“Effective Assessment of Cost and Compliance: The Backbone of Sound Financial Project Management – My Applied Field Experience (AFE) with Heifer International”
By Mustafa Rezaie (Duke MIDP ’24)
Summer 2023 AFE Blog Post Series
Embarking on my journey as a Rotary Peace Fellow from a small conflict-ridden town in Afghanistan, where hope seemed bleak, to joining fellow students from diverse countries at the esteemed Duke University as a Master of International Development Policy (MIDP) student, has been a transformative and life-changing experience. This period coincided with Afghanistan falling into the hands of the Taliban, a group known for committing extensive violence against minorities and disregarding human rights, especially those of women and their access to education and work.
In this blog post, I want to share my internship experience, my contributions as an intern at Heifer International, and my career journey as a Rotary Peace Fellow.
Transformed by the Rotary Peace Fellowship: A New Lease on Life and Boundless Opportunities for Growth
During my time trapped in Afghanistan, where the presence of Taliban groups cast a constant shadow over my existence, I grappled with the challenge of survival. It is with deep gratitude that I express my heartfelt appreciation to Rotarians, the Rotary Foundation, and the Duke-UNC Rotary Peace Center’s managing director for their invaluable support, which not only facilitated my safe departure from Afghanistan but also ensured the well-being of my cherished family. I am forever indebted to them for enabling me to pursue my dreams.
The Rotary Peace Fellowship has not only granted me a fresh start but has also opened a window of opportunity for personal and academic growth. It has empowered me to refine my skills and broaden my academic horizons, positioning me as a catalyst for positive change and a passionate advocate for peace and education. This newfound ability extends beyond the local context, reaching far and wide across international borders.
While working as an Area Monitoring and Evaluation Manager with a global NGO (ACTED) in hard-to-reach and marginalized communities in northern Afghanistan, I witnessed firsthand the high illiteracy rates, lack of access to education, economic resources, healthcare, and widespread poverty among the villagers. This experience solidified my belief that peace is unattainable without education and understanding among the people. Taking action, I initiated and implemented numerous sustainable projects during my time with ACTED, such as initiatives to improve youth education and women’s employability, the establishment of a Youth Development Center (YDC), and the training and establishment of microenterprises for impoverished individuals. Additionally, I am proud to have spearheaded a community-based education initiative in my hometown, effectively promoting peace in the midst of Afghanistan’s current situation. To address these issues, I also wrote an academically formulated article titled “Promoting Education in a Conflict Zone” and a policy recommendation addressing illiteracy in rural communities in Afghanistan, which was published by the Sanford Journal at Duke University.
Heifer International: The Organization I’m Interning With!
Heifer International is a global nonprofit organization dedicated to eradicating poverty and hunger while promoting environmental sustainability. Its work encompasses economic development, environmental sustainability, food security and nutrition, risk mitigation and resilience, women’s empowerment, and social capital, with a strong emphasis on empowering women to move from poverty to power.
In the realm of peacebuilding, we often encounter discussions and blog posts related to various fields such as the environment, social work, health, and education. However, rarely do we come across content highlighting the significance of finance and costing in the effective implementation of peace initiatives. It is essential to understand that no peacebuilding effort can yield better outcomes without accurate and proper financial management.
As an experienced professional with over 10 years of experience in finance, monitoring and evaluation, and compliance, my purpose extends beyond personal gain. I am here not only to learn but to contribute to the growth of organizations as well. As a compliance and cost proposal intern in the Global Finance Operation (GFO) at Heifer International, I have the privilege of leveraging my skills and contributing to the development of budget modules and templates. This enables accurate assessment of project costs, saving time and maximizing budget efficiency. My responsibilities include supporting the improvement of cost proposal tools and aligning them with Heifer’s Financial System (Agresso). This entails updating budget templates, revising budget narratives, and maintaining up-to-date inflation lists. These resources are crucial for proposals aimed at assisting vulnerable and marginalized populations in over 21 countries. Additionally, I built up my skills in compliance and provide support to country-specific units and GFO in monitoring cost vs actual spending using approved budget and financial reports. I am also involved in reviewing and updating cost proposal training materials.
During my two month internship with Heifer International, I have acquired new skills that significantly enhance my ability to create opportunities for myself. I have learned the intricacies of preparing highly effective proposals and accurately assessing the costs for different countries, taking into account local laws and regulations. The primary objective behind this work is to assist and reach out to the poorest and most marginalized populations in over 21 countries. By providing them access to economic resources, training, and income-generating opportunities through locally-driven solutions, our aim is to empower them and promote sustainable peace and lasting change by moving them from poverty to power.
How Does My Work Promote Peace?
Accurately assessing costs and employing sound financial management practices facilitate a comprehensive understanding of the financial requirements associated with peacebuilding activities. This, in turn, improves financial access, enables strategic resource allocation, fosters financial sustainability, and encourages collaboration and transparency in humanitarian projects.
No peacebuilding initiative can succeed without proper and sound financial management of resources. Effective fundraising, cost assessment, and prudent resource allocation are essential for the implementation of peace initiatives and meeting lasting peace. Poverty, hunger, and conflict often stem from the lack of financial resources available to the poor. Therefore, to reach these individuals, we must ensure that poor and marginalized people, smallholder farmers, and entrepreneurs have access to finance. Achieving this necessitates robust financial management policies and practices, including microfinance, lending, and group liability lending for beneficiaries without credit histories.
Financial literacy plays a crucial role in transforming saving and self-finance management practices. Therefore, it is essential to equip vulnerable groups with the information to better manage their finances and save wisely. This can include encouraging them to keep their money in banks and make wise decisions about unnecessary expenses.
By providing financial assistance and support to small businesses and entrepreneurs, we enable them to generate sustainable livelihoods. I strongly advocate for sustainable assistance in peace promotion and humanitarian aid. We see a greater impact on the well-being of vulnerable people when we assist them in learning how to fish, rather than simply providing them with fish for a limited period of time.
In my previous work, I had the privilege of initiating sustainable approaches and transforming aid into more viable activities. I achieved this by assisting beneficiaries through locally driven solutions, providing training and equipping them with the necessary tools to start income-generating projects. Examples of such projects include establishing poultry farms for female-headed households, bakeries, embroidery centers, and dairy processing units. These initiatives enable individuals to add value to their agricultural products. By fostering self-sufficiency and supporting income-generating activities, we make sustainable contributions to peacebuilding efforts.
Expanding My Career to Encourage Self-Growth
As part of my internship, I have planned to meet at least one staff member per week to establish a strong network and identify opportunities for personal and professional growth. Despite working remotely, I have taken the initiative to make the most of this opportunity by connecting with various departments at Heifer International. Throughout this process, I have had the privilege of meeting individuals such as the Chief Finance Officer (CFO), the Director of the People Department (HR), the Vice President of Heifer, and many other employees. Engaging in conversations with them has been an enlightening experience, and I have gleaned new insights and motivation from each encounter. Each person I met had a unique perspective and ideas that inspired me to further develop my skills and connect the dots necessary for a successful career in finance and accounting.
How My Internships Has Enriched My Career
Aligning my internship with my professional career goals was crucial for me. Drawing from my 10+ years of experience working with government organizations, such as the Ministry of Finance, and international NGOs in roles such as Financial Consultant and Monitoring and Evaluation Manager, I have developed expertise in compliance, costing, and financial regulations. Joining Heifer International’s Global Finance and Operations (GFO) department has shed light on my existing skills while allowing me to acquire new ones that directly contribute to the development of GFO’s costing module and templates. During my internship, I familiarized myself with Heifer’s organizational rules and policies, and completed over 10 training courses on topics such as cybersecurity, Kevin Security awareness, costing, and compliance guidelines. This experience has provided me with a clear understanding of Heifer International’s rules and procedures, making it an ideal organization for me to join after my graduation.