Bridging the accounting gap in Vietnam | Economia Magazine Article25.03.2014

We were an interesting crowd. On one side of the table were a group of American women from the fundraising group Dining for Women, they came from all over the US: affluent liberal and educated, they had chosen this way to visit Vietnam to meet the beneficiaries of their efforts, rather than the popular tourist trail. On the other side, shy but excited were twenty or so Vietnamese women, busy laying out huge plates of local specialities. Standing at the head of the table were the Party officials, community leaders or Union representatives who play a key part in charity outreach in Vietnam.

Next to them were the US charity director and the local project manager for employees of Children of Vietnam, the charity I was working for. Speeches were made by the officials, and gifts and flowers given out; all very traditional for the Vietnamese love their speeches and gifts.

Then the eating and drinking, punctuated every few minutes by a toast: "Mot, Hai, Ba.... (1, 2, 3) Ho!" This is the way you toast your food and your company as you clash glasses with your fellow diners on the Ho!

The American guests made speeches with that self-confidence and candour that seems to come so naturally. The message is empowerment: in this case, the goal is empowerment for these Vietnamese women who are all single parents, which means the struggle to work, look after their children, and their aged parents is all the more difficult. The Vietnamese women also spoke movingly about the hardship of their lives. The shared lunch has significance - the US donors through their generosity have not given a handout, but a hand-up. The focus is on giving something to enable the women to improve their own capability to provide. This might mean a cow or a pig, it might be some stock to start a grocery store. Healthcare and help for tutoring costs for the children go alongside these investments. The recipients show their appreciation by cooking for their guests, and everyone eats together.

The Empowerment for Women and Children programme is just one of six initiatives Children of Vietnam implements in the Da Nang city and Central Vietnam districts. I have come to work with this charity as a mentor accountant for one month. We were put together by Accounting for International Development (AfID) a not-for-profit organisation in London which seeks to build financial capacity in developing countries in Africa, South East Asia and South America. It's a good match from the start.

My role is not to audit (although inevitably there is an element of audit in any evaluation of processes and controls) but to guide, and improve the charity's financial management skills at local level. I am lucky in that there is an able local accountant who possesses key qualities essential to all good financial controllers: an instinct for ensuring her numbers reconcile and agree combined with a rigorous approach to signatures.

Without accounting software she keeps the accounting records on spreadsheets; the entire cross reporting to donors, government officials, grant funders, internal management in the US and in Vietnam done through further spreadsheets. It is often easy to conclude that accounting software is the only answer, but for many small charities that may not be an affordable option. That means you have to think more creatively build control through the reporting function, without increasing the workload, assess what reports can be combined, promote sharing of data with the US or UK head office if there is one.

In our briefing from AfID we are warned not to underestimate the value of the smallest piece of advice: even the simple process of showing how the data the local accountant collates feeds into a remote trial balance and a balance sheet can be enlightening.

And just as with the fundraisers at the shared lunch, the common goal is also empowerment. As mentor accountants, we want to build financial capacity because that means when we leave the organisation should be stronger, better able to do the numbers to get the information it needs, the livelihood of the organisation is given a boost - just like giving a pig, only quieter.