By John Weeks

He digs it out… [South African gold mine.]

And they rake it in. [London Metals Exchange]

Over the last few days the so-called G8 has met to discuss to little purpose global tax evasion. Though thoroughly documented, the fact that illegal capital flight and tax evasion exceed inflows of development assistance and direct investment for sub-Saharan countries is rarely noted in the mainstream media.  I recently returned from Zambia and Tanzania, where in different ways these losses of potential development finance loomed large.

I start with Zambia, which is a major exporter of copper and has been since the British established themselves as colonial masters early in the 20th century.  In those bye-gone days, the colonial masters had a grand scheme:  1) Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) would be a white-settler state like the nearby and larger South Africa; 2) North Rhodesia (now Zambia) would be a mineral exporter; and 3) Nyasaland (now Malawi) would produce the food for the mines.

To this colonial end, the colonial authorities severely limited farming by Africans in Zambia, restricting income alternatives and, thereby, facilitating a low-wage labor supply.  By definition Africans did the unskilled work and Europeans held the skilled jobs (with astronomical pay differentials that favored the latter).  After a struggle involving relatively little violence compared to what would occur in Zimbabwe, independence came in 1964 under the leadership of one of Africa’s great figures, Kenneth Kaunda (I was fortunate enough to meet him several years ago).   In 1969 his government nationalized the mines, as they remained for over twenty years.

As a result of gathering economic woes, “KK” (as he is universally known in Zambia) suffered electoral defeat in 1991 by Fredrick Chiluba who with the enthusiastic backing of the World Bank and the IMF would preside over one of the world’s great kelptocracies.  Among the impressively shady deals of the Chiluba government was the privatization of the mining sector designed by the World Bank.

The privatization of mining anywhere brings with it a de facto license for tax evasion unless governments are extraordinarily vigilant.  The best known of the tax scams is “transfer pricing”, in which companies under-invoice the export value of the ore.  For example, if a month’s production is $10 million at world prices, the company reports it to the host government as seven million.  A sharp-eyed government might catch this game by checking out the prices on the London Metals Exchange for the quality of the ore claimed by the company.

Any mildly crooked multinational can transfer price, but mining companies have some tricks unique unto themselves.  Their more effective scam is to misrepresent the quality of the ore.  For example, recently a British mining expert claimed that the largest copper company in Zambia regularly reports a copper content of its ore exports that is barely half the actual content.  Getting away with claiming two percent copper content when the true figure is double that results in a tidy tax saving.  Prevention requires a government official in every company spot-checking the company claims by ore testing.  Thanks to World Bank and IMF budget conditionalities, the Zambia government rendered such officials redundant long ago.

So, how much difference does it make?  Consider this – official statistics report Zambia exporting more than $8 billion in copper ore in 2012.  If the copper content of the ore was under-reported by fifty percent – well, we are talking about a lot of tax evasion.  My own estimate is that the annual loss of public revenue is as large as the total tax collected by the government.

Open pit copper mine in Kitwe, Zambia.

From Lusaka in Zambia I traveled to Arusha in northern Tanzania to attend a conference on capital flight organized by Real News contributor Leonce Ndikumana among others.  Capital flight is a complicated scam that includes the false pricing and false reporting of export and import values.  World Bank and IMF pressures on African governments to “liberalize” trade and “de-regulate” cross-border money flows can justifiably lay claim to facilitate bleeding countries of foreign exchange.

Liberalization and de-regulation are in practice policy “reforms” that legalize financial fraud and money laundering scams.  The justification for this legalization of the illegal is that it will encourage investment inflows.  By making it easy to send your money out, you are more likely to bring it in.  The argument is a close kin to asserting that allowing companies to fire workers more easily prompts those companies to hire more workers.  The reality is that when workers are easier to fire, companies fire them, and when a company finds it easier to abscond with the loot, that is what they do.

What can we do to reduce the annual billions of dollars that flee countries to escape taxation or come from criminal activities seeking a compliant money laundry? Several advocacy organizations are on the case, such as Christian Aid (see http://www.christianaid.org.uk/resources/policy/tax.aspx).  The central approach of these organizations is that policy changes in the high income countries will go far to prevent tax avoidance and capital flight from countries such as Zambia.

For example, Ireland is a notorious “tax haven”, where corporate tax rates are rock-bottom.  Even the risible 12-13% rates understate the corporate scam of the Emerald Isle, because large multinationals, namely Google and Amazon, negotiate directly with the Irish government over their tax payment, pulling it down to the low single digits.  As for havens for capital flight, the world’s largest are London and New York.

Changing policy in the high income countries serves neither as an effective deterrent nor an enforceable alternative to aggressive policies in the source countries.  Farmers do not leave chicken coops open in the hope that one will let the chickens roost elsewhere.  They keep the coop closed.  Similarly, the necessary first step to reduce capital flight and tax avoidance in any country, developed or underdeveloped, is strict policies vigorously enforced.

We should all hope that the leaders of the G8 countries will adopt policies to make tax avoidance more difficult, though the likelihood is slim at best.  Better is to expose the role of the IMF and World Bank in advocating and even requiring policy changes in developing countries that facilitate tax avoidance.  Failing success in changing IMF and World Bank policies, governments throughout the developing world should reject their advice and act on their own.

John Weeks

John Weeks is Professor Emeritus and Senior Researcher at the Centre for Development Policy and Research, and Research on Money and Finance Group at the School of Oriental & African Studies at the University of London.