The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Haiti (twice), Syria and Lebanon, and now the Central African Republic (CAR) – when Rosa Rakotoarivelo is asked to take on a project in a fragile state, her response is “if they need me, I will go”.
Ms Rakotoarivelo will be taking up the position of Senior Finance Manager of the CAR for Cordaid—a humanitarian relief organisation working to end poverty and build resilience of communities in conflict-affected areas. She spoke with SRI Executive from her current location in Beirut, Lebanon, where she has worked for ADRA as a Country Finance -Director for Syria and Lebanon the last two years.
Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What attracted you to take on this role with Cordaid and relocate to Bangui, CAR?
I didn’t expect to go to work in CAR; it is not a nice place to go. And I’m happy having worked with ADRA for 19 years. But when I saw the work Cordaid do, I was interested. I am a humanitarian. Their mission is the same as our mission, and I have done the same in Congo, in Haiti, in Syria. So, I said “If they need me, I will go”.
I believe I am hearing this mission, mine is a faith-based mission. I work with ADRA, which is an Adventist development agency, and Cordaid is a Catholic organisation. But the mission is to believe that everybody matters. Everybody. And we have a responsibility to help alleviate suffering. When I think about that, that if I can help these people somehow, I must.
In Syria, there are so many restrictions of movement for security and safety reasons. We are only allowed to travel inside Damascus, and even for a short distance we need authorisation. I’ve only been on one or two field missions here, so I don’t know the people who need me, and they never see me.
In CAR I feel more useful because I’ll have this human contact with the communities I work with. When I was in Africa before, especially the Congo, we had security concerns every day. We would wake up in the morning and thank God we were still alive. But there, we would see the people we work for and just seeing you makes them smile. You talk with them, and your presence means a lot to them, that you’re willing to leave your comfortable home and be where they are. Especially in South Kivu, I was in the field; the community I lived in was the bush, not the capital.
For me, it’s not only about working for the organisation, it’s about personal contact and helping an individual. Helping an individual or a community or a local church, whoever, it means a lot for me personally. In Congo the whole community knew me in the place where I lived.
“The work is tough, but when you feel you touch someone’s life, that you left some impact when you move on, you feel personal satisfaction. It’s the kind you only know when you have lived it.”
Tell me about your journey to this point in your career. Why is the work you do important to you?
I started in banking, in the private sector. By chance I became friends with someone who worked for ADRA, and when he resigned from his position, he asked whether I was interested, and introduced me to their Board and management.
My former director at the bank was disappointed when I resigned. He asked if it was because of the salary, but I told him it had nothing to do with that. ADRA is faith-based, it is a humanitarian organisation, and their mission was calling me.
I started with ADRA on a project in my home country of Madagascar for ten years. I became acquainted with the international team, and when we had a $2 million grant for a project in Haiti, they didn’t think of any person but me to help with it. At first, they thought I would train someone for six to eight weeks, but when I went to Haiti, I found that no, they really needed me. I stayed in Haiti ten months, and then returned to Madagascar to resume as an internal auditor.
A year later, ADRA received another $52 million grant for five years for a project in the Congo. They asked for my help, so I said “No problem. I am ready to go if you need me, if I am useful”. It was a fruitful but tiring five years, when I returned home, I thought I would take a year sabbatical.
Two weeks later, I hadn’t unpacked my suitcase yet, and ADRA International called again asking if I could go back to Haiti after Hurricane Matthew. I said, “OK, if they need me, I will go”. I returned for a year, and then they called again and said they needed someone in Lebanon and Syria. I said again, “OK, if you need me, I will go”. That was in 2017.
In May I was contacted about this Cordaid programme in CAR, so I said, “if they need me, I will go”.
Your experience in the DRC – corruption was common, security was a concern, but you remained for five years and successfully managed the financing of that aid project. What are the factors and personal qualities that you feel contributed to you being successful in that position?
You must have your own motivation to stay for that long. I knew many people at ADRA before me, most of them just stayed one to three years. Others stayed longer, but not in the bush, they stayed in Kinshasa. Over those years I was contacted by other organisations, or by friends. They would ask, “What are you doing in this bush? There are jobs in other places”. But I had my own motivation to stay in South Kivu, I had a mission.
“You must be loyal to what brings you somewhere. Your personal motivation must be one that nobody else can influence, that will not be shaken by the circumstances you are in. For me that motivation is my faith that I have been put where I am meant to be.”
I was not an expert in any place I went. In every place I went, I learned new things. Even here in Syria, I have learned many things. But that faith was why I was not afraid. Even this Cordaid role, this is a new organisation for me. Yes, I have the background, I have been in these environments before, but it is still a new experience. Yet, if I am called to go there, God qualifies me.
There are other factors as well, you need a strong personality and people who support you. I am thankful to our Chief of Party, who was my supervisor and my closest colleague then. Despite the difficult work we had, we worked with a strong professional relationship and a lot of respect. The work outside is difficult, but when you have someone inside supporting, that helps a lot.
What has your experience been like building the capacity of a team in a location where security might be a top concern? What is your approach to leading in this context?
In such an environment, the information you read on how to deal with hostility is helpful. But what you practice is what matters. The first time I came to Congo I had a huge cultural shock, but I tried to adapt myself to it. Security was a concern, low capacity was a concern, everything was a concern. You have to see beyond that. At the beginning, I complained that the people there did not have the capacity. But then I saw that people do, it just needs to be developed, that is why I am here.
Corruption was everywhere, but you need to put trust in people anyway. You don’t put 110% trust in someone, but it changes a person if he/she feels trusted. I helped people grow by making them feel they could do it, that they could make the situation better.
Also, respect of culture and of the people is important. I was still very young in the beginning. One of my Senior Programme Managers from headquarters gave me advice that stayed with me. He told me “don’t burn yourself out Rosa, and never compare two countries”. It is good to share lessons learned, but what works in Madagascar doesn’t always work in Congo. The Congolese have pride in their country. So, if you compare people in Haiti, or in Madagascar to people in Congo, they feel offended. Even if I have good advice from Haiti or from Madagascar, I don’t mention where I learned it, so I don’t offend people. That makes them more open to working with you.
What advice would you offer somebody entering a finance role for aid projects? What about for somebody who might be relocating to a fragile state for the first time?
First you need to know what you are doing. I say that because when you go anywhere to work, not just a fragile state, but anywhere you are an expat, local people always look at you and say, “Why are you here”?
“You need to show that your presence is not wasting money, that the people really need you because they cannot do it themselves. You need to distinguish the work you can do. Local people will see it as unfair if you are paid that much, if your knowledge and ability are the same as theirs.”
You will be more exposed in a place where there are already security problems and people in the community become your enemy.
Also, I always did my best to build local capacity. I was sometimes tough with them, but they must take the best of what they can take from me while I am there. It is good if I am sometimes strict with the local community, because I will not always be there to help them, so they must build capacity.
I help wherever I can, even outside my own department. The first time I arrived in DRC, the technical coordinators didn’t know the proper way to present budgeting work, so I trained all of them on it. They were not in my department, but I could see they needed the support and they were thankful.
For me, whatever I know I do not retain for myself. I do not lose anything by sharing knowledge, that is one of my principles. Some people don’t want to teach others, they are afraid they will lose their position. But no, there is more joy in giving than in receiving.
SRI Executive had the honour to collaborate with Cordaid in the selection of Ms. Rakotoarivelo as their Senior Finance Manager in the Central African Republic.