“Some viewers may find this content distressing” is how Oxfam GB caveats its new video on corporate tax “dodging.” But what I find most disturbing is how it oversells tax transparency as a panacea for domestic resource mobilisation in developing countries.
The video, which portrays companies that invest in developing countries as masked villains, and developing country actors as passive targets, is linked to a call-to-action for the UK government to mandate UK companies to publish country-by-country reports on their taxes. Oxfam argues that this mechanism would contribute to preventing multinational companies “dodging $100bn tax in poor countries,” an amount which could “cover the bill for essential healthcare that could prevent the needless deaths of eight million mothers, babies and children.”
Using alarming imagery and maternal and child mortality statistics in this way is an effective shock-tactic. If you disagree, you must be on the side of the scary-masked-men-who-turn-off-incubators. It is easy to lose sight of the question of whether the policy proposal itself is likely to be effective, and whether it addresses developing country tax priorities.
I am not convinced that public country-by-country reporting is a mechanism that can deliver what its promoters hope.
The ultimate goal of international cooperation on tax should be to enable and encourage governments to collect taxes using the rule of law, accountable to their own citizens. It is important that multinational corporations should be prevented from exploiting information asymmetries or mismatches in tax rules to wriggle out of paying taxes. But it is also important that taxpayers should have clear rules to follow, and that their rights should be respected.
As one of the actions agreed by the G20/OECD to address “base erosion and profit shifting” by MNCs countries are started to require that multinational companies include in their tax return a high-level breakdown of revenues, profits, employment, assets and taxes paid in each country where they do business. The idea is that these “country by country reports” (CBCRs) will provide a rapid risk assessment tool for tax authorities, to target their audit attention. These reports will be shared through exchange of information mechanisms from headquarters countries to other relevant jurisdictions, on condition that these tax authorities also safeguard taxpayer confidentiality and agree to use the data only for risk assessment, not to impose arbitrary tax bills.
Two arguments have been made for public CBCR; the first is to allow revenue authorities in developing countries to gain access to the information without having to go through the exchange of information mechanism, and the second is to allow the public to scrutinise the information.
On the first argument, it is not at all obvious that tax inspectors in developing countries should be excused from the obligation to maintain taxpayer confidentiality and levy taxes according to the rules. Nor have there been a flurry of calls from revenue authorities for this. For example, the African Tax Administrators Forum (ATAF) in their recent flagship report emphasises the importance of developing legal instruments, processes, and skilled staff needed for exchange of information. It does not call for publication of CBCRs to shortcut this process.
The second argument is that country-by-country reports should be open to public scrutiny. The Tax Justice Network argues “This would allow NGOs and journalists to expose[…] any major misalignment between the distribution of profit and the location of real economic activity.” Similarly, the European Commission thinks that public CBCR would incentivize companies to align more closely where they pay taxes with where profit-generating activities occur and facilitate an informed debate on tax policy. However, businesses may have legitimate concerns about commercial confidentiality, and there are fears that publishing country-by-country reports would lead to a cacophony of accusations, misunderstandings, and rebuttals, fuelling further public mistrust. Another concern is politicising tax administration. As ATAF highlights revenue authorities can face political interference, particularly in relation to the auditing of large taxpayers. Publishing CBCRs could increase this as a vulnerability.
How we weigh up these potential costs, risks, and benefits of enforcing public disclosure of this data depends in part on whether we believe the data contained in the CBCR can be effectively interpreted by people outside of the revenue agency (where there is access to much more information). British MP Caroline Flint has argued that “country-by-country reporting is a simple way to tackle a huge problem of avoidance.” But to date public analysis has tended to be naïve (or plain wrong). It is certainly worthwhile testing what public analysis of CBC reports is possible through collaborative exploration of data from the banking sector. It is also worthwhile keeping pressure on the UK and other developed country governments to ensure that the information exchange mechanism in practice is accessible for developing country revenue authorities. And multinational companies should be thinking seriously about how they can provide meaningful assurance that they are responsible tax payers.
But the fear about difficult-to-understand numbers being misinterpreted and exaggerated cannot simply be dismissed. Which brings us back to the Oxfam campaign, which links an estimate of $100 billion lost to tax avoidance with eight million deaths.
Is this meaningful? No.
Firstly, the comparison uses an ambiguity in the definition of “poor countries” to do a “bait and switch.” The estimates on cost of providing basic healthcare to reduce annual maternal and infant deaths by eight million is based on the WHO Global Investment Framework—in which 72 percent of spending is linked to low and lower middle income countries. However, the estimate of tax avoidance from UNCTAD is based on FDI stocks where only 15 percent of the total relates to low and lower middle income countries. Secondly only a portion of any additional tax revenue would in practice be spent on healthcare. The Lancet paper that Oxfam references says $1 in every $10 in additional taxes goes to healthcare.
If instead of putting the aggregate total numbers alongside each other we look at the UNCTAD/Lancet figures for an individual country the picture is quite different. For a poor country such as Malawi (FDI stock in 2012 $1.2 bn) the UNCTAD calculation comes up with an estimate of $21 million of tax—suggesting 13c of additional healthcare spending per person. In a middle-income country like India the figure comes out at 30c of additional healthcare spending, rather than the $5 of additional spending per person recommended by the WHO Framework.
Oli Pearce from Oxfam responded that “we do not assume or state that tackling tax dodging would see this healthcare funded or these deaths prevented.” I am reminded of the famous Brexit Bus slogan about £350m a week and funding the NHS, the numbers were put alongside each other just to catch our attention, not to be seen as a real statement of possibility.
Public political debate is increasingly played out through such polarised populism and broad brush claims. The video’s powerful emotive imagery could equally well have been whipped up by the ad agency for a client wanting to portray some other cast of scary masked figures: immigrants, the EU, the IMF, “White Monopoly Capital” or Obamacare “death panels,” take your pick.
Playing games with maternal and infant mortality figures, to inflate the perceived potential of a favoured policy proposal is not what I expect from Oxfam. The ability of organisations to enable people to evaluate and understand facts, have reasoned debates, and collectively learn and test ideas is more important to accountability than any single piece of data or reporting template. It is distressing that the team at Oxfam GB have put the hopes invested in the idea of public CBCR ahead of the organisation’s responsibility to inform the public.