Finance & HR Manager Jessie Watson: Life on MSF assignment

02 Jun 2023

Jessie Watson, a finance and HR manager from New Zealand, has worked on four assignments with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), in South Sudan, Bangladesh, Yemen, and Ukraine. When not on assignment she lives in Dipton, Southland, working remotely. She spoke to us about her time on assignment with MSF. 

Accountants can be humanitarians too!


Jessie Watson at Cox’s Bazar in 2018. 

Why did you join MSF? 

About the time I was due to finish my time bonded to my employer, I caught up with an old mate I met on a university volunteer program. He was studying medicine, with the goal of working with Médecins Sans Frontières. A lot of my year group were moving to London, but at that point I was looking for something ‘a little less party, and a little more hearty’, so I gave the organisation a quick Google to see if they needed bean counters. I guess after four years of working as an auditor, I was pretty conditioned to fully embrace an organisation whose main principles are independence, neutrality and impartiality. A few months later I was on a plane to Juba in South Sudan. 

As I now know, MSF are always on the lookout for more finance professionals. 

Jessie Watson
Finance & HR Manager

Do you have a favourite assignment and why? 

The first one is always special! I spent my first four months in South Sudan on an emergency project. The main activity was a 20-bed paediatric hospital inside the Wau camp for internally displaced people. The camp itself was guarded by UN Peacekeepers.  

We also ran outreach activities across the frontline, supplying medicine, wage support and training to four ODP clinics as the government had stopped services to villages in ‘rebel’-held territory. After the UN agencies settled in Wau, we closed the project and I spent six weeks in Aweil to help with the malaria peak recruitment - the number of Aweil hospital beds increases from around 145 to close to 225 during the rainy season, so HR scales up accordingly. There were 100 locally hired staff and five international staff in Wau;, and around 380 locally hired staff and 20 international staff in Aweil. It was an interesting change in team dynamics, and I learnt a lot from the experience. 

What has been your most challenging assignment? 

I'd say my three months in Bangladesh 2017, responding to the Rohingya refugee crisis after they fled across the border after being persecuted by the authorities in Myanmar, was the most challenging assignment to date. I was part of the team taking over from the initial response. The logisticians and water and sanitation officers were flat-out on the tools, and quickly banged up three outpatient departments and a 50-bed paediatric hospital. The medical team was racking up to 900 consultations per day. We very quickly recruited 250 contract staff along with an additional 60 daily workers, and a 100 Rohingya people on an incentive system as technically they had no legal right to employment in Bangladesh. Virtually all the new staff either didn’t have access to or needed to open bank accounts, which meant a lot of time was spent preparing cash salary payments. Recruitment was tricky, the land of subsistence farmers was requisitioned to house the Rohingya. As such, they wanted first dibs on the higher paid, skilled positions, but unfortunately many lacked the required experience and qualifications. The country coordination team provided heaps of support from Dhaka which helped with the workload. 

What have you learnt from working on MSF projects? 

Patience! I love going on assignment because the eclectic mix of staff always provides a refreshing perspective. From negotiating with local bank managers to ensuring the bank holds sufficient physical cash to cover staff salary withdrawals, to on-the-job training and development of your team, the soft skills developed on assignment are very transferrable and usually prove valuable in any workplace.

The soft skills developed on assignment are very transferrable and usually prove valuable in any workplace.

Jessie Watson
Finance & HR Manager

What's your advice to any of your fellow accountants thinking of joining MSF?  

This is an organisation that puts you through some pretty robust training before sending you out to the field, so it can take quite a few months between your application, interview and your first placement. So don't quit your job as soon as you get the green light. 

What do you do when you are not on assignment?  

I'm working for a honey company, with the world's sweetest boss who lets me go off on MSF assignment every now and then. I'm based in Southland, NZ, so I do the odd day as a junior shepherd as well as dabbling in mountain biking and pub quizzes. 

Our work on the front line is only possible with the help of people like Jessie, who work in non-medical roles, that are essential to keep our operations running smoothly. We have a real need for finance and human resources managers and logistics experts, find out more by clicking the button below. 

What do finance & HR managers do? 

Finance and HR managers are responsible for a wide range of tasks, from managing project accounts, cash management and security, budget control and financial reporting, to implementing HR policies and covering administrative management of project staff. They also require strong cross-cultural resource management and communication skills to take on this role.