Jane Anne McKenna

Jane Anne McKenna

BComm '03 MBS '04

Through her work with Médicins San Frontières (MSF) over the last three years, Jane-Ann McKenna (BComm 03, MBS 04) has built up extensive on-the-ground experience on missions to Darfur, Sri Lanka, Kyrgyzstan and Central African Republic.

About Jane Anne McKenna

Now she has returned to Dublin to take up the position of head of office in the NGO’s Irish operation, a role that will see her involved in fundraising, attracting new volunteers and raising the profile of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning organisation in this country.

An accountant by training, McKenna’s interest in the NGO sector was fuelled by a three-month stint volunteering in a Romanian orphanage when she was 18. She says the experience also made her realise that she wanted to be involved in the strategic side of the work.

While doing her masters in international business in UCD Smurfit School, she focused on the internationalisation of NGOs for her thesis. “It involved interviewing a lot of the international NGOs in Dublin and I expressed my interest in getting into the sector,” she says. “The main feedback was, if you really want to contribute or focus on this area, you need to bring something to the table. You need to be a professional or you need to have a lot of experience. You can’t just have great intentions. That stuck with me.”

To build up a relevant set of skills, she embarked on the graduate programme in international corporate banking in AIB, where she remained for three years, and studied for her ACCA qualification at night. “Once I’d gained my accounting qualification, I was ready for something quite different,” she laughs.

She decided to revisit the idea of working for an NGO, but says she was very specific about her own requirements and the kind of organisation she wanted to work for.

In 2007, she went to an MSF information evening, which included a number of presentations by the Dublin office, and by expats returning from the field. “I thought, this is an organisation where I could definitely match what I have to offer with the principles they adhere to. It was one of those light bulb moments.”

She explains that it was important to her that she would have exposure to the operational element of the programmes rather than working solely as a bookkeeper. “My job profile when I first started in MSF was a finance and HR co-ordinator. For that role you need a business background, but you’re also part of the country management team in the field and involved in the whole strategic overview of the project. That attracted me. I felt that was a good match in terms of my skills.”

Because of her own business and accountancy background, McKenna says she was also impressed with the professionalism of MSF. “It’s about trying to get skilled professionals into the field and ensuring that our principle of being independent, neutral and impartial translates into our funding as well.

“On a global basis, approximately 80pc of the funds we receive are from private donations. So it’s not tied to government funding. That gives us enormous flexibility. It means that, regardless of other people’s agendas, we can deliver independent, neutral medical care on the ground.”

She says MSF’s stringent mechanisms in terms of accountability to private donors are vital, but accountability to the actual beneficiaries is also an intrinsic element of the organisation. “A lot of our focus is on trying to ensure that we’re giving the beneficiaries what they really need, and not imposing what we think they need.”

In June 2008, after some internal training within MSF, McKenna departed for Darfur where she would spend the next 11 months.

“I was directly managing a budget of between €6m and €7m in the annual plan and 500 national staff. We had three projects at the time, including one on the front line, where the fighting was taking place between different rebel groups.

“It was an amazing experience. You quickly learn a lot. It was all about being able to be flexible and adaptable to the immediate needs, and constantly re-evaluating what you’re doing.”

After Darfur, McKenna took a couple of months’ break before going to Sri Lanka in the summer of 2009, initially as finance co-ordinator in Colombo, later moving to the north of the island to manage MSF’s post-civil war surgical and rehabilitation project.

“In Sri Lanka at that stage, there was a huge number of war-wounded who perhaps didn’t get the immediate treatment they needed,” she says. “So we decided to set up an orthopaedic surgical programme and a spinal cord rehabilitation programme, which was the first of its kind for MSF.”

There followed a three-month stint in Kyrgyzstan in 2010, where she managed MSF’s mental health programme in the south of the country, following an outbreak of ethnic violence there.

Earlier this year, McKenna went to Central African Republic, again as project co-ordinator, this time managing a 120-bed hospital which delivered primary and secondary healthcare in a remote region. She was due to remain until Christmas, but returned in August to take up her current position.

“Having worked with MSF and seeing what we’re doing in the field on a very practical level, I thought it was an exciting opportunity to come back and try to translate that to the Irish NGO sector,” she explains.

“I see my role as trying to convey MSF’s message here, how we are quite different, the work we’re doing and the contribution that Irish people are making in the field,” she says. “It’s also about increasing the profile of MSF here in Ireland, to get skilled professionals to volunteer with us, and to get people to engage in various fundraising activities.

“But it’s also about communicating MSF’s message of the right to healthcare, and advocating on behalf of our patients to people here in Ireland.”

McKenna will continue to see the work of MSF first-hand, as she plans to spend six weeks or so every year in the field, something she says will keep her in touch with what is happening on the ground.

And as for her challenge here in Dublin? “Since 2006, Irish people have gone on over 100 missions for MSF and we have about 25 expats in the field at the moment,” she says. “However, MSF is seen very much as a French organisation and is not really associated with having an Irish identity. That’s something I’d like to change over the coming years.”

To learn more about the work of Médicins San Frontières visit www.msf.ie

October 2011