This article was first published in the April 2020 International edition of 
Accounting and Business magazine.

Years ago, a very tolerant and wise partner at the firm of accountants I worked at was listening to me grumble about a particularly arcane reporting requirement I was grappling to translate into layman’s terms. His response reflected his conviction: if you ever doubt whether this role matters, he said, just look at countries where the accountancy profession has no influence. It’s the foundation of transparency and without it, there can be no accountability.

Accounting has been part and parcel of civilisation from as far back as we can see. The need to record volumes and verify transactions in the temple economies of ancient Sumeria was the catalyst for the development of writing as far back as 8000 BCE. The first characters communicated the number and type of items traded, including porridge and beer. These evolved into more stylised cuneiform symbols that could then be used to signify similar-sounding words or analogised to related concepts (‘jar’ becoming the symbol for ‘to hold’, as an example).

As societies developed and became more complex and interconnected, accounting evolved in support. The Egyptian pharaohs appointed bookkeepers to manage the royal warehouses and auditors to check them – and threatened to feed them to the Nile crocodiles if any shortfall was discovered (a technique today’s regulators could consider?).

The Phoenicians may well have come up with the phonetic alphabet we use today in order to more readily keep accounts of their international trade.

Jewish merchants in the 11th-century Fatimid Caliphate pioneered double-entry bookkeeping to service the needs of a vast, international economy, and the Italians further developed it to underpin the economies of the Renaissance.

Accounting has tracked the development of human civilisation because it creates trust through transparency. As our concept of value has broadened to encompass social, environmental and other non-monetary measures, the fundamental skills and principles of accounting are now more relevant than ever. In particular, as our environment degrades and the complex impacts of climate change unfold, the world faces an unprecedented, interrelated set of challenges.

Responding to those challenges will require ever greater unity of purpose, built on trust. We need to know that the choices we make are the right ones and the things we sacrifice are worth it. In that, the importance of measuring and verifying value will be crucial.

Not all of the burden rests on accountants, however. We will need all of our talents, as our scientists, engineers, economists, historians and writers establish the case for action and create consensus. But without measuring and verifying the value delivered by that action, courses cannot be corrected and consensus will not be maintained. Accountants alone cannot save the world, but the world will not be saved without accountants.

Vanessa Richards is a corporate communications and governance consultant in Australia.