Increasingly, there are reports that the enormous support being offered by/to countries across the globe to address the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is not reaching the intended beneficiaries due to mismanagement, fraud and corruption. How can the accountancy profession contribute to establishing and strengthening institutions, systems, and capacity to effectively manage these funds and ensure that they reach the intended beneficiaries?
A recent World Bank Policy Note describes the risks and impacts of corruption in the context of the pandemic, providing guidance for addressing and mitigating such risks. If not addressed, fraud and corruption will cost additional lives and continue to perpetuate the shocking inequalities that have been revealed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In this regard, there are five areas where the accountancy profession can increasingly make a valuable contribution:
- The accountancy profession can partner with the government and institutions managing COVID-19 funds to design and/or strengthen the internal control systems necessary to manage these resources. Such controls would provide requisite safeguards to promote accountability and minimize the opportunities for fraud. The profession should use its wealth of experience in internal controls to provide this support, while also assisting the government in using digital technologies to implement these controls.
Such assistance could include designing or strengthening governance and financial management guidelines for established COVID-19 emergency/solidarity funds; developing or strengthening existing emergency procurement procedures; establishing fair and transparent eligibility criteria and efficient systems for distributing food packages and wage subsidies to target beneficiaries; and designing appropriate processes for monitoring receipts, and recording and utilization of the medical supplies procured under health care emergency responses, to mention a few.
- The accountants serving in the institutions managing the COVID-19 funds should provide ethical management and reporting of the funds. Moreover, they should act as custodians of the stipulated policies by ensuring compliance; confirming that they pass the ethical test. For example, this could include ensuring compliance with procurement procedures, or curtailing any political influence and conflict of interest. The accountants should voice their concerns wherever and whenever they see any (likely) malfeasance.
- The accountancy profession should assist governments and other relevant institutions in operating effective systems to track and report on the use of funding to deal with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. To achieve accountability and transparency, the government must track and regularly publish financial reports about the use of COVID-19 funds, including emergency funds and government budget resources. So too, the government must report information about achievements (outputs and outcomes) resulting from the use of such funds.
The accountancy profession should partner with governments to ensure the existence of specific codes in the accounting packages to specifically track COVID-19 expenditures. In addition, it should support the application of recognized public sector accounting standards (the International Public Sector Accounting Standards) to prepare financial reports, especially in countries where there are weak financial reporting regimes. Reference should be made to guidance issued by International Federation of Accountants. Finally, it should facilitate application of the International Integrated Reporting Framework to report on the achievements.
- The accountancy profession should empower and partner with citizens, civil society, and the media to improve social accountability in the management of COVID-19 funds. This would bolster citizen engagement and government responsiveness. Such an effort could include hosting sessions with citizens, civil society and the media to empower them vis-à-vis the monitoring of internal controls and accountability processes.
Empowered citizens, civil society and the media would hold to account the leaders of the institutions managing the COVID-19 funds. A case in point concerns the civil societies in Kenya and South Africa, who are calling for greater transparency and accountability in the management of COVID-19 emergency funds.
- The accountancy profession should partner with the Supreme Audit Institutions (SAIs) to conduct real time audits or provide pro-bono audit services to institutions managing COVID-19 emergency funds. As stated in the International Organization of Supreme Audit Institutions (INTOSAI) paper, to ensure the COVID-19 funds are used as intended, regular and real time audits should be conducted.
As was the case during the Ebola pandemic in Sierra Leonne and Liberia, the private audit firms should partner with the SAIs to conduct real-time and performance audits. In doing so, they should check the efficiency, effectiveness, and economy of use of these funds. The audit firms should also assist the SAIs in using technology to conduct such audits, especially in countries where SAIs currently do not make use of such technology.
In addition, the private auditors should serve as auditors of the COVID-19 emergency response funds on a pro-bono basis. This is occurring in the case of Kenya’s COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund, where the accountancy profession has partnered with the Board of the Emergency Response Fund. PWC is providing bookkeeping services, and EY is managing the Fund. In addition, KPMG is providing monitoring and evaluation services. Deloitte serves as the auditors of the Fund, also on a pro-bono basis.
In conclusion, these valuable partnerships will enable countries to develop and operate strong institutions and systems, enhancing their capacity to effectively and efficiently manage COVID-19 resources and other government resources. Indeed, it is the responsibility of the accountancy profession to contribute to developing these pillars. If not accountants, then who?