The Role of SAI in Implementation of Sustainable Development Goals – SAI Pakistan

The Role of SAI in Implementation of Sustainable Development Goals – SAI Pakistan


Aamir Fayyaz, SAI Pakistan

Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are global in nature. These have replaced the Millennium Development Goals with effect from January 2016.[1] The authority behind the SDGs is the long standing universal desire among the member states of the United Nations to improve their people-focused governance. Although it is an ongoing agenda, the member states have deemed it essential to voluntarily set for themselves a period of fifteen years for the achievement of 17 goals, 169 targets and 200 plus indicators. The time seems fair and reasonable to allow the member states to internalize ‘achievables’ in their respective development frameworks, facilitating coordinated and consistent efforts to achieve these for the benefit of their own masses as well as for the international community because, in an integrated world, the successes and failures are shared by all.

SDGs being a collective agenda, each stakeholder has a significant role to play. United Nations Development Program (UNDP) underlines the need for achievement of SDGs through ‘partnership of governments, private sector, civil society and citizens’.[2] A Supreme Audit Institution, being the bastion of accountability and transparency, is expected to assume a central role in the achievement of these common goals.  As a first, it needs to go one step up and highlight the critical role of sufficient allocation and distribution of resources for funding the achievement of SDGs. This is the exclusive domain of the legislature and the job is done through several tools at its disposal. Budget being one of the most important one with which the legislature can set the tone and show the commitment for the fulfilment of agenda. Similarly audit reports on the use of budgetary resources focusing on SDGs could provide the legislature with an additional independent tool for periodic review and help determine the new level of interventions. This is more relevant for Pakistan being the first country to adopt SDGs 2030 agenda through a unanimous resolution of parliament[3] and incorporating it in its own Vision 2025. Additionally, in a federal set up, the grants or financial support provided by the centre out of its own resources, to the federating units, over and above their legal allocations, can speak volumes about the commitment and actual achievement of certain specific targets within the SDGs. SAI auditors, by performing even a basic analysis of budget, over a reasonable period, say three years, can be able to comment on the adequacy of budgetary allocations made available to help achieve benchmarks. This requires availability of information systems to provide reliable and timely data and reports. At times, the SAI may have to struggle to get these reports simply because these may not exist or may exist in such form as to make these of little use. To synchronize the reporting framework with the development agenda, SAI may recommend or implement, if the mandate lies with them, a modified financial/additional reporting framework. This is a task worth doing as SDGs are long term in their conceptual orientation and are likely to be as relevant after 2030 as these are now.

[1] https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/post2015/transformingourworld
[2] http://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/sustainable-development-goals.html
[3] http://pc.gov.pk/web/sdg/sdgpak

Similarly, one step down, SAI auditors may examine the efficiency and economy with which the resources allocated for SDGs are being utilized. Ultimately this would require a comparison of what was committed and what was achieved and the degree of correspondence. At times, a trade off may be visible to an experienced auditor when for the sake of effectiveness; efficiency and economy were found to have been compromised if not altogether ignored or that while operating efficiently and economically, the targets remained un(der) achieved. Here the auditors would be expected to tread delicately and report with direct and relevant evidence instead of evidence by implication.

Tracking the achievement of SDGs requires SAI to determine the best approach to audit. The subject’s diversity and vastness is all but obvious and can accommodate any type of audit- regularity (financial plus compliance) and performance. Each type of audit has its own utility in the context of SDGs. No doubt the financial and compliance perspectives cover two important needs whereby the funds spent must be accounted for, tracked and reported in line with the approved accounting framework, applicable laws and rules; it is the performance audit which appears to be best suited to an audit of SDGs. Here one clear benefit to the auditors, at the outset, would be the availability of ready-made criteria, one to which the management is already committed. This could be a great asset for the performance auditors and they would be expected to utilize the saved time and resources for the development and updation of audit programs to facilitate collection, evaluation and presentation of audit evidence to the stakeholders in a consistent manner. This could also help auditors commit comparatively more resources to understand the fine points within the criteria, bring in best practices and document these in permanent and planning files.  Whatever the type, it is imperative that SAIs auditors come out of their stereotypical cocoons by divorcing their adversarial selves and embracing the partnership and collaborative roles as stressed above.

A typical audit of SDGs follows the same four major steps as in any other audit: planning, fieldwork, reporting and follow-up.[4] An individual SAI has multiple options to plan and perform this audit in accordance with peculiarities of the audit organization. However, most likely, in view of the strategic nature of SDGs, a parallel strategic audit plan translating into annual audit plans must be prepared and monitored. SAI Pakistan for instance has a strategic audit plan 2015-19 where audit of emerging areas are prominently placed.[5] Similarly the SAI has to decide if the audit is to be conducted as part of regular routine audit of line ministries, provincial departments and local bodies tasked with the achievement of the SDGs and related targets or through some other method like planning a government wide audit of a specific goal which in turn will cover several budgetary grants as well as multiple ministries, departments, programs, projects, etc. For instance, take the case of SDG 3 devoted to ensuring healthy lives, promoting well-being for all, at all ages. The specific targets of this SDG include: reduction of global maternal mortality, end of preventable deaths of new-borns, end of the epidemics of AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, reduction by one third of premature mortality from non-communicable diseases.”[6]  What are the options for SAI (say, of Pakistan) to perform an audit of these ‘achievables’? Some of the targets may fall under the purview of federal government, some may exclusively be the domain of provincial governments, some others may well be assigned to umbrella programs, public private partnerships, stand-alone projects, across the federating units, usually with generous federal government’s funding and financial and technical support from donors. In view of complexity, both centralized as well as decentralized options could be explored by the SAI. In the case of former, concerned audit directorates at federal, provincial and district level plan, perform and report. For the latter, a centralized audit team, in consultation with the directorates, perform planning, evaluation and reporting functions while the individual auditors from concerned field directorates conduct audit under supervision of the central team. There may be pros and cons of each method. SAI would be expected to arrive at a decision based on the easiest and cost-effective way to collect evidence and from the perspective of legislature as to how it would like to be reported to. Whatever the approach, it is very essential that, in view of the strategic nature of SDGs, audit results are meticulously documented in an IT based environment.

[1] Available at http://www.issai.org/en_us/site-issai/issai-framework/4-auditing-guidelines.htm, para 4.11
[2] http://www.agp.gov.pk/index.php?page=publications
[3] https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/topics/healthandpopulation

SDGs audit, to some extent, is a sensitive audit calling for a higher dose of due professional care as audit comments/reports on achievement, non-or partial achievement of committed benchmarks could involve high reputation risk for the government (entities) tasked with the achievement of SDGs, both at domestic and international fronts, in view of the globally acceptable development agenda. This risk has the necessary ingredients to multiply and may well travel back to the SAI if we consider that audit reports will be read, cited and relied upon by many a stakeholder including the media and other development partners. Any material lapse in the audit methodology could put the reputation of the SAI at stake. Audit of SDGs therefore must be augmented through a gradual build-up of auditors’ capacity. ISSAI 5130 supports this and, while accepting that the audit of sustainable development may pose new conceptual and methodological challenges for SAIs, goes on to suggest six[7] incremental steps for capability development. The ISSAI encourages auditors to question the existing methodology for conducting performance audit and resultantly be ready to look outside for additional expertise as well as reviewing the current training programs for the auditors’ in this critical area. Once the auditors’ capacity issues (both at individual and organizational level) are being tackled, in turn, they could also consider evaluating the capability of the systems put in place for the achievement of sustainable goals in the stipulated time.

Audit of SDGs is an interesting subject offering immense learning opportunities to the SAI and providing it with more space for adding value to the available national resources. However, in view of its being, comparatively, a new concept, the challenges are obvious. More than anything else, the SAI needs to provide assurance to the stakeholders of its readiness to perform audit, identify gaps, undertake cause and effect analysis, draw relevant conclusions and provide the management with 3-Ps – productive, positive and practical recommendations.

[7] Available at http://www.issai.org/en_us/site-issai/issai-framework/4-auditing-guidelines.htm, para 4.1




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