SAIs Operating in Challenging Contexts Share Insight, Ideas

by Oskar Karnebäck, Workstream Leader, INTOSAI CBC Workstream in Support of SAIs in Fragile Situations

The International Organization of Supreme Audit Institution’s (INTOSAI) Capacity Building Committee (CBC) workstream dedicated to supporting Supreme Audit Institutions (SAIs) operating in particularly challenging contexts recently organized a forum in Johannesburg, South Africa. Seven Auditors General (AG) who currently lead SAIs with experience working in such contexts met alongside workstream members and delegates from the Organization of English-Speaking African Supreme Audit Institutions (AFROSAI-E).

The forum included interactive practical exercises and discussions in an open environment allowing participants to discuss various challenges, share concrete examples and identify areas for future exploration.

Forum topics were based on “State Building in Fragile Situations,” a workstream paper authored by Mr. David Goldsworthy and Ms. Silvia Stefanoni that examines the role of SAIs and international partners. The forum, hosted by SAI South Africa, focused on a few guiding questions:

  • What are the challenges for SAIs in fragile contexts?
  • How can these challenges be overcome?
  • In what ways can SAIs support each other to fulfill mandates, become stronger institutions and contribute to state building?

Concepts and Definitions
Fragility is a contested concept. At the forum, a number of SAIs felt discomfort in subscribing to the term “fragile.” The workstream’s point of departure is that the situation in which the SAI operates is, by no means, a description of the SAI itself.

The workstream aligns to vocabulary used across the international development community where entities, such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), United Nations (UN) and World Bank all use “fragile” to describe conditions that make for particularly challenging circumstances in developing countries. Traditionally, the donor community has defined fragility in terms of instability (political settlements or control of violence), but it is useful to apply the broader definition proposed by the OECD that includes economic, societal and environmental fragility.

For SAIs, fragile situations may encompass different factors—from a lack of trained staff to difficulties in following an audit trail. One reflection from the forum is that challenges for SAIs in situations of fragility are similar to those that other SAIs face; however, a fragile situation may make it more difficult to address (and find a solution to) an undesired situation.

Additionally, some SAIs may face numerous aspects of fragility simultaneously, resulting in an even greater challenge.

A longer discussion on fragility can be found in the workstream’s terms of reference.

Potential Sources of Help, Opportunities
When professional and committed AGs come together to discuss situations, something extraordinary happens! It was rewarding to hear the iterative and sincere exchanges between executive leaders in the highest positions. They seized this opportunity to learn from each other and to understand the reasons for, and the outcomes of, specific actions.
Some of the important topics discussed include:

  • Recruiting and retaining professional staff;
  • Advancing staff skills to deliver on mandates;
  • Improving audit quality; and
  • Implementing International Standards of Supreme Audit Institutions (ISSAIs) in an environment not necessarily conducive.

Scenario-driven deliberations included a focus on the potential need for additional INTOSAI guidance for SAIs in particularly challenging contexts. What if an extraordinary incident (natural disaster, political turbulence) made the audit trail disappear? Would INTOSAI guidance help SAIs navigate how to proceed? Generally speaking, the answer was, “Yes.”

ISSAIs. Many delegates suggested applying ISSAIs, which point to disclaiming an opinion if one cannot be issued. Most participants felt there was no need for additional INTOSAI guidance, as adopted ISSAIs provide for such situations.

Regional Bodies. SAI representatives at the forum also expressed turning to AFROSAI-E, that, as a regional organization, could provide appropriate and relevant assistance.
Professional Pronouncements. For SAIs who are unable to find support from a regional organization, participants cited contextually appropriate INTOSAI professional pronouncements may also be helpful.

Knowledge, Experience Sharing. Increasing engagements with neighboring and regional SAIs was also mentioned, as such similar environments increase the likelihood that SAIs can better compare experiences.

Donor Support. SAIs could contribute more constructively to state building by providing more detailed information on subjects where it is not possible to issue an opinion due to insufficient documentation. Doing so provides SAI relevance by illustrating strong leadership, professional commitment and demonstrating efforts to increase audit quality. A strong external audit is often a crucial component for donors, who try to channel funds using the country system.

Future Work
In good environments, good ideas are born, and the forum truly generated a number of innovative and exciting suggestions for moving forward—the forum, as well as the workstream. Participants also suggested additional collaborative arenas to exchange mutual experiences, including webinars focusing on fragility-related topics. These sessions could then be supplemented with online discussions.

An initiative gaining ground, and one in which many can, and should, contribute, is the compilation of “success stories” that highlight good practices in overcoming challenges. Within the workstream, the SAI of Liberia and the INTOSAI Development Initiative (IDI) are currently collecting practical examples of such successes.

The inaugural forum’s positive outcomes have prompted the workstream to develop additional interactive opportunities between the members. To enrich discussions, the workstream welcomes more SAIs to connect to current efforts on SAIs in particularly challenging situations. Learn more by visiting the workstream’s website at

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