Airplane audits and international experience: a CA with the UN

The reception hallway of portraits at the UN
By Alex Burden, Student Blog

22 September 2016

Alex Burden speaks to Eleanor Burns CA, an employee of the United Nations, on how her qualification with ICAS led to work with the well-known intergovernmental organisation promoting cooperation and peace. Find out how you can go from preparing financial accounts with a small firm to auditing airplane fuel for peacekeeping operations!

Eleanor is the Director of Internal Audit, working in the Office of Internal Oversight of the United Nations; the office assists the Secretary-General in fulfilling resources and staff responsibilities through audit, evaluation, investigation and inspection activities. The responsible administration of accountable and transparent resources is a key function.

The office has around 200 auditors, assisting auditors and support staff located in New York, Geneva, Nairobi and with the large peacekeeping operations located in areas such as Darfur, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic.

The journey from qualification to the UN

Eleanor initially trained with a small to medium-sized chartered accountancy firm in the late 80s, where she mastered auditing and preparing financial statements. This led to a role with Deloitte's as an external auditor post-qualification with ICAS, and she subsequently studied to become a Certified Internal Auditor for her role with the UN.

"I’ve been with the UN now for over twenty years: I was in Glasgow and then recruited to Geneva, where I served three years, then two years in Nairobi (which was a fantastic experience), and returning to Geneva for six years before coming to New York. Mobility is encouraged in the United Nations!

"I could not consider going back to working as an auditor or external auditor in the UK because of the work I’m involved in with the United Nations: it’s diversified and very rewarding.

"I know that within the United Nations we have a lot of chartered accountants (working in audit as well as in finance and budget areas), and also ACCAs, and certified internal auditors. When I’m hiring auditors I certainly look out for chartered accountancy qualifications as I see this as one of the best qualifications to have!

"It’s a good grounding for going forward into external audit, internal audit, financial management, or something else."

The variety of work for a CA in the UN

The Office of Internal Oversight Services is responsible for about 90 different United Nations entities. These entities are responsible for various activities, including, peacekeeping operations, drugs and crime programmes, disarmament and humanitarian activities such protection of refugees and internally displaced persons.

"Our audit focus is not so much on the financial side but auditing the effectiveness of how operations are being managed. Other areas being audited include support functions such as procurement of rations and fuel provided to peacekeeping operations, air operations and supply chain management.

"Other entities we are responsible for auditing include tribunals such as the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. You feel as an auditor that you add value to the work of the UN.

"I haven’t got off-hand the number of different nationalities I am working with, but working with such an international community is both rewarding and challenging; a chartered accountant’s training and method of working in the UK is different to my colleagues from, for example, a country’s National Audit Office, or a chartered accountant from the Philippines or Kenya.

"To interact with each other and to work effectively as a team we need to understand different work ethics and respect cultural diversity. Working in such an environment is so rewarding and interesting."  

"In the peacekeeping operations, auditors are responsible for auditing how peacekeeping manage their fleet of aircraft, manage their hospitals or how they support local governments: in electoral processes; and in developing justice and prison reform." Eleanor Burns

Challenges and rewards of the role

Eleanor finds it incredibly rewarding to work with different nationalities, not to mention travelling the world to deliver the work of the UN. 

"I’ve visited 22 African countries, most countries in Europe, and a good number of countries in the Middle East and Asia. Plus, over those years, I have been part of a team that has produced high-quality, and sometimes very high-profile audit results. 

"One of the most challenging parts is the wide spectrum of work (you have to be a jack of all trades), but we are experts in internal control systems. For example, in the peacekeeping operations, auditors are responsible for auditing how operations manage their fleet of aircraft, manage their hospitals or how they support local governments: in electoral processes; and in developing justice and prison reform.

"It is challenging being a manager for almost 200 staff, and being responsible for the audit of such a wide range of activities. I think being away from friends and family is also challenging. Every time I go to Scotland, it feels like I’m going home."

How useful is the qualification?

"It’s an international qualification, so whatever field you go into, I think it’s a sound and recognised qualification.

"We know that people who put in the hard-work to achieve CA status are educated and motivated to do well. In the international field it’s certainly a good qualification, and not just for financial sectors."

Words of Advice

"The world is your oyster – I first qualified in 1989, a long time ago, and then you just didn’t know the opportunities that were open to you. It doesn’t hold you back from any profession; you can’t go wrong with a CA qualification."


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