Last week's World Bank and International Monetary Fund annual meetings were a case in point. In front of the cream of the world's business and government, World Bank president James Wolfensohn stood up to talk about the need for modern accounting, audit and disclosure policies. It was a welcome, but late, acknowledgement of the importance of transparent financial systems. The Asian economic crash of 1997 had already highlighted the need for good governance, an end to corruption and crime, and transparency - the recurring theme of the week. This year the bank had also tightened up the procedures for lending by recruiting 125 accountants to deal direct with auditors at local level and demanded countries make use of international accounting standards. But, to date, this has not gone far enough. The more cynical may wonder why it has taken so long for institutions to realise that trained accountants are better placed than bankers to deliver the financial information that investors depend on. And, as Wolfensohn acknowledged, without investment, how can economies grow? More worryingly, it is not the first time the issue of transparency has been raised. At the IMF/World Bank meetings two years ago, in the wake of the Asian collapse, the word was common currency. But only incremental progress has been achieved and foreign investment in emerging markets has dropped at an alarming pace. If accountants and regulators allow progress in this area to be overshadowed by the current debate over standards - international versus national, US versus European - emerging markets will only suffer further damage. The headline-grabbing news from the meetings was the need to waive some of the debt of the poorest nations. But the key message of the 54th session was the need to focus on transparency - and the World Bank and the IMF must ensure that message is not lost.
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