I mentioned, last week, that I traveled to Zimbabwe and Mozambique. After my experiences during this, and our previous trip, in 2010, I am now pretty convinced that the government system and most companies were created by old school accountants and that very little has changed since then. It is a great reminder of how important having a good financial control system is. In our mostly virtual and paperless modern transactions, people tend to think less about how a transaction can be traced. Not so long ago, when business was more manual, it was easier to see the path a transaction took from inception to completion. One could refer to a stack of papers to see who gave their okay to a process. The separation of duties was also much clearer as documents tended to be manually moved from one place to another, or employees had physical custody over paperwork. These days, as these systems and documents have disappeared into the computer and cloud, it has become more challenging for those running corporations and institutions to think through a process and determine adequate controls and paper trails, virtual though they may be.
However, in Zimbabwe, often transactions are quite manual and, even when they are not, they are quite involved and can involve a lot of paperwork. I mentioned getting my prepaid phone line – let me tell you the process:
- I first had to provide a copy of my identification and fill out an application form for a SIM card. This means that it would be pretty impossible to have one of those crime show episodes where the trail for a criminal goes cold because everything was done using prepaid phones and so no one knows who the line was purchased by.
- I took this form to the cashier who gave me a receipt for the one dollar I had to pay in order to buy the phone line.
- I then took my receipt to a customer service representative, who was sitting in the booth next to the cashier’s. The representative gave us a SIM card and activated the phone line for us. We then needed air time.
- With proof of our activated phone line, we then went back to the cashier and paid for air time.
- We left the phone store with a phone line, air time and a bunch of receipts.
Our experience was similar at the border, when traveling from Mozambique to Zimbabwe – we gave payment to one person, were issued a receipt and then and received our visa from another person. As frustrating as it was to walk back and forth in order to get through the process, it was fascinating for me to see the clear separation of duties and the generation of a paper trail.
Most fun was when we received our gifts after our wedding. The afternoon after the wedding, my aunt and cousin came by with an envelope of money and the personalized gift receipt book you see above. It turns out that, during the reception, a team of wonderful volunteers, sat at a desk and received gifts from wedding guests. They then placed a piece of carbon paper (who knew that still existed) between two pages of the receipt book. After filling out the details of the receipt, they tore out and gave the original to the guest (as proof that the volunteers had received the funds) and the carbon copy remained in the prenumbered guest receipt book. Yes, numbered receipts for wedding gifts – who knew?
It is fantastic that many processes have become automated and that transactions are now completely more quickly and, hopefully, more efficiently than years ago. It is important, however, to make sure that controls and safeguards are not sacrificed in the name of efficiency. The separation of duties may feel tedious but having more than one person involved in a process means that, if one person is flouting the system and perhaps even misappropriating assets, there is at least one other person to blow the whistle on what is going on. Having an audit trail (paper or virtual) can seem overly meticulous until one needs to determine whether a transaction is valid. Creating, monitoring and maintaining a strong financial system is a much better proposition than trying to recover assets and rebuild a business after a fraud has occurred.
Also, you could get a lovely, personalized gift receipt book as part of the deal.