Since, the days of Enron back in 2002, all major corporate scandals involve accountants. Studies on failed corporations show that almost all misdemeanours perpetrated by corporate executives, involve misuse or misdirecting funds, overstating revenues, understating expenses and manipulating financial reports.
The accounting function provides a unique vantage point for perpetrators of frauds, in that, accountants have access to all the coming in and the going out, of financial information. Accountants also possess a specialised skill, which, many corporate officers and executives, just simply do not have.
Thirdly, some people are just allergic to numbers, so much so that, they will not look at even the simplest form of an accounting report. This unique positioning in a corporate, gives tremendous power to accountants. However, as with everything else, too much power has corrupted some accountants.
Accounting malpractices are not always deliberate. It is true that limited knowledge, skill and exposure to accounting methods and practices, also result in corporate accounting scandals. However, accounting and auditing are only part of a whole in corporate governance architecture. This means that financial reports can only be as good as the governance environment in which, or for which, they are produced.
Nonetheless, the accounting and auditing profession still has to pull up its weight to restore and maintain its waning reputation. With professional institutions such as the Institute of Chartered Accountants, having been established as far back as 1917, Zimbabwe has had a longstanding reputation of high professional behaviour.
The highly literate and hard working population has provided a ready and zealous national market for financial information, such as in published annual reports.
The levels of financial analysis by other stakeholders, including the media, were also reputable. So what happened? How did the accounting profession find itself struggling for relevance? What can be done to uplift the reputation of this important profession?
First, there is need to discuss the origins and nature of the decline in professional standards.
As with other professions, the accounting and auditing profession in Zimbabwe, suffered massive brain-drain as trained experts left the country, notably between 1998-2008. This left the profession thin, and having to rely on limited, including fresh graduates from institutions around the country, some of whom did not belong to any professional body, and so did not subscribe to set ethical and professional standards.
This meant that for more than 10 years, accounting functions in various organisations were manned by unregulated individuals.
Each had their own "standards", some of which left a lot to be desired. The nature and interconnectedness of financial information, requires minimum accounting and professional standards, which benefit, both, international and individual national systems.
The economic environment in Zimbabwe, at that time, enabled unruly behaviours to thrive. During the period 1998-2008, the country experienced a stubborn economic downturn, along with persistent hyperinflation, which turned accounting practices, into quagmire.
The long-standing solid foundations of national accounting systems and professional standards were tested. In this period of crisis, resilience and maturity of the accounting profession in Zimbabwe shall forever be remembered, not just in the country, but globally. The Zimbabwean accounting profession stood up to the economic crisis, by being proactive in developing appropriate guidance for the preparation and compliance, as far as was practicable, with International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS,) and for auditors to audit such financial statements, in a chronic hyperinflationary environment.
Ultimately, the guidance was adopted and has been used by the International Accounting Standards Board (IASB), an independent accounting standard-setter based in the United Kingdom, to amend what is termed, IFRS 1. However the unrelenting economic crisis, plus limited human resource capacity gave entrance to unethical behaviours and practices, even in previously sealed professions, such as accounting and auditing.
It was during this period that accounting professional standards took a nose dive in Zimbabwe. The global corporate governance scandals made it worse for the local accountants, as they basically had nowhere to turn for guidance, since their sister firms or professional institutions overseas, were each struggling for their own reputations.
The 2011 Report of Observance of Standards and Codes (ROSC), Accounting and Auditing, on Zimbabwe, observed that in order to redress the human resource capacity, during the crisis period, there were accelerated promotions of accountants to senior positions before they acquired appropriate practical experience. This posed a reputational risk to the profession in cases where poor quality work was noted.
In the wake of recent banking scandals and other corporate governance scandals in Zimbabwe, where financial numbers were manipulated for unethical gains, the country's economy and the overall development agenda, require that we pay urgent attention to professional standards and behaviours of in the accounting sector. These standards can only be made appropriate, when upheld and deliberately practiced in an ethical manner throughout corporate accounting and reporting including users of financial information.
A systemic approach is required, which encompasses the legal and regulatory environments, professional bodies under the Public Accountants and Auditors Boards (PAAB), universities and all tertiary institutions which train accountants, companies, parastatals, as well as raising capacity of all users of accounting information, such as relevant Parliamentary Committees, Zimra, the Reserve Bank and other regulators.
The underpinning objective in this general approach is to enhance ethical and professional standards of producers and users of accounting information.
Specific to the legal framework, the Companies Act, for instance, should require companies to comply with applicable accountings standards as issued by the standard setter, the Zimbabwe Accounting Practices Board (ZAPB). This also entails harmonisation of a cross section of legal and regulatory instruments. In this way, the accounting behaviour could be standardised.
Professional institutions require support with financial and human resources. As discussed earlier, there is a remnant of good professional accountants in the country and these could mentor younger accountants.
The 10 years of economic crisis in Zimbabwe, robbed the country of ethical mentors. Thousands of young accountants, introduced into the profession during the crisis period, missed out on having solid characters to emulate, which the older generations of accountants had. There are no short cuts to this corrective plan; it has to be done one individual accountant or student at a time. Factoring business ethics in each and every training and development modules is one way that ethical standards may be enhanced.
To the older accountants who are still in practice or working in other sectors, and had the privilege of being taught solid professional and ethical standards, it is time, they went back to those professional standards, for the simple reason that the younger ones are watching. Older accountants, should be the mentors, and show the younger generations why the accounting and auditing were among the highest paid and respected professions. Return the lustre and glory to the profession by upholding that which you already know. Take pride to be a professional and act like one.
In striving to stay relevant, accountants should take interest in developments around other related spheres, such as corporate governance. It is important that accountants realise and are kept reminded of how their product, accounting information, impacts other fields. Accountants should be proactive in providing solutions, which enhance good governance.