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Fighting with a double-edged sword

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 26 May 2021

Amir Dossal

Amir Dossal’s work for the UN has relied on trust to accomplish nearly everything he’s done. Social media is a double edged sword: it has created problems, he says, but it’s also our best chance of resolving them.

Amir Dossal, FCA, has spent over a quarter of a century working for the United Nations on some of the world’s most intractable problems.

Until 2010 he was the UN’s Chief Liaison for Partnerships, developing alliances with public and private sector organisations on projects to achieve the Millennium Goals. He’s also the founder and CEO of the Global Partnerships Forum, which helps organisations partner to combat economic and social challenges in achieving the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

From work with global consumer brands to help prevent the spread of HIV in developing countries, or projects to clean up the world’s oceans, these initiatives would falter if people weren’t ready to trust the UN and its partners. Indeed, without trust in institutions and credible organisations it’s unlikely those partnerships would have been forged in the first place.

However, he worries that the world is experiencing a major “trust deficit,” at the moment, and especially in the past year. “COVID-19 has exacerbated the situation. And we are constantly dealing with misinformation across the broad spectrum of the community, whether it's politicians on social media or even fringe institutions.” But, as a chartered accountant, Dossal sees a developing role for the profession in helping to restore that deficit.

He has been surprised by how quickly technology and our ability to publish and share information has started to undermine public trust. “I have to admit that I didn't think that we would be in a situation where some small, obscure organisation can put out information on social media that gains wide acceptance as truth. A lot of that has to do with how we navigate social media. 

You've seen cases all over the world where WhatsApp messages are shared with 1000s of people, and then people start believing it without fact-checking. These new communication channels should be used for the betterment of society. We are privileged to have access to [all this] information but, at the same time, we actually lack the ability to decipher or understand the validity of the source of what is good or what is bad.”

Also, he points out, this is a problem that has worse consequences the longer it takes us to deal with it. Because if people all over the globe keep seeing these institutions maligned and put down, they’ll no longer be trusted, and a lot of their work will be far less effective as a result. If you “keep repeating those lies, people start believing them” Dossal says.

“So the extreme case would be that we would operate in a very rudderless fashion. We need to create an environment where people believe in large institutions and trust them so that their research, their work, their analysis, their pronouncements serve as a guiding light for people around the world who rely on that information.”

A more public role for accountants?

Dossal sees a clear role for chartered accountants to help with these issues of trust: “Accountants are held to the highest code of ethics. They are looked upon to make sure there's appropriate compliance, better governance, and are actually seen as key policy drivers” in an organisation. He says that this already enables them to ensure an organisation makes transparent decisions and can be trusted to communicate truthfully and reliably about its activities. 

But he thinks that this role could be broadened to help counter the current trust deficit. He goes on, “Accountants can look at numbers and extrapolate them into activities, into actions, which places them in a privileged position. Every number tells a story.” He says, there is a tendency for accountants to say, “I will provide the numbers, you do the analysis” to managers, whereas “I think the time is here for accountants to go beyond looking at the numbers alone, and offer their perspective – a view of the long-term situation” related to that analysis.

He says that because “trust in accountants still remains at one of the highest levels” they can be relied on to provide an objective view that the public can trust, albeit this means that they will need to deal with more than just financial information. Dossal thinks that with this approach, although “there are strict rules and regulations” surrounding it, “I'm a believer that accountants should be able to provide a wider public service, especially when it comes to issues of transparency, accountability and trust.”

And then beyond this public-facing role of assuring both financial and non-financial information, he says that accountants also have “the best opportunity, the best ability within an organisation to bring together different groups of people” to understand and explain how decisions are made, what the implications of those decisions might be, and feed that back to improve decision making. This view echoes some of Peter Bakker’s pronouncements about the future demands on accountants [link here to Peter Bakker interview].

Dossal pointed out, for example, that success of the SDGs also depends on trust and transparency – between donors, stakeholders, those responsible for implementing projects and the community at large. It is important for leaders from across sectors to work together and develop ethics and trust protocols to provide a higher degree of comfort to all.

Listen don’t talk

Despite the issues of trust that it is incumbent on all of us to be trying to solve, Dossal, like all interviewees in our panel, says, “I'm an absolute optimist that things will continue to improve. I think the important thing is, asking ‘How do we use data?’ ‘How do we use information – not misinformation – to empower the communities, empower citizens around the world, so that they can make more informed decisions? That's the key thing. 

“And if we can figure out ways of doing that in a more ethical and respectful way, people will feel more comfortable. And they'll want to trust others, and trust leading institutions.”

Finally, he says that, even though “there is no single answer to resolve these challenges,” it comes down to a simple piece of advice. “It’s a question of listening to others; and asking 'What is your viewpoint?' Often that open dialogue is what really creates trust for people.” And social media is an excellent tool for doing that, if we can all trust the intentions of those it allows us to speak to so easily and quickly.

Explore the When Chartered Accountants Save the World content series