When Denis Sylvestre began teaching a business strategy course to students at the Université des Grands Lacs in Burundi, he began by citing the example of McDonald’s Corporation – and drew blank stares. He then rattled off the names of four other well-known multinational firms that he had used in the past while teaching at Quebec universities, and still there was no signs of recognition. Just as he had to set aside his PowerPoint presentations and use the chalkboard because of a lack of stable electricity, the Montreal CPA quickly realized his teaching material was out-of-step with the realities faced by students living in one of the five poorest countries in the world.
“I had to adapt my course on the go,” said Sylvestre with a chuckle. “Over here we use examples of very large corporations to teach but the students in Burundi had no idea of who they were so we had to use local examples.”
Sylvestre is part of a growing group of nearly 100 Quebec accountants who over the past 18 months joined the ranks of the nascent CPA Without Borders, a Canadian organization that is part of Terre Sans Frontières, an international development network renowned for its work towards the sustainable development of disadvantaged people in developing countries. CPA Without Borders, the only accounting group of its kind in the world, offers volunteer professional accounting services to non-governmental organizations and organizations serving the poor, while supporting the development of local skills.
“We are a group of CPAs who were searching for a way to give back to the community and share our knowledge and experience,” explained Nicolas Blais, one of the co-founders and an accounting professor at the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières. “We analysed what was being done in Quebec and elsewhere in Canada and realized that there were already programs in place to help people so we turned our attention to places where people don’t have free access to the kind of training that we provide.”
Though still burgeoning, CPA Without Borders has so far launched several missions in some of the world’s poorest nations, including Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo), Tanzania, and Haiti, where volunteers have gone on three separate week-long assignments, the latest one in May. The organization generally relies on Terre Sans Frontières to help identify regions where their assistance and guidance in the areas of internal control, management, financial accounting, preparation of financial statements and IFRS would be embraced.
But certain conditions must be met, said Stephan Morin, the president and CEO of the organization. The accounting support provided by CPA Without Borders must complement local resources and must respect the principle of sustainable development. “We want to show them things so that they in turn can teach others in their region,” explained Morin, who recently got back from a 17-day mission in Tanzania where accounting is still being done by hand. Safety of the volunteers too is non-negotiable. In fact, one of the group’s first missions was in DR Congo, a huge country with immense economic resources, but it has no intention of sending volunteers to do a follow-up because it is too dangerous. “We want to send people on missions but above all we want them to come back home safe and sound,” remarked Morin.
Volunteering in areas of the world that is rife with poverty or in the grips of political uncertainty obviously has not deterred CPAs from offering their services. Thanks to word-of-mouth and events organized by the budding organization, CPAs from all walks of life — particularly young CPAs or older ones who no longer face stringent family obligations — have reached out to it. But just as nations are screened so too are volunteers. Indeed, volunteers who express an interest in participating in a mission must go through an interview. “Personal traits are very important because no matter what your accounting expertise one must have an open mind,” said Blais, who has been on missions to DR Congo and Haiti. “One must really be able to live in simple conditions, and adapt. An open mind to another way of life and another culture is essential.”
While attracting volunteers to go on missions has not been a problem, getting sponsors to financially back up CPA Without Borders is proving to be a challenge. It is operating on a shoestring budget of $30,000 annually, which puts a crimp on the number of missions that they can foster. The federally incorporated group has met with accounting firms and organizations, including the Big Four, but they have yet to be swayed, with the exception of Mazars and the Quebec Order of CPAs. Accounting firms are reticent because the outfit is young, and are in essence telling it to prove its worth, said Blais. But more fundamentally, accounting firms like many others are perplexed over the need to have a non-profit organization that volunteers professional accounting services in third world countries. “We explain that there are several phases to humanitarian aid and development work,” said Blais. “After medical aid is provided and the reconstruction of the roads, homes, schools is completed, one has to restart the machine and ensure that enterprises, schools, hospitals are managed and function properly, that they are able to manage their resources and their budgets. We’re there to help them out.”
Sylvie Ouellette, co-founder of Business Intelligence and Performance Management consulting firm Versatil BPI, needs no convincing over the merits of the organization. Ouellette made her first trip to Africa in 2007, and has since gone back repeatedly to volunteer her services, especially in DR Congo, which she intends to continue to do in spite of the rampant violence in the country. “It’s the kind of experience that transforms us but also transforms those we help,” said Ouellette, who just returned from Tanzania with Morin to evaluate the kinds of projects that CPA Without Borders could launch. “Technology is very affordable, even in Africa. They have to begin changing the way they do accounting, and shift from manual accounting towards the use of accounting software so that they can prepare better reports which will lead to better decision-making.”
Sylvestre too is itching to head back to Burundi, in spite of all the challenges the nation faces. Burundi, the site of two genocides, one in 1972 and the other in 1993, is in dire economic straits. It is cursed with one of the lowest per capita GDPs of the world, and is riddled with corruption and high unemployment. The accounting milieu has not been spared. Accounting in Burundi is at an embryonic stage. There are only a handful of accounting firms, and most accountants earned their degree abroad. There’s also a dearth of accounting professors: students who should be able to complete their degree in three years very often need four, if not even five, years because of the scarcity of accounting teachers. It’s no surprise then that Sylvestre, along with three other Quebec CPAs, were welcomed with open arms. The four accountants went to Burundi in August for a four-month stretch (with the exception of Sylvestre, who stayed 10 weeks) to teach accounting courses in audit and internal controls as well as business strategy because the country is slowly beginning to adopt international accounting standards. The next step would be foster and develop entrepreneurship, said Sylvestre.
“Following our work to teach them accounting standards, we have to develop entrepreneurship,” said Sylvestre. “We have to put their knowledge to use so that they can become business people who will develop local commerce and industry. We also have to make them more conscience over all that touches on governance so that they are more aware of corruption problems that all developing countries potentially face.”
This story was originally published in The Bottom Line.