The nature of our work means that responding to unpredictable, complex and rapidly developing critical situations is the norm rather than the exception. In my role, solving problems, providing information to support decision-making and determining the extent to which different activities are financially sound are core responsibilities – but each area of the refugee agency’s work might present any number of unique challenges. It’s an exciting, stimulating place to work; and while geographically we’re far removed from the places where UNHCR operates, there’s still a strong sense that we’re contributing to work that aims to help millions of people to survive in often tragic circumstances.
Robust systems and strong financial controls are essential in a shared services centre environment. I joined UNHCR shortly after its shared services centre was established in Hungary six years ago. Today, it’s a massive operation; we work alongside colleagues in support functions such as logistics and IT, and Budapest also hosts UNHCR’s global learning centre. The agency leads and coordinates activities in some 120 countries; we need to have visibility of everything that’s happening, in real time, from receivables and cash management to reporting and procurement. We rely heavily on first-class information systems and technology, and I’ve had the chance to participate in a major upgrade of our ERP systems. It’s vital that resources are channelled as much as possible to frontline service delivery – the more we can develop our systems to drive efficiencies, the more we can ensure funds are used where they’re most needed.
Visiting UNHCR bases in Africa gave me vital insights into the challenges we face out in the field. It’s rightly regarded as crucial that in finance, we understand people’s issues from every conceivable angle, and that we in turn share knowledge and expertise with our colleagues on the ground. Take South Sudan, where I was recently posted – it only became an independent nation two years ago, so the authorities there are not just dealing with a huge refugee situation in the wake of the civil war; they’re also trying to develop a functional state. I’d previously visited Senegal, where UNHCR is helping to integrate thousands of Mauritanian refugees who want to settle there. These overseas visits mean we get to see exactly what support and resources are required. They also give us ideal opportunities to share knowledge that will help with local capacity-building efforts.
Our paymasters are governments, not shareholders, and they’re just as demanding and rigorous in their scrutiny of how we use resources. Much of our financial reporting is conducted with donor nations in mind – they may not receive the services we provide but as the funding parties, they want to know that we’re getting value for money and achieving the outcomes we set out to deliver. But it’s not just about hard facts and figures; most of the major donor countries have their own people on the ground, monitoring activity and standing by should further input be required. There’s a lot of really useful collaboration and interaction.