Finance business partnering behind a Nobel Peace Prize-winning UN agency

A view of an empty classroom after the government issued an order to close all schools in the country as its first coronavirus case was confirmed, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, 13 March 2020.
A view of an empty classroom after the government issued an order to close all schools in the country as its first coronavirus case was confirmed, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, 13 March 2020.

Last March, when schools around the world closed to contain the spread of COVID-19, the UN estimated that 1.6 billion children were put out of school. It was an urgent matter needing a solution. A less obvious but an arguably more pressing matter with far greater consequences was that millions of children from poor communities were forced to forgo school meals.

In Sri Lanka, Yaseer Arafath, ACMA, CGMA, and finance, budget, and programming officer of the UN World Food Programme (WFP) office in Sri Lanka, spent a significant period of time in 2020 supporting a programme to provide take-home rations to approximately 80,000 schoolchildren. The school meals are often the only meal they get in a day. A lower-middle-income country with GDP per capita of $3,853, Sri Lanka is still emerging from the aftermath of its civil conflict that lasted almost three decades. COVID-19 has affected the country’s tourism industry and its food security.

The WFP received a Nobel Peace Prize last year for its work in conflict-affected areas. In an interview with FM, Arafath shares about his work supporting WFP’s efforts.

Tell us about your role at the World Food Programme.

Arafath: I joined WFP as a finance officer in 2005 soon after a tsunami hit this region. Sri Lanka was one of the worst affected by the disaster, along with other countries such as Indonesia. WFP had a large-scale operation with approximately $200 million worth of food assistance to the most affected communities in Sri Lanka. The country was also going through a civil war at that time. Now the Sri Lanka office has 55 staff, and as the person overseeing finance, my main role in finance is to advise the programme teams and the management so that the programmes are designed and conducted with the best value for money. I also assess risks of the working environment and track performance.

You’ve also worked as a finance professional in the private sector before joining the WFP. In what ways is your current work different from previous roles?

Arafath: The goal for humanitarian organisations is not to generate profit but to provide aid in emergencies. This is a different model altogether, and of course this changes the way we do things. In the private sector, we are very cost-conscious because we’re motivated to increase profits. In emergencies, yes, we look at cost efficiency and value for money, but our first priority is to serve people, while also managing costs. I worked on a Papua New Guinea project once where the cost of logistics was higher than the cost of food because we had to airlift supplies to areas where roads were inaccessible and people were trapped. In that situation, we didn’t consider the cost, but the goal was to reach people and feed people in time. If it’s a private-sector organisation, that would be considered a portfolio that’s not profitable.

There are similarities between what I did in the private sector and at WFP, such as having finance controls in place and ensuring that we’re compliant with international accounting standards. But the mission and goals are different, and that makes the finance work at WFP different.

What does finance business partnering in WFP look like?

Arafath: Finance is one of the core functions in WFP, and it plays a key role in facilitating WFP’s operations. We manage financial resources for a programme, conduct financial risk management, maintain accounting records of financial transactions, provide cross-functional financial advice on all aspects of WFP’s operations, and ultimately, we provide assurance to donors and other stakeholders through corporate and donor financial reports.

For my role, although I’m based in Sri Lanka, I’m deployed to other countries in the region when there’s an emergency. I think this makes finance work different because I have to hit the ground running during surge operations even though the environments are different. Generally, surge takes place where there’s a conflict and after natural disasters. During deployments, I’m involved in setting up systems and finance budget and controls, guiding programme and supply chain colleagues by assessing macro and micro financial sector analysis, and developing standard operating procedures. For our cash-transfer programmes, I also work with financial service providers and micro-finance institutions to find ways to deliver aid to communities.

WFP is often one of the first humanitarian aid organisations on the ground during crises and disasters. How does the finance team balance the need for urgent funds and supplies while ensuring proper processes and controls are in place during crisis and disasters?

Arafath: Emergencies are always challenging because you’re on the front lines and every emergency is different. Sometimes systems are not working because the infrastructure is destroyed or. like in Myanmar when Cyclone Nargis hit, the whole network system was down and there was no connectivity in the country. In other countries, there have been situations where even banks were not operating and there were immense logistical challenges.

We have three levels of emergency, where Level 3 is the most urgent. So we have different controls, risk tolerance, and processes for each level. In emergencies, the immediate priority is to deploy the right finance person to the right position and be involved in the programme design. We find out how many vulnerable people there are and assess their needs. Then we develop our budget and decide our controls.

WFP has yards internationally where we store vehicles and telecommunication equipment. We always have a stock of commodities located globally, so it’s a straightforward process of raising a purchase order and releasing the supplies during emergencies.

Could you share more about WFP’s programmes for school meals and strengthening food security in Sri Lanka?

Arafath: One of our areas of work is to improve the nutrition of schoolchildren and children under 5. Sri Lanka has one of the highest rates of wasting in the world, where 15% of children under 5 have low weight for their height. The livelihoods of communities and small farmers are also threatened during emergencies and climate-related shocks. What we’re currently doing is helping to improve the capacity of the government and local institutions to plan and mitigate for future emergencies and climate shocks, such as floods and droughts.

Do you foresee changes to your role after COVID-19?

Arafath: There’s been a dramatic change in WFP’s finance function the past ten to 15 years. Previously, it was a bookkeeping function. Now we’ve moved away from that. We’ve become a strategic partner in all initiatives, especially in cash-transfer programmes, where we distribute bank notes, e-money, mobile money, or vouchers to communities so that they can buy what they need, and micro-finance assessments. These used to be the work of programme teams.

As we recover from COVID-19, more work will increasingly be done virtually, and the transactional work in finance may be outsourced or centralised within a location so that we can focus on the strategic aspects of finance work. Some UN agencies are already testing this. The technology is already available. Just recently, we rolled out a new system for national staff payroll, and I did the training for a few countries virtually. In the old world before COVID, we would have done this face-to-face in our regional office in Bangkok or in another city in the region.

— Alexis See Tho ( is an FM magazine associate editor.