As someone who thinks of himself as something of an expert in public financial management, for most of the last ten years I’ve done strategic things. As a consultant I tend to work as an advisor on projects; as a lecturer I tend to talk in class about general concepts like budgeting (although I like to include stories from my real-life experience); and it is much the same when I’m writing. Next month, however, I’m going to roll my sleeves up, literally, and do some practical financial management at a girls school in South Sudan.
Ibba is a small village in Western Equatoria state, close to the Ugandan border. Ibba Girls School opened in March 2014 with a single class of 40 girls. Those girls will return for their second year in February and they will be joined by a class of 40 new girls. The school has been funded by a UK charity, the Friends of Ibba Girls School of which I am now the treasurer. (I’ll write about how I became involved with the school in a later post. It's connected to the story in the foreword of my book.)
There are lots of challenges in running a school in a country as fragile and poor as South Sudan. Nevertheless, the school got through its first year and can point to evidence from tests given to the girls at the start and end of the year to show how valuable it is. In 2014, a volunteer couple from Australia took on the roles of co-head of the school and business manager. They did some brilliant work despite being outside their comfort zone but they returned to Australia last November. We have had difficulty in recruiting someone to take on the duties of business manager that we could afford. Qualified and experienced finance managers in South Sudan can get good jobs with aid agencies, etc and therefore they ask for salaries in excess of $2,000 a month, beyond both our budget and the amount we pay to the school’s headteacher.
Anyway, to cut a long story short, we think we might have someone who can take up the job but probably not until March. Meanwhile the staff need to be paid for January and February and the school needs to buy food, etc for the girls (it is a residential school). And, that’s why I’m going to Ibba at the beginning of February.
Why am I telling you all of this on a blog about managing public money? Because I thought it would be interesting to write some blog posts over the coming weeks about the experience. It’s all well and good to sit in England and write/talk about good financial governance but how do those things translate to a small African school?
Let me give you an example. Friends of Ibba Girls School can only send money to the school through the international banking system in US dollars so the school has to exchange the dollars for South Sudanese pounds in order to buy food and whatever else is needed. The exchange rate in a bank might be SSP4.00 to the dollar, but the illegal, bush exchange rate could be SSP5.00 to the dollar. Good governance would say that the official rate should be used so that there is paperwork, receipts and no risk of prosecution, but the “cost” of sticking to that principle is a 20% reduction in spending power. What is the answer?
There is a second reason for writing this blog post (and the ones that follow). I want to raise the profile of Friends of Ibba Girls School and the work it does. If you would like to know more please check out their website (it includes a really good, short film shot at the school last summer) and if you like what we’re doing please consider making a donation to us. You can donate here. Or if you are in the UK you could text PENCIL to 70660 to donate £5 (just like Stephen Fry and Harry Enfield did).