Visit to Romania
Phil Rolfe, a Director of the children’s charity Spurgeon’s, describes his trip to Romania and the impact that the country’s accession to the EU in 2007 is already having on their work.
Spurgeon’s Child Care is an international charity helping children, young people and families in the UK and Eastern Europe, Africa and Mexico.
In 1992 work began in Romania, just after the revolution, which saw the end of the dictatorship of Nicolai Caucescu, and exposed the horrendous suffering of numerous children.
As Director of Finance and Corporate Services, most of my work is office-based in the UK so, when we received a request for funding for additional administrative staff in Romania, I leapt at the opportunity to assess the situation first hand.
Given the relatively small size of the Romanian operation, my initial thought was that the local head office should be able to manage with the existing staff complement, as there appeared to be plenty of scope to use computer systems to improve efficiency – How naive I was!
Romania is caught between the legacy of the old communist bureaucracy and a raft of new legislation designed to prepare the country for accession to the European Union in January 2007.
I have never seen anything like it. There is a plethora of standard government forms for personnel and accounts, which must be used to record each transaction. For example, the purchase of any consumable item requires an invoice and then a receipt to indicate payment (both duly signed and stamped by the supplier, and both issued at the same time, as credit is generally not given). The purchaser must then enter the details of the item in a “stock in” record, and then a “stock out” record when consumed, whilst the payment is duly recorded in a cash book and then summarised in another cash book – all laboriously completed in great detail by hand.
Whilst a computerised accounting system could easily automate the process, I discovered the Government requires organisations to keep their records manually. I even heard of two companies being fined when they received their regular inspection from the state finance department inspectors because the inspectors refused to accept computer-produced versions of the paperwork.
The method of making payments is also highly inefficient. Cheques are generally not sent by post, due to the unreliability of the postal service, cheque payments are either made in person, or via a trip to the bank.
For example, payment of the salaries of the 60 Romanian staff (which takes place twice monthly) can involve up to 6 hours of the cashier’s time, completing the relevant paperwork and queuing at various kiosks at the bank to make the payments into individual bank accounts.
The morning of my meeting with Lily Mangalagiu, Spurgeon’s Romanian Head of HR, coincided with one of the twice weekly deliveries of new legislation, which the charity (along with every other employer in Romania) receives through the post, and which all needs to be interpreted and then communicated to appropriate staff across the organisation.
This bureaucracy is not restricted to internal administrative functions, it is endemic. Visit a local supermarket and, no more than a couple of steps after you have passed through the checkout, you will be stopped by a security officer who will check through every item in your trolley to make sure that it corresponds with the till receipt you were handed just 10 seconds earlier.
In most cases the level of ‘red tape’ seems to be designed to keep people in a job who would otherwise be unemployed. While this objective may be laudable, it is difficult to see how companies burdened by such red tape will be able to compete once markets are opened up to greater competition in 2007.
The benefit of first-hand experience
A visit to one of Spurgeon’s brightly painted, relatively well resourced kindergartens, where the standards of teaching and care are high and the children seem generally well dressed and well cared for, can leave a visitor wondering where the need is.
It was only when I ventured outside the confines of the kindergarten that the answer became clear.
Most of the children attending the kindergarten come from desperately poor city families, often living in just two rooms in run down blocks of flats with no heating and sometimes no hot water. In the village in Moldova many of the children live in mud brick huts with corrugated roofs, with only one electric light bulb to illuminate the house and only one source of heating - and this in a country where the winter temperature drops to minus 20°C.
Just as for Spurgeon’s orphanages in early twentieth century Britain, the Romanian homes now generally house children who are not technically orphaned, but who have at least one parent alive but unable to care for them – a significant development from the shocking pictures coming from Romania in the early 1990s.
One of the benefits of being there first hand was that it gave me the opportunity to make on the spot decisions on the basis of having all the relevant facts at my disposal, something which would not have been the case I been in the UK.
For example, Spurgeon’s is trying to extend its work with children with special needs, who are often overlooked in the state system. At one of the centres we met a volunteer who was working very effectively with a child with cerebral palsy.
Unfortunately, the volunteer (who had a paid part-time job elsewhere) was only able to come in two days a week, which meant that the child was only able to attend on those two days, instead of the five days that the other children benefited from. Having met the individual and assessed the situation meant that we were able to make an instant decision to offer the volunteer a full-time job as a teaching assistant.
Another visit I made during my trip was to an independent kindergarten in Suceava in the north of the country, where a foreign funding consortium had collapsed, leaving the three staff working without pay for the previous three months.
Having assessed the situation and after returning to the UK, I am please to say that we have been able to identify new sources of funding for the kindergarten such that the staff are getting paid once again and their work is able to continue.
While the direct supply of funding to projects such as this is important, a major benefit of foreign aid is the transfer and exchange of knowledge and ideas.
A graphic example of how its good practice is being copied by others came at the opening of our new Family Centre in Vaslui. The opening was attended by the Mayor of Vaslui, who was intrigued by the brightly painted playground equipment outside the new centre. The wood had been brought from the UK and designed, assembled and painted in situ by a team of British volunteers. The ingenuity of John Smith, Spurgeon’s Overseas Manager, ensured that the remaining off-cuts of wood were used to construct a double swing. Several weeks later, staff noticed that playgrounds across the city were being constructed as carbon copies of that at the Family Centre, complete with double swings! In total, 29 identical playgrounds appeared across city!
The issues of EU accession
The financing of charity work is never very easy although the strength of Sterling over the Romanian Lei has made the task considerably easier than it might have been. For example, the average daily pay for one of our centre workers is around £5.
However, one of the major concerns for the future is that one of the effects of Romania’s entry into the EU will inevitably be to swing the exchange rate trend in the opposite direction, making it increasingly difficult for charities like Spurgeon’s to continue to fund existing work – an increasing level of funding will be required just to maintain existing services.
Ironically, while this will improve the standard of living for the fortunate within the country, it may well lead to a significant rise in unemployment and hardship and an increased strain on our services.
In order to try to pre-empt this, Spurgeon’s is already looking to find match funding from the statutory sector, and discussions are now taking place with local authorities in Romania to encourage them to fund the vital work that Spurgeon’s is engaged in – and perhaps at last to receive some recompense for the intellectual property represented by the playground equipment!
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