World Bank: well done - but we have a question
TJN should be clear: this is a very major step forwards, and we wholeheartedly welcome it, for several reasons. First, it mentions "tax evasion" -- a matter that is so often swept under the carpet by rich countries, embarrassed that their financial centres quietly soak up vast amounts of cash from poor countries. Second, we love these statements from new World Bank president Robert Zoellick. "Developing countries need to improve governance and accountability, but developed countries should also stop providing a safe haven for stolen proceeds,” he said. "To be successful we have to get the attention of the developed countries and make sure they understand the gravity of the situation." (Zoellick, as we have recently pointed out, has recently accepted Norway's efforts to push forwards a TJN-styled agenda.) Third, we like a similar statement from Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a World Bank official and a former Nigerian Finance Minister: "It is important that there is a rebalancing between the responsibility of developing countries to try and fight corruption and stem the flow of illicit funds, and responsibility of developed countries to make sure there is no safe haven for those funds in their countries." Fourth -- and crucially -- this initiative has been widely reported in the international media.
But now we have a question. How does the World Bank define stolen assets? There are two things to consider here. First: assets embezzled from a government. Second, income taxes due to a government but not paid. Both cases involve the theft of money from governments. Both are stolen assets. Yet each requires a different set of (overlapping) approaches. The first involves tracing flows of money. The second involves pools of money sitting there quietly, offshore, earning income in tax havens like London, New York and Switzerland. (How big is this problem? Try $11.5 trillion for size.) The implications of going after the second kind of stolen asset are enormous. The World Bank has made a start, and the mention of tax evasion is crucial. The Bank says that "the international legal framework underpinning StAR is provided by the UN Convention Against Corruption." But in the 43-page document outlining this deeply flawed convention, the word "tax" only appears once. As we have argued elsewhere, tax evasion and avoidance are central to the corruption debate. Is the World Bank prepared to move decisively beyond the faulty conventional wisdom, and take this fight all the way, to its logical conclusion?