Accounting is sometimes perceived as a mundane profession, but good luck explaining this stereotype to Nasir Jetha. His career in accounting and finance has taken him around the world, from Tanzania to England, Canada and Bermuda. More recently, it took him to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, where he helped oversee the Finance Department of the University of Central Asia as a Time and Knowledge Nazrana (TKN) volunteer.
The University of Central Asia (UCA) is a secular, private institution that was founded in 2000 when Mawlana Hazar Imam and the Presidents of Tajikistan, the Kyrgyz Republic, and Kazakhstan signed an international treaty and charter establishing the institution. By focusing on the educational needs of mountainous societies, the university aims to promote the social and economic development of Central Asia.
When Jetha arrived in the region in July 2008, UCA was in the middle of an administrative transition. Its previous Financial Comptroller had recently departed, so the university was conducting a careful search for a replacement.
“In the meantime, they needed someone to come in and help out,” says Jetha.
Nasir Jetha made a valuable contribution to the University of Central Asia's Finance Department through his TKN assignment. Courtesy of Nasir Jetha
His assignment as Interim Financial Comptroller lasted five months, and while there were some challenges along the way, he gained valuable executive-level experience, not to mention deep personal satisfaction from his service. “I wanted to give back to my community and help the Imam's organisations as much as I could,” he says.
University officials say they weren't sure what to expect from a temporary visitor, especially someone coming to a challenging mountainous location with very little prior briefing.
“Initially it was thought that Mr Jetha would ‘hold the fort' until the new appointment was finalised,” says UCA Director Bohdan Krawchenko. “However, he did much more than that.” For example, Jetha mentored local staff, facilitated an audit that was just beginning, and helped examine outgoing payments to firms involved in the construction of new buildings and facilities. After taking a look at the Finance Department's policies and procedures, he also developed new criteria for the recruitment of local professionals, hired three new staff members and reduced the unit's reliance on external consultants, which Krawchenko says contributed to “significant cost savings.”
Born in Tanga, Tanzania, Jetha moved to England after high school, graduating from the Institute of Cost and Management Accountants (now the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants) in 1979. He then moved to Canada, where he became a municipal accountant with the City of Wetaskiwin in Alberta in 1982. He quickly assumed a senior role, and later joined the staff of a local university, overseeing the school's finance department and investment portfolio.
In 1991, after some business ventures of his own, Jetha was eager to try something different, so he applied for a position with the Government of Bermuda. “It paid a reasonable salary, and I'm adventurous and like to do different things,” he explains. As he rose through the ranks, Jetha developed a reputation for focusing on results.
To the University of Central Asia, Jetha brought the same constructive attitude and pragmatism. He has a “frank approach with people who immediately understand that there is no hidden agenda, just a keenness to make things work better,” says UCA Director Bodhan Krawchenko.
In addition to his work overseeing outgoing payments and reviewing the finance department's procedures, Jetha made valuable contributions to UCA's human resources operations. For example, he helped redesign employment contracts, recommended changes to vacation and absence policies, and created a salary grid for UCA staff working outside Bishkek. “This is quite an impressive list of accomplishments for an individual in an interim position,” says Krawchenko.
There were a few challenges along the way. Jetha says he confronted various cultural obstacles, such as a general unfamiliarity with Kyrgyzstan's nascent banking system. In many parts of Central Asia, banking is a relatively new concept, and experts say it takes time for financial institutions to build trust and confidence.
Nasir Jetha with traditional dancers in Kyrgyzstan, where he served as a TKN volunteer at the University of Central Asia. Courtesy of Nasir Jetha
Another issue was a general need for greater financial rigor, the sort that causes accountants to be stereotyped as finicky and fastidious. “The University was paying for huge construction projects, so I wanted to teach local staff to ask tough questions and have good documentation,” says Jetha. “For example, if someone comes to you for payment, you shouldn't sign a check automatically!”
Those construction projects include new campuses in Naryn, Kyrgyzstan; Khorog, Tajikistan and Tekeli, Kazakhstan. While construction is still ongoing, the School of Professional and Continuing Education is already operational; a new English curriculum has already equipped thousands of students – ranging from taxi drivers to small business owners – with valuable language skills intended to improve their careers and livelihoods. Alongside this division, there will also be an undergraduate School of Arts and Sciences, as well as a Graduate School of Development to be launched when all three campuses are built.
Like other volunteers who go to distant lands with a different cultures, Jetha had to adapt. He says it wasn't easy adjusting to the fact that many Kyrgyz people speak Russian, even though English is the working language at the university. Still, Krawchenko points out that “expatriates can be quite demanding and entail rather ‘high mainenance,'” whereas Jetha “was adaptable and blended into the environment with ease.”
Jetha says he is eager to work abroad again in the future, if opportunities arise. Having already lived in Tanzania, England, Canada, Bermuda and now Kyrgyzstan, he may seek out more new places in the future.
“I'm still in the middle of my career,” says Jetha. “I've still got a good 20 years to go.”