Tax justice: a civil society struggle
A UN tax resolution agreed last year opens a path towards a potential global tax convention and UN tax body. There’s a great need for progress in developing fairer and more effective global tax rules. The wealth of the ultra-rich has grown even during recent crises that have left millions struggling, while private sector giants avoid paying even low corporate tax rates through bewilderingly opaque processes. States are denied the resources needed to provide vital public services and combat poverty. Civil society is pushing for the UN to become the source of global tax regulations rather than the rich countries that currently set the rules, and must be fully involved in any negotiations.
It’s time to take tax seriously. The pandemic, followed by the global effects on food and fuel prices of Russia’s war on Ukraine, has placed great strain on economies around the world. The impacts have fallen on all but a fortunate few. Millions upon millions are enduring a renewed struggle to secure the basics of life. Meanwhile the super-rich just keep getting richer.
Global south governments have few tools at hand to try to weather the storm. When they’ve reacted by cutting subsidies and price caps and raising indirect taxes, such as taxes on goods and services, protests have resulted. In 2022 over 12,500 protests on food, fuel and the cost of living were documented across 148 countries at all levels of economic development. Often these led to the withdrawal of unpopular policies that sparked protests.
People have made clear they reject regressive taxation – taxes that place a larger burden on low-income people than the well-off – and instead they want to see progressive taxation, which makes those who have more pay a higher share. Progressive taxes enable redistributive policies that can mean better public services for poorer people, paid for by tax from wealthier people.
Even before the pandemic, in 2019, a survey from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a club of 38 of the world’s richest economies, showed that most people in every one of the 21 countries polled wanted governments to tax rich people more to help poorer people. This is also true in global south countries: in a survey across 34 countries in Africa, 69 per cent of people agreed it’s fair to make rich people pay a higher tax rate.
Even some ultra-rich people agree: in January, over 200 very wealthy individuals called for the urgent introduction of wealth taxes as a way of reducing economic inequality and unlocking much-needed resources to address urgent problems. But the trend over recent decades has been in the opposite direction: in every global region, taxes for the very wealthy have fallen while, not coincidentally, the wealth of the richest one per cent has soared.
Meanwhile states continue to compete in a race to the bottom to offer the lowest possible corporate tax rates in the hope of attracting investment and retaining jobs. Corporate taxes have been cut in every global region, and the global average rate has fallen from 40.1 per cent in 1980 to 23.4 per cent today.
And yet however low the corporate tax floor goes, it seems many companies still see it as too high. During the pandemic, states – particularly in the global north – intervened on a huge scale to save jobs by protecting businesses. But they’re being rewarded by big companies continuing to do everything they can to avoid paying even the low taxes they’re expected to contribute. In 2021 it was reported that at least 55 of the USA’s largest corporations had paid no federal corporate taxes.
Deliberately opaque processes serve to shield corporate and elite wealth in tax havens. As a result, an estimated US$483 billion a year of potential tax revenues is lost. This leaves states starved of the money they need to provide vital public services and support the many living on the edge. Record profits for fossil fuel companies, benefiting from the soaring prices that are causing so many people to struggle, have reopened debate into how big companies and the super-rich could contribute more.
Voices from the frontline
Jenny Ricks is Global Convenor of Fight Inequality Alliance, a global civil society coalition mobilising to for solutions for the structural causes of inequality.
Fighting inequality requires us to redistribute power and wealth, and taxation is a major redistribution tool.
Over the last decade or two civil society has done a lot of work to try and challenge the fact that the richest people and the biggest corporations across the world are not paying their fair share of tax. The economic model is exploitative, unjust and unsustainable, based on resource extraction, primarily from the global south, abusive labour practices, underpaid workers and great environmental damage.
Redistribution is happening as we speak, but it is based on extracting from the poorest and distributing towards the wealthiest people in the world – billionaires, corporate shareholders and the like. That is what we are fighting to reverse, at a local level as well as globally.
The current level of wealth concentration is so grotesque that it requires solutions and action at all levels. We need to fight on the local front where people are struggling while we push for systemic change in places like the UN. The discussion of global tax rules feels quite distant from the day-to-day struggles that most people, within our alliance and beyond, are campaigning for. But decisions made about them have repercussions for those struggles.
As we have seen with climate negotiations, there is a huge power struggle that needs to be fought at the UN. It will still be a titanic struggle to get the kind of global tax rules we want. But if global tax rules are made within the OECD, the majority of the world doesn’t even stand a chance. Asking rich countries to please behave better is not going to yield the kind of transformation we want.
This is an edited extract of our conversation with Jenny. Read the full interview here.
A vital first step
The current system clearly isn’t working for most people, and there’s a need to push for change. One promising step in the right direction was taken last November, when the Africa Group at the United Nations (UN), led by the Nigerian delegation, succeeded in pushing through a UN General Assembly resolution on tax. The resolution kickstarts intergovernmental talks that could lead to a global tax convention.
This could bring a breakthrough. The economic system is global, as is tax avoidance. But the UN, despite bringing together almost every state in the world, currently has no role in setting global tax rules. Instead that space has long been claimed by the OECD.
Decisions can’t be fair when they’re made by a club of the richest states on behalf of the whole world. Not surprisingly the OECD has consistently been accused of setting rules to the advantage of wealthy states and failing to do enough to tackle low corporate tax rates and tax avoidance.
A UN body could change that. On its own, it wouldn’t be a silver bullet – but it would at least bring 193 states to the table as equals, raising hopes that some common global standards could result.
The resolution had been a long time coming. Global south states and civil society have been pushing for a UN tax role for at least two decades, and the African Group first made the call to develop a tax body at the UN in 2019.
While it was ultimately passed by consensus, the resolution was predictably strongly opposed by many global north states. The US government tried and failed to water it down. Its amendment was defeated, with 97 votes against, 55 in favour and 13 abstentions. The OECD also heavily lobbied against it. But it had the support not just of many states but also global civil society.
Civil society has played a vital role in exposing regressive taxation, tax avoidance and other problems, proposing ideas such as wealth taxes and pushing for a shift from the OECD to the UN.
It could open the door to the development of a UN tax body. UN Secretary-General António Guterres has committed to support negotiations to take the resolution forward and the UN has been tasked with preparing a report outlining the next steps, to be discussed later this year.
There are, of course, many challenges ahead. The UN is dominated by political leaders and diplomats making narrow calculations of national self-interest, with inadequate access for civil society, while corporate interests are able to use multiple avenues to influence proceedings.
If there’s to be a convention, the process to develop it will take several years and will be fraught with difficulty – but that’s no reason not to do it. As seen with the Global Biodiversity Framework agreed late last year, UN agreements can result, following tortuous negotiations, to address seemingly intractable problems.
Even after jumping through all those hoops, compliance can be expected to be a challenge – but global agreements can at least set standards and norms that offer a way of tracking progress and urging ambition, offering a vital focus for civil society advocacy.
Need for civil society
For a UN tax convention to be agreed and a UN tax body established, the process must be properly resourced. It will take intense work to ensure that it lives up to its promise. It will be expected to deliver on setting a minimum global corporate tax level to end the current race to the bottom and improving global cooperation to end tax dodging.
If such ambitious outcomes result, it will be at least partly as a consequence of civil society’s activism. Civil society has played a vital role in exposing regressive taxation, tax avoidance and other problems, proposing ideas such as wealth taxes and pushing for a shift from the OECD to the UN. Space must be made for civil society in the process so it can keep speaking up for the world’s majority, urging ambition and demanding action. Change can’t simply be left in the hands of the same decision-makers responsible for the current situation.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The UN must push forward the process to develop a global tax convention and fully involve civil society in it.
Global north states must cooperate with UN processes on taxation rather than try to disrupt them.
States should immediately step up efforts to end tax avoidance and introduce more progressive taxation.
Cover photo by Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images