[Loving Africa 14] ActuariesWithout Border® (AWB)

When I mention that I intend on doing some pro-bono work in West Africa, mostpeople raisea common question– what in the world can an actuary do in West Africa?

Before that question is answered, allow me to provideyou with a small glimpse of who an actuary is. The International Actuarial Association (IAA) defines actuaries as highly qualified professionals who analyse the financial impact of risk for organizations. Governed by rigorous standards of practice, they apply their mathematical expertise to forecast and minimize financial uncertainty. In my simple laymen terms, an actuary is what you get when you cross a mathematicianand a computer with a gypsy fortune teller.

So, how exactly can a young actuary make a societal difference and “give back” to the community in serving in the public interest with a few months? The impact of “voluntourism” in poverty alleviation has long been challenged– is it true that our heartfelt efforts to help only make matters worse? Indeed, I was shocked and disturbed to discover thatmany volunteering organisations requires individuals to pay to volunteer abroad. It does not make intuitive sense that any skilled-individual need to pay to do work, in economic terms this would imply that the market value of the work produced by such volunteer is negative. Indeed, to a certain extent, a struggling African village chief would rather have the volunteer’s few thousand dollars in cash than a month of access to an individual’s limited set of skills. However, I also believe that whilst one cannot fix the problem of extreme poverty in few months’ time, one can certainly gain the insight and experience which leads to a longer commitment to the cause. I was fortunate to have connected with a senior actuary through Actuaries Without Borders who welcomed my actuarial skillsets with great excitement and mentored me with her extensive experience in working in the developing world.

Actuaries Without Borders® (AWB) is a special interest section of the International Actuarial Association which facilitates the provision of temporary actuarial services in geographies lacking of such resources. Recipients of these actuarial services include public entities, governmental organizations and other organizations that lack these services and/or may be in need of financial assistance to obtain such advice. Areas of AWB activity include assistance in the development and sound management of social security, enterprise risk management, pensions, insurance (including non-life, life and micro-insurance/microfinance), investments, healthcare and other infrastructures and wider areas where the actuarial skills can be of use.  AWB also contributes to the awareness of the profession and the spread of actuarial education in these geographies by encouraging AWB members to take on teaching and coaching assignments.

Whilst in West Africa, I got the opportunity to serve as project manager in organising an enterprise risk management seminar for financial professionals in Nigeria. I also had the excitingopportunities in meeting various actuaries from the Actuaries Associations of Togo, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Benin and Ivory Coast in learning about myprofession from a very different perspective and angle. I also had the valuable occasion of sharing with local Togolese actuarial practitioners of my work and study experience in the Australian actuarialindustry. Although the actuarial profession in these regions remain relatively immature, no doubt actuaries as a profession must exist as an integral part of upholding high standards of integrity and competence.Actuaries, who are often seen as “whistle-blower” by the market regulator, provide support and valued experience to supervisory authorities.

No doubt, working in a developing world where the culture is usually significantly different to the home nation requires one to approach their tasks in new ways. One should never assume that an effective style in one situation will be effective in another situation. This further requires avolunteer working abroadto be flexible with theopenness to work and live in a different socio-political, cultural and geographical setting.I have also learnt from many other determined AWB volunteers that working in developing countries clearly requiresone to be committed with great passion, dedication and working well beyond the call of the clock!

A famous quote once says –“Only by giving are you able to receive more than you already have”. No doubt this is a true reflection of my volunteering work with AWB and West African actuarial experience.