Why tax matters for development
In 2008 a US senate subcommittee issued a report alleging that banks located in tax havens cost US taxpayers some $100 billion a year in lost revenue. That is a considerable leakage, especially in light of US laws, institutions and other mechanisms to help control tax evasion.
But if parking money offshore leaves an intolerable dent on the legitimate tax revenues of wealthy countries, just imagine the gulf it leaves in those of developing countries where the legal and institutional apparatus to stop tax evasion is far weaker. Tax abuse not only debilitates efforts to fight poverty but also weakens the fiscal base needed for sustainable economic development.
According to the World Bank, illicit flows of cash from developing economies amount to between $500-$800 billion a year. How much of this is in the form of tax evasion is unclear, but it is not unreasonable to estimate that the lost revenue is equivalent to many times global bilateral development aid and more than the national income of several poor countries combined. It is money foregone that could be spent on healthcare, education and infrastructure. It means lives are lost that could be saved.
The ratio of tax to GDP in poorer countries is only about half of what it is in the developed world. Though sub- Saharan Africa is not expected to match Scandinavian levels of taxation, many low-income countries could boost their tax take by improving their fiscal systems, and by doing so reinforce development. This is not a theory, as, for example, reforms in Rwanda have shown. The Rwandan Revenue Authority, with strong international support, carried out changes to strengthen internal organisational structures and training, as well as relationships with local government. The result was a sharp increase in domestic revenue from 9% of GDP in 1998 to nearly 15% in 2005 in what has been one of Africa's better performing economies.
Tax is more than just a source of revenue and growth. It also plays a key role in building up institutions, markets and democracy through making the state accountable to its taxpayers. Just as excessive tax burdens might hinder growth in wealthier countries, in developing economies a lack of tax structures is a major cause of weak, unresponsive governance. It also leads to an overreliance on aid. With tax, the public can hold governments to account for their decisions, and not feel tied to the will of aid donors. And because tax revenues are relatively predictable, governments can plan ahead with greater certainty.
True, developing countries need aid and will continue to do so, but they can also use it to help strengthen their tax capacity, increase their autonomy and reduce their long-term dependence on external assistance.
This idea is not new. Indeed, rich and poor country governments have agreed on the importance of tax for development for years. The 2002 Monterrey Consensus, for instance, which launched a new focus on development, recognised the key role of taxation in mobilising domestic resources-90% of domestic revenue is usually derived from tax. However, recognising the importance of tax is one thing, improving its impact and operation is another bearing in mind cultural barriers, institutional weaknesses, and corruption, as well as international factors including capital flight, aggressive tax planning and trade pressures. Consider tariffs, which many African countries rely on for over half of their government revenue.
Though opening up trade is expected to bolster long-term economic growth, countries participating in initiatives such as Doha are required to cut their tariffs. This presents a major challenge to maintaining current revenue bases, let alone increasing them. In other words, trade talks are more than just about reducing tariffs and subsidies to improve market access, but about tax systems too. Before removing tariffs on cross-border trade, governments must feel assured that alternative sources of revenue are already in place.
This is a complex task, which is why weak tax administrations must be strengthened. Corruption is just one major obstacle. Developing countries have the misfortune to have tax systems run by poorly trained and underpaid officials working in antiquated administrative structures, often still based upon the old colonial models, with their separate departments to deal with income and consumption taxes. A dramatic improvement in these administrations is needed if developing countries are to move beyond the poverty trap, with the confidence to reduce tariffs and carry out reforms, such as broadening the tax base. Improvement requires independent revenue services led by strong visionary tax commissioners, working with better paid officials within an integrated administration.
It requires clear direction and focus including risk management systems that strike a balance between enforcement and taxpayer service, as well as between public and business demands. These improvements will be extremely hard to achieve without renewed and carefully targeted efforts on the part of aid agencies and civil society groups, as well as donor governments, to support projects aimed at improving tax capacity in poorer countries. In 2006 less than 0.1% of aid went into the tax area. If development is to take off in the years ahead, this ratio will have to be dramatically increased. Aid used in this way can provide the seeds for Africandriven development.
The recent initiative of African tax commissioners from 30 countries to create an African Tax Administration Forum deserves strong support. This is an initiative designed by Africans, for Africa with bilateral and multilateral donors, including the African Development Bank and the OECD, playing a supportive role. The International Tax Dialogue-a grouping of the EU, IMF, Inter-American Development Bank, World Bank, the OECD and the the UK's Department for International Development-can also help co-ordinate donor efforts and provide benchmarks for measuring and guiding progress among tax administrations. This work would be reinforced if the UN and more national aid agencies joined the grouping.
Strengthening and improving tax administration will not happen overnight. In the meantime, the pressure on tax havens must continue. Tax havens which have no or nominal taxation and lack transparency, effective exchange of information and "real activities" are everywhere, and those with wealth to invest from developing and developed countries have easy access to them. If taxes on income flowing to these jurisdictions were collected by the rightful authorities, then billions of dollars would become available to finance development.
The OECD knows this, which is why for over a decade we have been leading the fight against tax havens by encouraging countries to agree to higher standards of transparency and exchange of information in tax matters. Our tax standards have achieved a global endorsement from the G20 and the UN, and implementation is moving forward (see box, page 22).
There is much left to be done of course, including on the technical side. New efforts are required to develop an internationally accepted methodology to measure the actual size of the offshore sector and the precise amounts of revenue lost to tax havens too. After all, though we may have a handle on the global loss of revenue to tax havens generally, for policy responses to be effective, we need to know how much specific countries, and particularly developing countries, are losing to particular offshore jurisdictions.
The global economic crisis has refocused public and political attention on the importance of defeating illicit tax abuse and improving bank transparency. It has ushered in a long-overdue public and political intolerance of regimes that flout tax laws and standards and deprive countries of their rightful earnings and assets. Properly and transparently organised tax systems are now accepted as engines of development, not constraints. Accepting this message is important for all countries, and implementing it would be a major step forward for developing countries.
©OECD Observer No 273 June 2009
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