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Pairing Expertise and Commitment to Strengthen Accountability
Monday, 16 February 2009 20:00

How Canada is helping to improve Costa Rica's audit institution

In 1990-1991, an auditor from the Contraloría General de la República de Costa Rica took part in a Canadian program that had a significant effect on the auditor's life, on Costa Rica's Contraloría General, and on other Supreme Audit Institutions in Central America.

In 2004, that auditor - Marta Acosta - was elected Deputy Auditor and Comptroller General of Costa Rica.

The program in which Marta participated in 1990-1991 is called the International Legislative Audit Assistance Program for Improved Governance and Accountability. It is funded by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and administered by the Canadian non-profit research and education foundation CCAF-FCVI Inc. Marta credits the program with having a major impact on Costa Rica's audit operations.

Marta's experience demonstrates that effective capacity development initiatives, such as the CCAF/CIDA program, can bear fruit over many years. Indeed, it is only after many years that one can obtain a truly valid perspective on the success of investments in capacity development activities.

A unique Canadian program with a long history

CCAF's international program brings highly qualified men and women from the supreme audit institutions of select developing countries to Canada for on-the-job and classroom training in value-for-money/performance auditing and the principles underlying accountability.

The program, established in 1980, is a partnership involving CCAF, the supreme audit institutions of participating countries, and the offices of Canada's federal and many provincial auditors general. These partners come together out of a strong belief that an effective audit function is an essential element of good governance. It can assist a developing country's government to improve its performance and contribute significantly to fostering the efficient and effective receipt and use of public resources for public benefit.

A reliable and effective independent audit function engages elected officials in the elimination of uneconomical, inefficient and ineffective practices. It assists and encourages the donor community to work with a developing country by enhancing the probability that investments of financial and other resources will go to the intended use.

Sustained commitment produces success

Marta Acosta's story is an excellent illustration of how Canada's sustained commitment to developmental training is strengthening governance and accountability in developing countries.

The story begins in 1988, when Marta first learned of CCAF's international program through the INTOSAI Development Initiative, the capacity building arm of the International Organization of Supreme Audit Institutions. She applied to CCAF, and in due course was interviewed by a senior staff member of the Office of the Auditor General of Canada. The interview was a success, and she was accepted into the ten-month program.

In August 1990, she arrived in Ottawa to begin her Fellowship. A classroom-training element, consisting of a mix of specific audit-related and other professional development courses, was augmented by participation in an audit team from the Office of the Auditor General of Canada. Marta was able to witness in person most of the key phases (plan, execute, report) of an audit project. She also had the opportunity to compare notes with her colleague Fellows from other countries.

It was an intense learning experience. “It was hard!”, Marta recalls. But in the same breath she tells of the extensive support she received from the Principal overseeing her work and the mentor assigned to her.

By working on the audit team, Marta learned how to conduct value-for-money (VFM) audits - something her office in Costa Rica was not doing at that time. She also completed a Strategic Paper on an issue of importance to her office. Then, in mid-1991, she returned home as a graduate CCAF Fellow, ready to put what she had learned to work.

Over the years that followed, Marta played a key role in strengthening the capacities of Costa Rica's Contraloría General by transferring the knowledge she had acquired in Canada.

  • She worked for a time in the office's Training Centre, where she taught her auditor colleagues, often using the training documents she had received in Ottawa.

  • She and a colleague led a process to modernize the office, introducing VFM audit, risk assessment methodologies, and the concepts of accountability and governance.

  • She helped organize a National Congress on Accountability in 2000, attended by more than 300 high-level public servants including the Vice-President.

  • She collaborated with a CCAF Fellow from Argentina to translate into Spanish CCAF's flagship publication Accountability, Performance Reporting, Comprehensive Audit - An Integrated Perspective. The textbook chronicles the ongoing evolution of accountability and governance concepts in the public sector, and consolidates within that context over 20 years of development in performance reporting and comprehensive auditing.

Marta Acosta, Deputy Auditor & Comptroller General of
Costa Rica and Michael Eastman, Executive Director,

Marta also spent several years sharing her knowledge with the audit institutions of Nicaragua, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic as a consultant, before rejoining the Contraloría General in 2004.
The Contraloría General de la República is responsible for audit operations, budget approvals, public contracting oversight, investigations into complaints, wrongdoing and fraud, standards issuance, and legal advice.

Her current position as Deputy Auditor and Comptroller General is an important and highly visible one. Marta had to be elected by Costa Rica's parliamentarians following a public interview process that attracted numerous candidates.

Her success is attributable to many factors - her excellent reputation with parliamentarians; her many years experience in the audit field, both in Costa Rica and other countries; her academic qualifications. Whatever the reasons, there is no doubt that the people of Costa Rica are well served by having an individual of her calibre fulfilling such an important role in the governance of the nation.

An ongoing relationship

After her graduation from CCAF's international program, Marta maintained contact with the Foundation, bringing in two CCAF speakers to the National Congress on Accountability, participating at a CCAF workshop in Trinidad and Tobago, and receiving CCAF's support for her candidacy for the Deputy Auditor position.

CCAF has also maintained a close relationship with the Contraloría General of Costa Rica. The aim of the Fellowship program is to train a “critical-mass” of employees within an institution. In the case of Costa Rica, five auditors graduated from the program over a 15-year period from 1990-1991 to 2005-2006. Although some have since left the office (as Marta did for a while), they all contributed to improving the capacities of the Contraloría General following their graduation.

CCAF has in recent years taken capacity development opportunities to its partners abroad. In 2007 and 2008, it offered courses and workshops in Bénin, Saint Lucia, Guyana, Tanzania, Ghana, Bangladesh, Mali and Costa Rica, providing continuing support to Fellows from those and nearby countries.

The Costa Rica offerings included a five-day symposium on Forensic Audit, Wrongdoing, Fraud, Corruption in 2007. Sixteen women and five men, including graduate and future Fellows from seven countries in the Americas Region, participated in the event, held at the offices of the Contraloría General in Costa Rica.

In January 2009, CCAF conducted a five-day regional VFM Level II audit course in Costa Rica. Twenty-five participants from eight countries attended the workshop, including 17 graduate Fellows.

Marta was instrumental in arranging both events. She has also become a trusted advisor to CCAF regarding prospective candidates for the Fellowship Program from the region, and future capacity development events in the region.

Long-term benefits

In 2008, at a CIDA-organized International Cooperation Days conference in Canada, Marta told an audience of international development professionals that said she believes Costa Rica's participation in the CCAF program has been of great benefit to her country and its democracy.

“We learned and took into practice concepts and methodologies that add a significant amount of knowledge and best practices to our office,” she said. “Our audit reports are very different now and I think we add great value to accountability and governance in Costa Rica.

“We learned and took into practice the Value-For-Money audit approach. Before this, we did many compliance and financial audits, but we did not audit efficiency, economy or effectiveness.”

“We also introduced the not-well-known concepts of accountability and governance. These concepts were new to us. It has taken years to consolidate a common language and to understand what they really mean.”

Marta thanked CIDA for the support it has provided to CCAF's international program for almost 30 years, and noted how important such efforts are to countries in her part of the world.

“Countries from the Central American region are developing jurisdictions with very limited resources,” she said. “Thus, as the cost of opportunity is significant, overseeing public funds becomes a paramount priority for our supreme audit institutions.

“CIDA's support is a valuable effort to increase the oversight capabilities in our jurisdictions.”