Audit as confession: The instrumentalisation of ethics for management control

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Techniques of audit are a prominent feature of contemporary publicly funded institutions. While such accountability systems are often understood as broadly ethical, critical perspectives note their coercive nature, seeing audit regimes as instruments of governmentality for disciplining and creating self-regulating subjects, diminishing autonomy and premised on an absence of trust. In this article, I seek to extend this critical perspective to the ethics of audit. In so doing I reveal how the roots of apparently modern, scientific systems for eliciting truth are to be found in the Christian rite of confession, audit being one of a number of quasi-scientific disciplines to draw on confession’s mechanisms. The article then explores the parallels and implications for aid workers as moral agents and subjects in audit systems. Research with those involved in planning, monitoring and evaluation processes suggests how reporting and audit mechanisms both constrain the everyday work of development as well as reach into the future, delimiting what can be done. Respondents narratives’ emphasise their experiences of constraint and frustration as they try to negotiate audit’s more distorting effects. These narratives suggest how, in its focus on accountability upwards, audit has more to do with power and control that it does with ethics; and to achieve its purposes, it relies on processes of subjection rooted in confession.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)20-37
Number of pages18
JournalCritique of Anthropology
Issue number1
Early online date7 Feb 2022
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2022


  • accountability
  • audit
  • confession
  • development
  • ethics
  • management

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