set up a few tents with our supplies in the middle of nowhere. For three days patients just turned up. That was very rewarding.

In Sri Lanka, you oversaw the building of a spinal-cord hospital.

Yes, that was immediately after the civil war there in 2009. There were a lot of paraplegic patients with no access to rehabilitative services.

You’re still in your 20s. How do you convince nurses and doctors on the ground that you’re not just some kid on an extended gap year?

That’s an issue I’m always aware of. I can’t just go in and start calling the shots. I’m sure there have been situations in which it would have helped if I was 20 years older and a man. But typically, MSF goes in when there’s a humanitarian crisis and the local authorities do not have the ability to handle the situation. We would not bring in external resources unless it was absolutely unnecessary.

What’s the most hopeless place you’ve worked in?

In terms of a basic development, Central African Republic. I was project coordinator for a 120-bed hospital in a very remote area. In Darfur you’re dealing with issues of neglect and population displacement. But in Central African Republic there’s no economy, nothing. Most people in the West have never even hear of it.

And the most fun?

Colombo in Sri Lanka. There wasn’t a serious security threat against ex-pats, so there was a lot more freedom. In Darfur, we had a six o’clock curfew. There were no restaurants. No alcohol. Nothing to do. If another NGO had a party, it started at 7pm and was over by eight.

So as a party destination, Darfur isn’t all it’s cracked up to be?

Obviously, if you were looking for a party lifestyle this isn’t the job you’d choose. But when you’re working in such an intense environment, it would be nice to have a break. Having a social outlet is what you really miss.

Finally, as head of Médecins San Frontières in Ireland, what are your priorities in the coming year?

This is only our fifth year in Ireland, so we’re very keen to recruit volunteers. In MSF, 30 per cent of the people who go out on missions overseas are doing so for the first time. There’s a constant flow of new people coming in, so it’s not a case where volunteers are thinking “Oh, here’s another 100 malnourished kids. Let’s just get on with the job.” There is always that level of shock. There is a sense that this is not okay. This is something we need to do something about and do it urgently.

Médecins Sans Frontières celebrates its 40th anniversary this month. msf.ie

This article was originally published in The Irish Times


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