The International Federation of Accountants and the International Bar Association are partnering on an initiative to combat corruption, ahead of the gathering of global leaders at the G20 summit in Buenos Aires later this year.

The two organizations have signed the IBA and IFAC Anti-Corruption Mandate to emphasize the role of business and government in safeguarding a fair and transparent future for all. They are also involved in the B20, a group of 20 business leaders from around the world in Buenos Aires ahead of the G20 summit.

“Grounded in a strong ethical code, professional accountants across the globe play a critical role in the fight against corruption, bringing essential transparency, relevance and integrity to the systems that underpin vibrant economies,” said IFAC CEO Fayezul Choudhury in a statement. “We are proud to partner with the IBA to highlight and advance the role of our global professions in serving the public interest now and in the future.”

IFAC offices
Courtesy of IFAC

“This particular event and the joint statement grew out of a relationship that started a little more than a year ago,” IFAC CFO and executive director of external affairs Russell Guthrie told Accounting Today. “It first started as a U.K. initiative between the accountancy profession and the legal profession. The U.K. bodies issued a similar statement back in May and asked some of the global bodies to sign on, so this is really an amplification of that from a global level, from the IFAC IBA side, at our own initiative. We’ll be taking the opportunity around the B20 and the G20 events in Buenos Aires this week to really showcase what their respective professions are doing in terms of contributing to the agenda against fraud and corruption.”

The two organizations are hosting a number of dignitaries in the B20 and G20 at an event Friday in advance of a finance ministers meeting later in the week to showcase what the professions are doing to play their part.

According to the International Monetary Fund, bribery, which is only one aspect of corruption, costs the global economy nearly $2 trillion, approximately 2 percent of global GDP, every year. But with strong governance, accountants can help stem the tide of corruption in G20 countries and in nations that have adopted anti-money laundering laws in accordance with international recommendations.

“Corruption is a significant impediment to economic stability and development, tarnishing public trust in institutions and inhibiting citizens’ access to opportunities and prosperity,” said IBA executive director Mark Ellis in a statement. “With empirical research that demonstrates the world’s poor pays the highest percentage of their income in bribes, the imminent meeting of the G20 Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors presents an important opportunity to remind leaders that every stolen dollar, euro, lira, peso, pound, rand, real, rouble, rupee, yen or yuan robs someone of an equal opportunity in life, and that everyone has a responsibility to combat corruption. The IBA-IFAC cross-sector collaboration aims to reinforce the role and responsibility of international professions to tackle corruption, and we are delighted to be partnering with IFAC.”

Among the initiatives being pursued by IFAC is NOCLAR, the Noncompliance Laws and Regulations.

“That really has been the single signature advance insofar as it relates to the actual standards that are in place for professional accountants to follow,” said Guthrie. “The two key features were that it provides a pathway for professional accountants if they do identify instances of fraud and corruption to raise it systematically through the organization that they’re looking at. If the organization doesn’t respond or take corrective action, it actually allows them to move beyond the client confidentiality barrier and raise it with public institutions and authorities. It really has shifted the boundary in terms of what the professional accountant’s obligations are.”

He sees the NOCLAR initiative applying to any professional accountant, whether they’re working as internal or external auditors, CFOs or controllers.

“The other important accompanying aspect is, for that sort of framework to be effective, you really do have to have appropriate whistleblower protections in place to safeguard those individuals,” said Guthrie. “You can imagine in certain cases, that really could potentially jeopardize not only their livelihood, but in fact their personal safety in certain jurisdictions and in certain contexts, so it’s an important accompanying piece of infrastructure that you need to have in order for that to be an effective framework.”

There have been a great deal of headlines lately about the role of accountants, Big Four audit firms, as well as law firms, in various financial scandals, along with revelations from the Panama Papers about how firms have helped set up tax avoidance schemes. IFAC and the IBA hope to show the role of accountants and lawyers in fighting global corruption.

“I think it’s difficult to argue that there aren’t some of these instances where there are problems with individuals within firms or acting as intermediaries around transactions that are not appropriate,” Guthrie acknowledged. “Any profession is going to have some individuals that are going to engage in that, but of course it’s up to the profession and professional bodies, and to some extent the regulatory community, to identify those people, weed them out, and bring the appropriate sanctions. But it’s also fair to say that some of the political and public rhetoric around this is too quick to judge that. Absolutely the accountants and lawyers writ large are intermediaries, but I think you have to be really be sure about the facts and circumstances in each case to really be certain that it’s the work of one or two individuals versus a real systemic problem.”

In some parts of Europe, calls have grown for audit-only firms, but Guthrie disagrees with that approach. “We don’t think that audit-only firms are a good remedy,” he said. “We think that a multidisciplinary practice actually allows an auditor to bring the right set of skills to sophisticated global clients in a cost efficient and effective way. If you have audit-only firms, the ability for an audit firm to identify and separately contract with tax specialists or actuaries or real estate specialists or forensic accountants and so forth would be incredibly expensive for the client and a bit of a logistical nightmare with respect to determining conflicts of interest across that entire global organization. While it sounds like a clean remedy, we don’t really think that from a substance and a business operations standpoint that it makes sense for both the firms and the clients.”

IFAC and the ABA may be working together on future initiatives as well. “A couple of things that we’ve identified is to see where in our respective policy agendas there might be some areas of commonality or some areas we can partner together, maybe develop some joint initiatives,” said Guthrie. “But also an important part of the collaboration is learning from one another how best to harness our respective global networks, so when we identify a policy or an initiative or a tool, how do we as global organizations best transmit that down through our global networks, get acceptance at the country level, get the country to transmit it to the individual level, so that actual practitioners are equipped with the knowledge and the tools to really be effective in this space and to raise their awareness. It’s around basic issues, but stuff that can’t be reinforced enough, like know your client, make sure you know who you’re transacting business with, because so much of the reputation of an individual practitioner on the legal or accounting side as well as the firms is best safeguarded by really knowing who you who you are supporting in a professional sense. It’s also a lot about how we best raise awareness within our respective networks to really get the boots on the ground and win the hearts and minds, if you will.”

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