The global spread of Covid-19 has set the United Nations (UN) member states unprecedented challenges to meet their commitments under the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), ranging from reducing global poverty, achieving gender equality and institutional transparency to mitigating climate change. At the same time, the pandemic has made all member states realize the importance of durability for the global economy, society and the environment. The crisis obviously will cause the measurement of organizational performance, accountability and transparency to shift, allowing accountants and auditors to play significant roles. Importantly, accountants and auditors can create a world of transparency in the process of implementating the SDGs in the post-Covid-19 era.
Covid-19 undermining SDGs
Before the Covid-19 pandemic started, the UN 2030 Agenda already prompted tensions and debates among member states, corporations and global civil society organizations over how to solve those global problems highlighted in the SDGs. The pandemic has now increased poverty, inequality and human rights violations, notably slavery, while the world is simultaneously experiencing greater concerns over corruption and poor governance in many countries. Public trust in member states, corporations and even in professional bodies is declining at an alarming rate. While most developing nations have already experienced corruption and lack of transparency,1 undermining SDGs such as poverty reduction, equality, emission reductions, the spread of Covid-19 is fueling the existing corruptions and adding new kinds of corruption, particularly in Asia and Latin America.
Long before Covid-19 (since the inception of the SDGs in 2015), UN member states began taking a range of initiatives (including regulatory initiatives) to hold concerned parties (in particular businesses and public sector organizations) transparent and accountable for implementing SDGs. Professional Accountancy Organizations (PAOs), along with other professional bodies in the law and other areas, have run awareness programs and introduced policy guidelines for their members. In the post-Covid-19 era, PAOs in particular can do more and play a significant role in creating SDG-related transparency in both the private (business) and public sectors across the globe.
Accountants’ due diligence for SDG-related transparency
One particular area where PAOs can contribute, that I would like to highlight here, is via a due diligence framework for SDG-related transparency. PAOs can pioneer such a framework for their members, businesses and public organizations. I highlight here a non-exhaustive framework, to provide food for further thought.
The due diligence process should require an entity to identify, prevent, mitigate, and account for how they address any threat to sustainability.2 In any SDG activity that presents a risk of contributing to corruption or lack of transparency, as a precautionary measure due diligence is necessary to mitigate these potential adverse impacts. The basic framework I propose may include five tasks:
- establish sound management systems with self-assessment tool/s for SDGs
- identify and assess corruption risks in the attainment of the SDGs
- design and implement an integrity strategy to respond to identified corruption risks
- carry out independent third-party audit of SDGs at identified points in the attainment of SDGs
- report on SDG-related impacts and ensure transparency to the wider community.
While PAOs have a role to play, emphasizing the importance that concerned organizations (whether private firms or public entities) conduct due diligence for the SDGs, in particular they should suggest accountants and accounting firms adopt the framework in their own SDG practices. While many consider due diligence the life-blood of every integrity compliance program, professional accountants may involve themselves directly in the last two tasks in my suggested framework (SDG auditing and SDG impact reporting).
SDG auditing: A call to arms
The Covid-19 crisis has increased the call for transparency in a country’s performance against the SDGs. This gives PAOs opportunities to develop a new kind of social audit or SDG audit integral to the due diligence framework, as an instrument to achieve broader transparency in relation to particular SDG activities. An important implication is that, if professional accountants wish to get involved in SDG auditing, they must be expected to look beyond the numbers: this should, in turn, enhance collaborations with members of other professions and communities, including environmentalists, lawyers, development activists, human rights activists, and sociologists, to name a few interested parties. Accordingly, SDG auditing (the fourth task above) will be the crucial part of the due diligence framework, requiring entities to:
- evidence their contributions towards and impacts on the 17 specific SDGs
- engage community members and broader stakeholders to create awareness and understanding in relation to the SDGs and
- consider SDG-related collaboration, align vested interests and engage with suppliers, business partners, cross-sector partners, government, and non-governmental organizations (NGO).
In the post-Covid-19 era, the roles of professional accountants must change: we must look more carefully at ethical dilemmas already considered high risks such as corruption/bribery, money laundering, conflicts of interest, manipulations of financial statements, and tax avoidance. With the spread of Covid-19, corruptions associated with public spending and (governments’) stimulus packages/recovery plans in several countries are just one example of an additional dilemma presenting high risk not only for government agencies and regulators but also for concerned auditors and accountants. As Covid-19 has made existing ethical dilemmas more visible and produced new challenges for PAOs and their members, as a part of tackling the new challenges a due diligence framework is highly desirable.
In the years ahead of us, civil societies across the globe are expected to be more vigilant, watching progress toward achieving the SDGs in the context of recovery from Covid-19. Positive and constructive involvement by PAOs will give them more visibility within those societies, and in turn enhance the reputation of the accountancy profession.
OECD (2013), OECD Due diligence guideline for responsible supply chains of minerals from conflict-affected and high-risk areas. OECD Publishing, 2nd edition.
OHCHR (2011), Guiding Principles on business and human rights: Implementing the United Nations “Protect, Respect and Remedy” Framework, available from: www.ohchr.org/Documents/Publications/GuidingPrinciplesBusinessHR_EN.pdf.
Transparency International (2019), SDG 16 is the key to the 2030 Agenda, available from: https://www.transparency.org/en/press/sdg-16-is-the-key-to-the-2030-agenda