Friday, 25 July 2014

Tax justice campaigners should stop picking on the OECD

Have the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the G20 really attempted to "discredit and discourage" the participation of developing countries in a new system of automatic tax information exchange? That at least is the verdict of leading campaign group the Tax Justice Network, who recently published a report on the proposals, the full version of which was released on July 21.

Yet another case of poor countries being excluded and disadvantaged by a rich countries club, and global tax justice campaigners coming to their rescue?

Not this time.

While Automatic Information Exchange (AIE) may sound rather dry and technical, it is actually hugely important in the battle against tax evasion by transnational corporations and very wealthy people.

In principle, it means that tax authorities from participating countries will gain automatic access to each other's data on companies or individual taxpayers. Once up and running, this will present a significant improvement to the existing system of information exchange "on request" which requires tax authorities to explain to each other, and for each request, exactly what kind of information they need on specific individuals or companies. In reality, very few requests are actually made since tax authorities rarely have even a basic level of information upon which they can formulate such requests.

As part of their evidence, the Tax Justice's report authors firstly quote Pascal Saint-Amans, who heads the OECD’s tax activities, as saying: "Most (developing countries) are not yet ready and most of them don’t want (automatic information exchange)". Then they share survey findings which support their claim that developing countries are actually very eager to participate in automatic information exchange.

On closer inspection, however, the evidence is pretty flimsy. It’s based on eight responses to a questionnaire sent to tax authorities or other relevant people in 37 countries. Three respondents explicitly stated that they were replying in their personal capacities, and not representing their governments, and only one of the responses was from what could technically be described as a Low Income Country (Uganda).

Making it happen

Over the last year there has been a great deal of movement towards agreement on a global AIE system. However, the system will initially include only the richer economies.

This is because the bulk of international economic transactions occur among high income countries where most tax avoidance and evasion is to be found. So it goes without saying that tax authorities from these countries have the most experience and are best equipped to challenge transnational tax avoidance, making it inevitable that any effective global AIE system should begin with them. Additionally, it should be no surprise that the OECD, whose membership is primarily made up of these richer countries, is taking the lead in organising this.

Having said this, the OECD has broadened its engagement by temporarily recruiting members of the G20 into its international tax reform discussions, which includes most of the leading non-OECD emerging powers, such as Argentina, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Russia, Saudi Arabia and South Africa. The OECD/G20 are operating under tight self-imposed time limits to make real progress in tax reform. This means that most low income countries, which are not so well organised and are also highly diverse in their tax affairs and concerns, will not be central to the decision-making over the exchange being set up. Although some efforts have been made to consult them, this does not amount to effective participation in decision-making.

Poor countries missing out?

So is the Tax Justice Network right to assert that low income countries are losing out by being excluded from an institution that they need and want to join as soon as possible, according to their report? Or, alternatively, as I’ve heard many tax administrators from poor countries claim, are these nations being disadvantaged because they will be dragged into joining a system created by richer and more influential states, a system which does not address their particular needs and concerns?

While these sound like polarised positions, they are actually quite complementary. 

There is in practice a high degree of consensus among specialists. Whatever their affiliation, they tend to agree that:
  1. it is in everyone’s long-term interest, except tax evaders, that low income countries join in automatic information exchange
  2. however, most low income countries are currently not ready for this because they do not have the required software systems and skilled staff  
  3. investments need to be made to meet those gaps, with richer countries sharing the burden 
  4. as far as possible, various interim arrangements should be made to allow "unready" countries to share in at least some of the benefits of automatic information exchange. For example, some low income countries, especially the smaller ones, might be allowed to receive information from the system before they are in a position to contribute to it. 
One thing is certain: there is great scope for compromise and for different developing countries to integrate into global automatic information exchange at different rates. These are not "do or die" policy issues that involve fundamental conflicts of ideology or interests.

It is not clear why the Tax Justice Network has published a report which gives a very different impression. While I am prepared to defend tax justice campaigners who have to play rough against powerful international organisations and corporations, I hesitate when I see the leading tax justice campaigning organisation publishing a report that artificially polarises opinion in an area where real progress is being made. On top of this, the report uses evidence that has little value, and opens with what will be widely seen as a personal attack on one of the leading officials responsible for the current international reforms. Credibility is a valuable resource, not to be cast away lightly.

Mick Moore is Professorial Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies and Chief Executive if the International Centre for Tax and Development

This blog was originally published by The Conversation.

Friday, 27 June 2014

Killings of rural communities in Nigeria: where is the state?

On Monday night, my village came under brutal attack by Fulani pastoralist gunmen in the Sanga Local Government Area, Kaduna State, Nigeria. Attacks spanned a cluster of villages in the area, where at the last count there were over 90 dead and many more escaped to closeby neighbourhoods out of fear for their lives. Calmness has now resumed in my community and the mass murdered were buried yesterday, yet we know that this is not peace.

Since gunshots began, my friend’s elderly mother slept in the bushes, only returning to her home each morning. While many managed to take cover, some of the more vulnerable were killed in their sleep. My close cousin and her four young children are among those victims.

Unfortunately, this is a very familiar cycle.

Pastoralists come and kill at random in our communities, state troops arrive many hours later, impose an informal curfew until the violence calms and then nothing follows until another outbreak of killings in another village.

Quite often, arrests are made but it seems no meaningful actions are taken by state agencies. Many concerned citizens have accused the government of complicity, claiming that the military is deliberately not deploying its full capacity to tackle this violence. The history of conflict between pastoralists and agrarian communities is complex and fraught. It has been heightened in the last few years by the use of heavy and modern weapons and religious differences.

Complete failure and helplessness of state security agencies?

These serial attacks have been happening for two years in dozens of rural communities across most of North Central Nigeria – Plateau, Benue, Nasarawa, Kaduna, Niger and Taraba states, and even further North in Katsina and Zamfara states. Yet, without any new plans to address this constant and persistent threat, the Government of Nigeria and ruling party politicians would prefer to place blame on the communities and absolve the Federal government of any responsibility. The Government call for citizens to be more vigilant against threats of violence, and support armed forces, yet when we call for help it can take up to 24 hours for support to show up.

The inability of the state security agencies (military, police, secret police etc) to confront this violence is attributed to a diversity of reasons ranging from corruption to incapacity.

Even in the midst of the internal corruption and incapacity many citizens believe there is complicity by the highest levels of the Nigerian state and ruling elite to allow these killings for a variety of political interests, particularly in relation to the upcoming election next year. The recent effective deployment of thousands of troops and equipment, including a number of hovering helicopters, to protect ballot boxes during the Ekiti State gubernatorial elections does support the idea of state complicity. Forces blocked opposition party members from campaigning before the election, yet did not apply similar support elsewhere within more fragile parts of the country.

Politicians subtly play up oversimplified divisions in Nigeria 

The complex dynamic of religion, locality and hierarchy in Nigeria tends to blur the issues and reduces everything to a competition between Christianity and Islam, or north vs. south. The governments at the federal, state and local spheres subtly play up these sentiments and exploit them for popular support from a divided citizenry. In addition, the majority of local elite also ‘tap-in’ to this rhetoric to maintain their turf and position in the political and economic war-field.

The incidence of pastoralist-local community conflicts is not new in Nigeria, but it does not gain the same coverage as other issues such as Boko Haram killings, and city bombings. It has been neglected by nonchalant governments for far too long. Scholars like Jibrin Ibrahim have recently sought to bring these issues to the discussion. We are now, more than ever, calling for the Nigerian Government at all levels to take the lead in mobilising stakeholders to take action and save rural communities from this trauma.

Philip Ikita, a Rotary Peace Scholar in University of Bradford, is a Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Is tax the next big CSR issue?

  “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes” Benjamin Franklin, 1789*

Globalisation has made Benjamin Franklin's famous assertion somewhat relative. It is estimated that more than half of the world trade passes through tax havens . The leading transnational corporations (TNC) across different sectors have been involved in tax avoidance scandals, from the technological giants, Apple, Amazon or Google, to the fashion industry, Zara, the world’s most famous coffee shop, Starbucks, or the brewing multinational SAB Miller.

Considering the scale of the problem, it is surprising the extent to which tax avoidance has been excluded from the corporate social responsibility (CSR) agenda. Jenkins and Newel found that in an OECD survey of 233 codes of corporate conduct, only one code mentioned taxation. But times are changing, and the movement for putting tax on the CSR agenda is gaining momentum.

The (missing) link between taxation and CSR

Current trends in CSR are aimed at targeting the core business and not just adding initiatives to ‘business as usual’. What is more core than profits? Why hasn’t taxation been included up to now then?

Friedman stated in 1970 that “the social responsibility of business is to increase its profits”. Even though most conceptualisations of CSR have abandoned Friedman’s position on the matter, the first and most obvious cause of the continued exclusion of tax avoidance from the CSR agenda is related to the fact that taxation has a direct impact on profits. Companies have been reluctant to incorporate taxation as a CSR issue due to the potential tension with their shareholders. Other secondary causes point to the fact that taxation lacks the sensationalism of other CSR issues such as environmental and human rights abuses, or that due to the political nature of CSR, it is in the best interest of the TNCs that shape the CSR discourse to keep taxation outside the debate. 

The emerging link between taxation and CSR

Nonetheless tax avoidance is quickly becoming a “sexier” topic for the media. To avoid harm to their brand image, companies are adopting significant measures. Starbucks, for example, in response to the media scandal of its non-existent tax bill in the UK, paid 10 million pounds in taxes and is transferring its European headquarters from the Netherlands to London.

In the NGO arena, several ‘name and shame’ campaigns have been launched to raise awareness of irresponsible tax practices, calling for a consumer’s boycott. Moreover, various new initiatives to incorporate tax as an element of CSR have been developed:

1. Design a tax policy
2. Oversight at the Board Level.
3. Transparency: public disclosure of key tax information.
4. Develop a code of conduct.

1. Tax Map: position the company’s current situation in the spectrum of tax practices.
2. Principles: define the tax principles. 
3. Policy: manage tax according to defined principles
4. Communicate: defend the approach and show consistency.

Firms that score at least 13 out of 20 are awarded the Fair Tax Mark. 
- 3 types of businesses (Businesses that only trade in UK, UK-owned multinationals and Foreign-
  owned multinationals with subsidiaries in the UK)
- 2 categories of criteria (Transparency and Tax Rate, Tax Avoidance and Tax Disclosure).

Further reasons to include tax as a CSR issue

Apart from the use of activist campaigns traditionally linked to other CSR components, the parallelism between these traditional CSR issues and taxation extends even further.

As with human rights or environmental violations, tax avoidance poses a reputational risk for TNCs. A risk that is becoming more prominent as the media coverage and boycott campaigns increase.

Taxation of TNCs is one of the most complex issues globalisation has brought. This regulatory challenge is also present in other CSR components (i.e. labour conditions in TNCs that operate across different countries with different labour regulations), and it has been one of the reasons for the rise of corporate self-regulation. Placing labour conditions at the core of CSR has been useful to share the responsibility of this issue between state and businesses. The same logic can be applied to taxation. 

There are evident similarities between taxation and other CSR issues and the link between CSR and tax is going from “missing” to “emerging”. Tax avoidance is becoming an attractive topic for the media and a wide range of campaigns and initiatives from civil society are targeting the issue. Lobbying for including tax in CSR should not, by any means, discourage the efforts to increase public regulation, but joining forces and pursuing commitments from both public and private actors can be a way forward to continue the fight against the complex issue of tax avoidance. 

The full argument on which this blog is based is posted on the International Centre for Tax and Development (ICTD) website.

Isabel de la Peña, MA Globalisation and Development
Prior to joining IDS, Isabel worked as a consulant doing evaluation of development projects in Latin America.

* Franklin, B. and Smyth, A. (1970). The writings of Benjamin Franklin.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Global Drug Policy VI: Bold West African drug policy proposal should be taken up, and taken further

Gathering pace in the past years, global drug policy reform momentum has now also reached West Africa.

Report cover for West Africa Commission on Drugs June 2014 reporOn 12 June, the West Africa Commission on Drugs (WACD) launched a new report, Not just in Transit. Drugs, the State and Society in West Africa (PDF).WACD, an independent blue-ribbon commission initiated in 2013 by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and chaired by Nigeria’s ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo, follows in the footsteps of similar Latin American and other groups around the world that had previously called for reforming the existing, prohibition-oriented international drug control regime and ending the ‘war on drugs’.

It is high time that West Africans spoke up.

Deeply unsettling in its findings on the impacts of the illicit trafficking and the use of drugs on the region’s states and societies, which started to emerge as major issues a decade ago, the report makes bold recommendations on how to address them. The proposals merit serious attention in the run-up to the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs in 2016. They should also be considered in earnest by the wider international drug, development and security policy communities.

The illicit drug trade is exacerbating existing state and governance weaknesses in West Africa

Acutely aware of the vulnerability of many of the region’s fragile and impoverished countries to transnational drug-trafficking, WACD’s assessment of the seriousness of the situation is informed by robust evidence.

The report sends the strong and, according to the latest research, correct message that several West African nations are today hubs for the activities of transnational trafficking networks.

The illicit trade in cocaine, heroin and synthetic drugs (such as amphetamine-type stimulants) is exacerbating already pronounced state and governance weaknesses, and policymakers, both in and outside of West Africa, are not responding to growing drug use-related health problems with sufficient commitment and urgency.

The commissioners are also spot on in emphasizing that violence and terrorist activity in the region has not increased on account of drug-trafficking but that this could change in future without, however, giving credence to the scaremongers among the international and regional security policy communities who commonly overstate the likelihood of this scenario.

And they are not shy to put the finger on politically highly sensitive issues, highlighting the involvement of some West African elites in facilitating – and profiting from – drug-trafficking; and the responsibility of the governments of both drug producer and end-user countries – South American and European, respectively – to do more to stem the flow of, and demand for, illicit drugs.

Decriminalising aspects of production, trade and use of drugs is a precondition for tackling West Africa’s drug problem

WACD urges us to
  1. treat drug use as a public health issue
  2. confront the political and governance challenges that incite corruption within governments, the security services and the judiciary
  3. strengthen law enforcement for more selective deterrence, focusing on high-level targets
  4. avoid the militarisation of drug policy and related counter-trafficking measures, of the kind that some Latin American countries have applied at great cost without reducing supply.
The key point that the decriminalisation of certain aspects of the production, trade and use of illicit drugs is a precondition for coping more effectively and in more humane ways with West Africa’s drug problem resonates with an emerging consensus among the global drug policy reform community. The importance of this message, as well as the warning not to militarise drug control strategies and re-focus law enforcement on high-end traffickers and not on small, low-level smugglers, cannot be overstated.

But there are also other messages in the report that ought not to be overlooked.

Of particular significance here is WACD’s emphasis on the relationship between drug-trafficking and the state and governance in West Africa. The report frames this problem by focusing on the impact of drug-trafficking and the opportunities for corruption it generates on elections and political parties in West Africa. While this is certainly a key issue, drug-trafficking and other illicit transnational commerce have negative consequences that reach well beyond electoral politics and formal political systems.

New IDS report makes recommendations on how to respond to illicit globalisation

A recently-published report by the Institute of Development Studies argues that the major task at hand is to devise strategies that effectively enable and support West Africa’s states to manage the opportunities afforded to them, and the pressures resulting from, processes of illicit globalisation. This should be done in such a way that the incentives for national elites and their patronage-dependent constituencies to engage in trafficking are reduced; and the incentives to build more accountable, legitimate and effective public institutions are increased.

Protecting elections from criminal interference by way of, for instance, the funding of campaigns with proceeds from trafficking and other illicit trades such as the sale of stolen Nigerian oil is important. But so are, in the fragile institutional context of West Africa, measures to mitigate the impact of trafficking on (informal) political marketplaces and (covert) elite bargains and rein in a broad array of different forms of illegality.
Credit: UN Photo/Christopher Herwig

Law enforcement-focused drug policies that are presently being rolled out across the region with international support are not well-suited to help achieve these goals. Ignoring the political economy of drug-trafficking in West Africa they risk having negative unintended consequences. 

More than mere symptoms of state fragility, transnational drug-trafficking and other illicit commerce are part of broader processes of illicit globalisation. They generate qualitatively new challenges for West Africa that call for broader governance reforms at the national, regional and global levels.

Dr Markus Schultze-Kraft is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies. This blog was originally published on the Huffington Post.  

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Monday, 9 June 2014

So there's a 'Short-Code Route of Accountability'? Really?

 It’s enough to make even the most experienced of facilitators nervous: the first morning of a three-day learning event, facing a group of sixty people from eighteen countries, half of whom are a very diverse set of brand-new grantees starting up tech-for-transparency-and-accountability (Tech4T&A) projects, and the other half of whom are seasoned, well-known, expert practitioners, analysts and thinkers in the field. How to satisfy such a wide-ranging set of learning interests? Could we even assume that they were all interested in learning? Perhaps most of them were only there because their presence was required by their new funder, Making All Voices Count?
Until I see feedback from the independent evaluation conducted at the end, I can’t know how far the Making All Voices Count Learning and Inspiration Festival, held in Tanzania last week, did satisfy that wide range of learning interests. But I do know that, at least by the time they left, the participants were interested.

We sought to achieve two things with the event. Firstly, to help bridge the very different life-worlds of key groups of actors who collaborate – or try to collaborate, or are assumed to collaborate – in T&A and Tech-for-T&A projects: principally, techies, development people, government officials, social activists and private sector actors. Secondly, to help turn evidence into practice and help ensure that practice within Making All Voices Count would generate evidence, to meet a variety of needs at several levels of T&A practice and theory.

Dynamic thematic learning sessions on Day 1 tapped and shared participants’ experience and deepened our evidence-based knowledge on four thematic areas. The feedback at the end of a long and full first day reflected vibrant debates. Certain comments stuck in my mind, no doubt because they were music to my ears:

  • From the session on ‘Making: Making the Tech get to the T&A’, “We talked about ‘data+’ being what leads to change. It’s the word plus that is strategic. You can’t produce change using technology.”
  • From the session on ‘All: Inclusivity and Exclusion in Tech-for-T&A’, questions were posed about the role of intermediaries in mediating, acting as gatekeepers, shaping or changing the message. What is their power and influence? Do they, in fact, act as connectors between citizens and their governments? Do they help ensure that all needs and demands are equally addressed?
  •  From the session on ‘Voices: Representation, mediation and listening’ emerged a vision of voice as a conversation in society about developing common understandings, authoritative perspectives, but also a struggle between different perspectives within society – an interplay of voices. The need was noted for ‘tactical targeting and framing: for knowing where to direct the voices’. The session reaffirmed the words of Jonathan Fox in his 2007 book Accountability Politics, ‘If voice is about the capacity for self-representation and self-expression, then power is about who listens’.
  • From the session on ‘Count: Government responsiveness – what, how and why’ came the unpacking of government responsiveness as a spectrum, ranging from repressive reactions at one extreme, to ignoring the request for policy change, through more positive reactions which take demands into account but do not respond fully, to full responsiveness at the other extreme. From here too came the suggestion that politics should not be treated as part of context, but is one of the big forces that is making a difference to whether citizens’ voices count – part of the set of enormous forces in society which are pushing government one way and the other.

(One word stuck in my mind because it was not music to my ears: the generic ‘he’ which was used widely and repeatedly when talking about innovators, tech developers, government officials and policy-makers. This stopped when the exclusionary effects of this terminology, and its incoherence in this space which was about making all voices count, were pointed out. By a woman.)

On Day 2 we had a tiny taste of Tanzania. One-day site visits are so full of obvious limitations that I’d wondered whether it was worth including them in the programme. Three things made the one-day site visits worthwhile:

  • The reflections afterwards, on how those very limitations had shaped participants’ behaviour and experience of the visits. Participants noticed that they had gone into the usual default mode when visiting poor and marginalized people. They had counted the lacks and the needs – the clinic beds; the numbers of classrooms, teachers and pupils; the deficits in hygiene at the health posts. They then noticed that they had counted those because they could see them, and had been unable to see the things that were the focus of the learning event – unmet citizen demands, governance relationships or lack of them (we only heard about tax collection, no other relationship with government), the existence or quality of feedback loops about service provision, any but the most obvious signs of social diversity between different groups of citizens. This was a site visit especially designed to explore these issues, by a group of individuals with a particular interest in exploring them, and yet these aspects of ordinary Tanzanians’ lives had eluded observation. What can be learnt from this by the tech innovators, the database scalers, the app designers, whose design phase often doesn’t include any fieldwork or reality check at all?
  • The realisation that my general scepticism about poor and marginalised people’s access to tech for T&A partly reflects the rural bias in my own experience – but only partly. The urban Tanzanians we saw and met in Dar es Salaam, men and women alike, certainly had mobiles, opportunities to charge them, and money to buy airtime. Asked what they used them for, though, people reported using them for income generation and social and family purposes. No-one, even in this densely populated area in the capital city with full mobile network coverage, saw them as a means for voicing citizen demands to government or providing feedback to service providers.
  • The tension between individualist technologies and general accountability problems which require collective solutions. It has long since been recognised that one of the few advantages marginalised people can count on in the struggle to survive injustices and deprivations is their numbers and, with that, their scope for collective action to realise their rights and hold the governments and other powerful actors to account. It has since been acknowledged that this potential is thwarted by ‘collective action problems’- the costs of organizing and working together, which can be prohibitive for poor, isolated, marginalised people. On the other hand, in this corner of urban Africa the internet seemed as obsolete as the typewriter in European capitals: connectivity was clearly via smart-phone. Most mobile-based transparency and accountability initiatives I know of work – well, purport to work – by reducing the cost to individuals of taking action for accountability, requiring them only to send an SMS to a short-code number. Mobile-based Tech-for T&A, far from facilitating collective action, offers individuals a way to bypass the need for collective action. But how can individual actions, however many they turn out to be, ever overcome chronic, engrained problems of unaccountable governors and undemocratic governance dynamics?


And here I was, musing about accountability, in a muddy street of this poor neighbourhood of Dar es Salaam, surrounded by stagnant puddles nurturing mosquito eggs, beside a footbridge which is an essential route in and out of the community, was initially installed thanks to private philanthropy, collapsed in floods two years ago, and has remained broken for two years despite the local Chairman’s ceaseless efforts to get the municipality to fix it. . My musings took me back to the World Development Report 2004’s ‘short route of accountability'.

Proposed as a more efficient alternative to the long route of accountability involving citizens and their elected representatives and policy-makers, the ‘short route’ of unorganized clients exercising client power directly towards service providers, later came under criticism. The way it cut out political accountability channels and consigned accountability to a ‘customer services’ relationship between service users and service providers, is now seen to possibly threaten and undermine democratic process.

But just at the point when this recanting over the short route began to restore the notion of accountability as politics, along came the short-code route of accountability: get your phone, text this free number, and hey presto!

Late on Day 3 of our learning and inspiration event, as we pieced together what we had got from the event in the way of bridging life-worlds and turning evidence into practice, it was gratifying to hear participants saying things like “Already we are forming partnerships for working as we move forward”, and “I can now see that there are two tensions we have to think about: tactical Vs strategic; and technical Vs political”.

But a more significant achievement was that, as a programme known for its promotion of technology for T&A, we had managed to voice a warning: “Beware of the short-code route of accountability. That route leads only to decent customer service, not to accountable governance”.
And we had been listened to.


This blog was previously published by Making All Voices Count

Rosie McGee is a Research Fellow in the Governance team at IDS and a researcher on the Making Voices Count project.