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Cooperating for results: developing INTOSAI guidelines to audit disaster-related aid

Mount Merapi, Yogyakarta, Indonesia at the 6th Meeting of the Working Group for the Audit and Accountability for Disaster Aid, 2011. Source: U.S. GAO.

Auditors use standards and guidance for their audit work. The International Standards for Supreme Audit Institutions — ISSAIs — are essential in this respect. How do they get started, who is involved and how is the work organised? Phyllis Anderson, Assistant Director in the U.S. Government Accountability Office, representing her SAI in the development of ISSAIs for auditing disaster-related aid, identifies some key ingredients to get to results through cooperation.

By Phyllis Anderson, U.S. Government Accountability Office

Starting point: tracking aid given in response to the 2004 tsunami

Our working group’s charge: to develop guidelines for enhancing the transparency and accountability of funds which countries use to address the aftermath of catastrophic natural disasters. The International Organisation of Supreme Audit Institutions (INTOSAI), through its Task Force on the Audit and Accountability of Disaster Aid, examined the response to the catastrophic December 2004 tsunami in South East Asia.

The Task Force concluded that it was not possible to create an audit trail of the billions of dollars that governments, multilateral and non-governmental organisations, and the public provided in response. More information was needed and further work was required to help ensure the transparency and accountability of disaster relief funding. INTOSAI created the Working Group for the Audit of and Accountability for Disaster Aid (WG) in 2007. My experience participating in this WG, representing the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), has led me to conclude that the WG’s successful results would not have been possible without the extraordinary level of cooperation demonstrated by its members.

U.S. GAO committed to cooperation

GAO is an independent, nonpartisan agency that examines how taxpayer dollars are spent, and provides Congress and federal agencies with objective, reliable information to help the government work more efficiently and save money. The agency sets the auditing standards for U.S. government audits. Currently, GAO demonstrates its commitment to cooperation by serving on the Governing Board of INTOSAI and participates in several INTOSAI working groups, committees and task forces. In addition, through its international auditor fellowship program, GAO provides training for SAIs to help strengthen their audit capacity.

Key ingredients for getting to results

The WG’s mandate was to develop standards to assist SAIs in auditing aid donated to governments for disasters and formulating best practices and recommendations to improve the transparency and accountability of disaster-related aid. Its membership ranged between 18 and 23 SAIs, and in 2013, included the following SAIs: Austria, Chile, China, the European Court of Auditors (chair and secretariat), France, Georgia, India, Indonesia, Jamaica, Japan, Kenya, Korea (Republic of), the Netherlands, Norway, Pakistan, Peru, the Philippines, Romania, the Russian Federation, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Ukraine and the United States of America.

The WG’s relatively constant membership through its existence, from 2007 through 2013, contributed to the continuity and progression of its work and highlighted its members’ steadfast commitment. Those members represented a balance of donor and potential aid recipient countries. Several had experienced catastrophic natural disasters and the lessons learned in the aftermath of these disasters were crucial to the WG. Members saw the need for enhancements worldwide in the accountability and transparency of disaster-response funds.

The WG members possessed a diversity of disciplinary expertise, which, combined with the ranges in experience, differences in culture, and multiple perspectives, contributed to the successful outcome of the work. Of course, at times, members of the WG expressed differences of opinions and in perspectives, and raised difficult issues. Yet from beneath these differences arose a spirit of cooperation, respect and goodwill. Of significance is that the WG did not shy away from addressing challenging issues directly, and members worked towards consensus and a successful outcome.

We met once a year as a group, graciously hosted by members in different regions. These annual, substantive meetings focused on member progress updates and on resolving outstanding issues, including through intensive discussions. In some cases, a host country had experienced a catastrophic natural disaster, and members visited local affected areas. For example, at the 6th Annual INTOSAI Meeting of the Working Group cordially hosted by the Audit Board of the Republic of Indonesia in Jogjakarta, Indonesia, we met with local officials, observed the effects of a volcanic eruption, and examined efforts to rebuild homes, schools and community centers — hearing firsthand the challenges, concerns and constructive benefits of disaster funding.

In some cases, our formal work programme called for members to partner on assigned objectives. Using a standardized format, each member provided periodic progress reports on the approach, progress to date and outcomes. We shared summaries with each member, and discussed them at annual meetings. Publishing periodic progress reports within the WG empowered members to strive to achieve their objectives. The need to prepare periodic reports also offered incentives for members to prioritize their work in the context of their full-time SAI responsibilities.

In addition, members reviewed documents electronically and scheduled numerous conference calls — sometimes at strange hours, to accommodate time-zone differences.

I and other members found these phone meetings helpful in personalizing our interactions. The calls enhanced the spirit of cooperation with which we approached our work and made it easy to express and understand differences in our perspectives.

Zooming in on two of the six outputs

Two areas of my focus for the WG entailed working with members to develop standards for conducting audits of disaster aid, and to formulate good-governance practices for stakeholders to improve transparency and accountability. The first area resulted in an ISSAI 5520 The Audit Of Disaster-Related Aid, which provides audit guidance and covers both emergency activities that begin immediately after a natural disaster, and the longer-term activities of rebuilding communities and restoring normal life.

Given that SAIs have different constitutional mandates that govern their audit efforts, ISSAI 5520 is a starting point for auditors charged with auditing disaster aid within the context of their jurisdiction and mandate. ISSAI 5520 also provides various SAI’s experiences with segments of the audit process, such as: cooperation between auditors; information and data gathering; financial, performance and compliance auditing of disaster aid; and reporting. The appendices provide examples of the results of SAIs conducting audits of aid for disasters in their respective countries such as:

  • financial audits of the emergency response after the earthquake in Pisco, Peru, and the recovery and reconstruction after the Wenchuan earthquake in China; and
  • performance audits of recovery and reconstruction after the Great East Japan Earthquake, the European Commission response after the South East Asia tsunami, and after hurricane Katrina in the US.

The other area of focus produced a good-governance document, INTOSAI GOV 9250 The Integrated Financial Accountability Framework (the IFAF), a framework within which providers and recipients of humanitarian aid report financial and in-kind transfers of aid in standardised tables. The IFAF tables would then be audited and published on the Internet as open data, according to the standard that data should be published once and used often. Volunteer donor and recipient countries and large international non-government organisations tested the standardised tables, which led to information that was feasible and easy to understand. The idea was that with the use of these tables, there would be a single audit financial report for the aid, donors would not require their own bilateral reports as a prerequisite of providing aid, costs could be reduced and transparency would be enhanced.

Outcomes enhancing accountability

The work from the members of the WG had a very substantial outcome, producing six audit guidelines. The guidelines were endorsed in 2013 by the INTOSAI Congress and are currently up for their first review. These guidelines provide auditors with necessary knowledge and build further capacity, equipping them with information to audit disaster-related funds, in order to enhance accountability.

The work also enhanced members’ knowledge of each SAI’s constitutional and organisation structures, a variety of SAI perspectives on the use of auditing standards, better understanding of regional and cultural differences, and the positive and productive results that come from working collaboratively and cooperatively in an international setting.

This article was first published on the November-December 2018 issue of the ECA Journal. The contents of the interviews and the articles are the sole responsibility of the interviewees and authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the European Court of Auditors.

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