A Financial Controller's Story

By Vicky Jones

After university I went into accountancy with a large City firm in London. After a couple of years I was desperate for a new challenge and a completely new environment. I was fed up with living in London and wanted to do something I felt would be worthwhile.

Of all the NGOs I looked at I was attracted to MSF because I felt it was the most professional. Its financial independence really appealed to me as it gives MSF the ability to respond really fast to emergencies without having to wait for institutional funding – it also enables MSF to make its own decisions about where and when to work.

Before I could work in the field I was sent on a course to learn how to operate MSF’s, frankly rather idiosyncratic, accounting system. I also learned how to do regular accounts and reports for the different governmental donors such as DFID and ECHO.

A couple of months later I found myself as the new financial controller for MSF in northern Sudan, based in Khartoum.

The mission was a big one with about 16 expatriate staff and some 300 nationals working for MSF. The annual spend on the project was about £2 million, all of which had to be accounted for by me. But only half my job involved finance. As the FC I was also responsible for looking after all the office staff and I soon became acquainted with the complex Sudanese labour laws.

I had ultimate responsibility for the payment of salaries and was involved in the drafting of contracts, together with a local lawyer. This all necessitated contact with a lot of local bureaucracy. My biggest headache was the organisation of travel permits, which all expatriate staff require to go outside Khartoum.

All the money that goes through the project needs to be accounted for, even if it was spent in the middle of nowhere where formal VAT receipts are out of the question. In some places where we work, people don’t even have pens and paper! It is necessary to put proper control systems in place. This is especially important in emergencies, when everyone is running around working 15-hour days and large sums of money are being handled.

As a FC you are really a key member of the MSF decision-making team in the field and as the months passed, I became much more confident about adding my input. 

To begin with my contributions were only financial, but as time went on and I became more knowledgeable about our humanitarian work I found I could add a useful non-medical perspective to team discussions.

Externally, I represented MSF to local government officials, visiting donor representatives and representatives of other aid agencies all of which required effective communication skills, tact and diplomacy.

Internally, I met regularly with large groups of local staff to discuss pay and conditions. Faced with a room of 30-50 staff, unhappy with their latest pay rise, developed my confidence in public speaking as well as the ability to diffuse tense situations.