The Tax Justice agenda is catching on
In the last few months, the arguments have started breaking through properly into the mainstream, particularly in the United Kingdom. It looks as if the mood is starting to change.
Today’s comment piece in the Guardian Newspaper, in which the anti-poverty group War on Want argues against tax avoidance, is a case in point. Two weeks or so earlier, the Financial Times, in an article entitled Tax Haven London, argued that supposedly “onshore” financial centres like the UK and US “need to practise what they preach on reducing tax avoidance.” Shortly before that, The Observer newspaper produced a long article pointing out that “London has become home to the wealthiest people on the planet because it allows them to part with relatively little cash while they live here. . . . to critics, letting the super-rich pay a tiny fraction of their earnings in tax undermines faith in the political system and encourages capital flight from developing countries.”
All this followed an IMF working paper a few days earlier, identifying the United Kingdom as an Offshore Financial Centre. At around the same time, the World Bank was launching its Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative which, for the first time, endorsed findings by the U.S. money laundering expert Raymond Baker, whose book Capitalism’s Achilles Heel should be required reading for anyone investigating international flows of dirty money. Baker’s findings -- that proceeds from criminal activity, corruption and tax evasion are estimated at $1-1.6 trillion dollars per year – half from developing and transitional economies – illustrate the scale of the problem that TJN is fighting against. For every dollar of foreign aid into Africa, five dollars flows back out as dirty money under the table.
A few weeks before that Eva Joly, the magistrate in Paris who broke open the “Elf Affair” – Europe’s biggest fraud investigation since the Second World War – said in the journal Development Today that tax havens constitute “one of the biggest problems the world faces today” – and that dealing with tax havens must now constitute “phase two” in the corruption debate. She is right. And this is not just an issue for poor countries: it affects us all. In February U.S. Senator Barack Obama and two colleagues introduced the Stop Tax Haven Abuse Act, saying that “Offshore tax havens have declared economic war on honest U.S. taxpayers.” They are right too.
Until now, the elephant in the room has been hidden behind a veil of complexity, and the tax experts – almost all of whom have a vested interest in seeing the current system continue – have all but captured the policy arena and made it their own. International civil society organisations, and anyone else with an interest in protecting democracy and tackling poverty, have been discouraged from getting involved partly because the issues are so complex and hard to understand. The Tax Justice Network seeks, among other things, to provide expertise to allow others to engage with this issue.
The mood needs to change decisively if we are to get serious about tackling poverty. From the evidence of the last few weeks, it looks as if that time is now coming.