2020 has highlighted the invaluable role professional accountants play in steering organisations through intensely demanding conditions. ACCA chief executive Helen Brand takes a look back at the year gone by

Every ACCA member in every type and size of organisation has needed to step up to the unprecedented challenges created by the global pandemic. And this has made all of us at ACCA incredibly proud, as we have worked to support our members and future members every step of the way.

But arguably nowhere has their expertise been more critically needed than in the small business sector. Overlooked in many initial government Covid-19 support schemes, small businesses – which, let us not forget, make up 90% of enterprises globally – and the SMPs that advise and support them have needed all their ingenuity and entrepreneurial skill.

What they have demonstrated in spades is agility, aided by digital proficiency and an appetite for change at lightning speed that is transforming the very notion of practice. And, at the same time, many of them have been lobbying hard for proper government support for the small business sector – an effort to which ACCA has been proud to add its voice, alongside organisations like #Forgotten Ltd.

That sense of demanding fairness and equality of treatment across business has also found its expression in other forms. The pandemic has further highlighted the startling inequalities that exist in society – something of which ACCA members, as a uniquely diverse community of accounting professionals, are very conscious and keen for the profession to address. The BLM movement has accelerated overdue activity on inclusion and diversity and made all of us think deeply about whether the profession creating opportunity in the right way.

ACCA research has also shown that professional accountants are intensely aware of broader issues of planetary sustainability and want to be part of the solution to tackling this – and that has to be through active, intentional management through accurate measurement. As Mark Carney, former governor of the Bank of England, convener of the Task Force for Climate-related Financial Disclosure (TCFD) and UN Special Envoy on Climate, said at the IFAC-ACCA Climate Week in September: “The accountancy profession is absolutely essential” in tackling the global climate emergency.

Corporate complexity

To date, the complexity of the corporate reporting landscape has not made this easy for professional accountants. But, in 2020, we’ve seen real – and critical – steps towards clarifying, consolidating and simplifying the wider corporate reporting system which is important in accounting for all the capitals a business relies on in a consistent and comparable way.

The merger between IIRC and SASB announced last month to create the Value Reporting Foundation, and the IFRS Foundation’s consultation on global sustainability standards, are both significant moves towards the sort of comprehensive reporting framework long demanded by investors and corporates.

Allied to this, the ongoing consideration of audit, as a vital mechanism for ensuring the credibility of reporting and generating trust, needs to continue and keep pace with the developments in corporate disclosures.

Sitting above all of this, are the seventeen UN Sustainable Development Goals, the common language roadmap for the world we want to see in 2030, signed up to by 193 nations. With just a decade left to achieve the targets, the UN Secretary General has called for “a decade of action”. The resonance of this call – made in September – has seen major economies across the world redouble efforts around emissions reductions and green technologies. It feels like the call to ‘build back better’ from the pandemic is being truly heeded and seen as a unique opportunity. And looking forward to COP26 in Glasgow next year, this could be the most important summit in many years in terms of agreeing concerted global action – especially with a new administration in the US, which previously backed out of the Paris Climate Agreement.

So – in short – while none of us would have chosen the 2020 we have all lived through, I think it has helped us confront what is truly important in our world – safeguarding finite planetary resources and ensuring equality of opportunity and prosperity. And its clearer than ever to me that the accountancy profession has a central role to play in helping the world achieve all this in 2021 and beyond.