Auditing during COVID-19: Experiences of Supreme Audit Institutions in FCV situations

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Handwritten accounting charts. © Simone D. McCourtie / World Bank Handwritten accounting charts. © Simone D. McCourtie / World Bank

The supreme audit institutions (SAIs) in countries most affected by fragility, conflict and violence (FCV) are facing particularly acute problems in carrying out audits during the coronavirus (COVID-19). Even before the pandemic, many operated with limited staff bandwidth, poor or non-existent IT systems, and insufficient budget to conduct field audits. They often have little real independence, face long backlogs of unaudited accounts, and find it difficult to get their reports into the public domain let alone see the recommendations implemented. Often, these internal challenges have been exacerbated by wars, weak central governments, and state capture, as well as ethnic, religious or tribal divides. COVID-19 has further worsened these conditions, with SAI staff considered non-essential, in lockdowns, with little or no computer or internet access, making their work almost impossible.

Despite these difficulties, SAIs in FCV contexts are seeking new ways to ensure that waste and fraud are contained.  In West Africa, SAIs have been sharing the lessons they learned from auditing during the Ebola pandemic, helping their peers identify the risks and ways of tracking public emergency expenditure as it flows from central government budgets through local government to individual health facilities. 

In the Middle East and North Africa, SAIs have been providing guidance across the public sector, reminding public servants that funds still need to be managed carefully despite the pandemic and the need for quick decisions. Some SAIs in the region are conducting international benchmarking exercises to compare the prices being paid nationally for procured medicines and protective clothing with international prices, helping reduce price gouging by local firms. 

Like SAIs everywhere, those operating in FCV contexts are also looking ahead to the recovery from COVID-19, and they recognize that pre-existing audit plans will need to be radically altered.  They are seeking to assess the risks of major new government initiatives, so that they can prioritize both short-term and medium-term audits. They are also working to ensure that preventative controls are in place and are being used. 

Initially, they need to examine programs that have a direct impact on the lives of citizens: for example, the extent to which food, cash, and medicines are reaching the people most at need. Over time, their audits will examine the wider range of government responses to the crisis, including economic stimulus packages. Other areas that need auditing include the management of public debt, the economic health of state-owned enterprises, and the impact of delays in vaccination programs on progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals. 

When conducting this work, SAIs need to maintain visibility in the public domain using platforms such as radio, television and social media, to ensure continued support from governments, parliaments, and civil society.  SAIs can help assure the public that the massive increases in expenditure are being managed well, which builds trust between citizens and their governments. 

The international donor community, in collaboration with the International Organization of Supreme Audit Institutions (INTOSAI) and regional bodies, has an important role to play in supporting these efforts. In the short term, they can make sure that SAIs know what external funds are being allocated to their countries so that they can develop a comprehensive view of the funds available. In the medium to long term, they can help them acquire the necessary technology and skills to strengthen their capacity and effectiveness, regardless of whether auditors operate from the office, at home or on the auditees’ premises. 

Some governments will want to postpone auditing until after the crisis, worried that the presence of auditors will undermine attempts to speed up procurement of goods and services and new programs. However, urgency should not justify ill-informed decisions, or procurement of goods and services at inflated prices or from sources that later fail to deliver. SAIs can make sure that governments are aware of lessons from past crises and, by conducting real-time audits, make sure that good procurement practices continue. 

SAIs have a vital role in efforts to ensure that rules aren’t bent in ways that fuel fraud and corruption.  This is a critical contribution both during and after crises, even when they are operating in the most challenging contexts.


Mona El-Chami

Senior Governance Specialist, World Bank

David Goldsworthy

Former Head of the International Relations and Technical Cooperation, UK National Audit Office

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