Monday, April 06, 2009

In praise of . . . decent people in indecent times

This blogger took a few days off last week to watch the G-20 summit from the heights of the French Alps. The past few weeks have been chaotic: trips planned eight months ago have been punctuated by the media frenzy building up to the summit. Journalists across the world have been soliciting our views. Likewise the G-20 sherpa teams.

In the heat of the moment it is easy to forget how far TJN has come, and in such short time. As recently as 12 months ago, during the build up to the Monterrey Review Conference in Doha last November, pundits were saying there was no political interest in tackling the tax havens. That is clearly no longer the case, though we have yet to see whether the political rhetoric at the G-20 summit will translate into sustained and coherent policy measures.

TJN was launched in the British Houses of Parliament in March 2003. There was a shared sense at the time that we were embarking on an historic mission. The launch in London was quickly followed by similar launches in Switzerland, then Belgium, the Nordic countries, the USA, France and elsewhere. By January 2007 we were ready to launch a network in Africa. We are now preparing to launch in Latin America.

For decades a handful of us have pondered how to tackle the cancer of tax havens. We knew what we were up against. Tax havens are intimately connected to some of the most powerful of the OECD nations. They are used by the richest people and the most influential corporations on the planet. Wealthy lobbies operate behind closed doors to sustain them. Self-styled think-tanks promote their virtues. Media barons do their utmost to protect them. Only a handful of independent journalists have written about tax havens, and anyone attempting to penetrate this sinister world is likely to be met either by walls of silence or outright lies: "we are not a tax haven" being one of the most frequently heard phrases in Georgetown, Saint Helier, Douglas, and the rest.

The gurus of globalisation, including the Financial Times' Martin Wolf, have all but ignored their existence, which helps explain why these pundits have been so appallingly off the mark in their analysis of the current crisis.

Taking on the tax havens is not without its dangers (including physical threats, one suspicious arrest, slander and character assassination). Our funding is fragile - to put it mildly - and the likelihood of attracting corporate donations or philanthrophic sponsorship from mega-rich people is, well, pretty low. We are a tiny core team - so small that we have to discard numerous promising leads and opportunities as a result of a simple lack of time. But despite the barriers, maybe because of them, the TJN team works with incredible focus and determination. Huge progress has been made in putting the issues onto the global agenda. Tackling the tax havens has moved from off-the-radar to centre screen. This has happened because of the efforts of a handful of decent people dedicated to tackling the indecencies of our times. It is a pleasure and a privilege to work with such people.

John Christensen, director, TJN International Secretariat


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