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Maya Forstater is a visiting fellow at the Center for Global Development and a researcher and advisor on business and sustainable development. Her work focuses on the intersection of public policy, business strategy and sustainability including questions around tax and development, financing for low carbon investment and multi-sector partnerships and standard setting.
From 2014-2016 she was Senior Researcher for the UNEP Inquiry into the Design of a Sustainable Financial System. She has also worked with the Transparency and Accountability Initiative (for the Open Government Partnership), the South African Renewables Initiative, the Global Green Growth Initiative, AccountAbility and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. She started her career at the New Economics Foundation, and was involved in setting up the Ethical Trading Initiative. She has published reports and articles on issues including the scale of international tax avoidance and evasion, corporate responsibility by Chinese businesses in Africa, the design of pay-for-performance climate finance mechanisms and the governance and effectiveness of multistakeholder partnerships.
In the search for sustainable sources of finance for development, the potential for developing countries to collect more domestic revenues from taxation has risen to prominence in recent years. International tax evasion and avoidance and the role of tax havens have been raised as critical barriers, and transparency is often advocated as a key solution. This briefing offers a short outline of the key issues, terms, and numbers involved.
Over the past couple of weeks Malawi has become the latest poster child for UK campaigns arguing that changes to the international tax system can deliver outsize returns for development. Specifically, Action Aid is calling on the UK government to renegotiate a 60-year-old tax treaty. Questions were also raised about this issue in the House of Commons.
International debates on taxation and development have been informed by a popular narrative that there is a large ‘pot of gold’ for funding which could be released by cracking down on the questionable tax practices of multinational enterprises, and which could bridge the gap towards funding the sustainable development goals. How much of this is wishful thinking and how much really reflects what we know? This paper looks at the 'big numbers' that have shaped this debate and seeks to clarify the emerging evidence.
Taxation, which has been a Cinderella subject in development, has finally been invited to the ball, but the arguments that have helped to push taxation up the finance-for-development agenda may also be in need of clarification.
Earlier this year, The Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (“SOMO”; a Dutch NGO) issued a report about an international mining company they said had avoided paying $232 million USD in taxes in Mongolia. The Oyu Tolgoi mine is considered a big deal in Mongolia and has been subject to lengthy negotiations on how to split the risks, costs, and profits of the project between the company and the government. While this question is of primary interest to the people of Mongolia, I think that delving into the detail of individual cases like this is also important for clarifying the broader debates and understanding of tax issues.
CGD Europe recently published a (UK) election manifesto on development with proposals across 19 areas. One area that raised comments and feedback was the proposals on tax, which left out country-by-country reporting. I can’t speak for others who contributed ideas to the manifesto, but the reason I did not suggest public CBCR is this: I’m not convinced by it.
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) include a target to “significantly reduce illicit financial flows (IFFs).” While there is no global consensus about what this means, working definitions point to funds that are “illegally earned, transferred, and/or utilized.” The term is thus generally seen as an umbrella for a wide variety of “dirty money” including funds associated with drug, arms, and human trafficking; wildlife and natural resource crime; state capture and illicit enrichment; the financing of terrorism; and the evasion of taxes and tariffs.
The SDGs include a target to “significantly reduce illicit financial and arms flows, strengthen the recovery and return of stolen assets and combat all forms of organised crime”. However, there is no globally agreed upon definition for “illicit financial flows.” My new CGD paper looks at why there is so much disagreement and confusion over this term.
Illicit financial flows (IFFs) connected with corruption, crime, and tax evasion are an issue of increasing concern. However, there is not yet a clear consensus on how to define illicit financial flows, and even less on how to measure them.
A new Criminal Finances Bill is making its way through the UK House of Commons which aims to make it harder for criminals and kleptocrats to use the UK financial system to launder ill-gotten gains, while minimising the burden on legitimate businesses and individuals. The bill gives expanded powers to law enforcement agencies and makes banks and other businesses liable for prosecution if they fail to prevent facilitation of tax evasion. It also introduces ‘Unexplained Wealth Orders’ (UWOs). These would allow the authorities to demand explanations about any assets that appear suspicious. These measures should have both domestic and international benefits in tackling illicit financial flows.
Misunderstandings about the scale of multinational tax avoidance are common. The origin story for an erroneous $1 trillion figure is a case of bad lip reading, but its proliferation reflects the belief that there are absolutely huge sums of money for development at stake from cracking down on multinational tax avoidance. The figure itself may be ridiculous but these myths are serious—they undermine both trust in revenue authorities and businesses, overheat disputes, and make it harder to judge practical progress on improving tax systems and compliance.