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‘If those corporations were paying their dues my friend would not have died’

Clockwise from left: Cecillia, Stella and Getrude - tax justice activists, campaigning to change the policies and structures that allow rich individuals and multinational companies to avoid paying the tax they owe. Photos: Mark Bushnell/Oxfam
 
Scandals like the recently released Panama Papers show the enormous lengths people, from government officials, big businesses, celebrities and the wealthy elite, will go to avoid paying tax. 
 
The whole world has been talking about the leaked documents and those named for tax dodging – often through perfectly legal loopholes that deny poor countries of billions needed for essential services like health and education. 
 
But there are also people going to extraordinary lengths to tackle the inequality that keeps people poor and to make tax fair for everyone. 
 
People like Ene Agbo from Nigeria, Cecillia Mulenga from Zambia, Gertrude Chirwa from Malawi and Stella Agara from Kenya but working in Malawi – four inspiring women who are taking on the tax dodgers and who we are delighted to be hosting in Ireland this weekend. 
 
The four activists are currently travelling around Europe meeting with the public, decision-makers and Oxfam supporters to share first-hand how tax dodging is harming people and communities. 
 
You are invited to join us in Dublin and Belfast to hear for yourself why tackling the global toxic tax system matters and to catch their contagious energy and passion for the fight against tax dodging.  
 
Cecillia told us: “You should be around in Zambia when we are doing campaigning – it’s one of the best days…!”
 
She has a very personal reason for getting angry about public funds lost to tax dodging. A good friend of hers died when she was eight months pregnant because there were no health facilities.  
 
Cecillia says: “If those corporations were paying their dues my friend would not have died. They would have built a hospital; they would have built a better road in that same area. That would have helped her and kept her alive.”

Meet Cecillia

Stella said the lengths some firms go to avoid paying tax in Malawi is mind-blowing: “It is the order of the day for small business to pay more tax than multinational companies, yet multinational companies are making billions out of Malawi,” she says. 
 
Stella believes that this corporate tax dodging is driving inequality in Malawi: “For me I have seen people enjoy very wealthy lives…and I have seen people who are very poor, who don’t ever put on shoes – that is when you have seen poverty.”

Meet Stella

Gertrude is 22 years old and raises awareness about tax injustice in the community, particularly with young people. She believes it’s down to ordinary citizens to do something about tax dodging. 
 
Gertrude says: “When I learnt about it, I got really angry and motivated at the same time…I need to do something about it, I need to make others also aware there are a lot of tax injustices happening in our country and that we can do something, particularly the youth.  
 
“What I say to the campaigners in the rest of the world is: let’s keep up the good work, let’s keep fighting for tax justice – if we don’t do it, then who will?”

Meet Gertrude

While the headlines and the hype can make tax dodging seem complex, it is refreshing to hear from real people with real passion about what is happening on the ground – and to realise we are all connected in a global push to take on the tax dodgers and make change for good. 
 

JOIN US:

 
 
 

LIVE STREAM:

 
If you can't make the events in Dublin or Belfast, we will be doing our first ever social media live stream talk and Q&A with these activists, on Facebook and Periscope, this Saturday (April 16) at 4pm. Keep an eye on our Facebook and Twitter for more info and to join our chat on Saturday.

Christine McCartney is a Campaigns and Advocacy Executive with Oxfam Ireland

Oxfam Ireland's tax justice project is funded by the European Union

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Talking tax – it’s anything but boring

Above: L-R Volunteer campaigners Lynsey Burrows, Grace De Bláca and Oxfam's Mary Quinn join activists in Amsterdam to call for action on tax-dodging and inequality.

Last month over 80 activists from Europe and across the world came together for a two day conference in the Netherlands with one shared goal: to change the way tax works. 

Lynsey Burrows from Northern Ireland travelled to Amsterdam along with fellow volunteer campaigner Grace De Bláca and Oxfam Ireland's Campaigns and Public Outreach Executive Mary Quinn. They joined the group working to tackle issues like tax dodging which robs countries of vital funds needed for essential services like health and education.

Lynsey shares her thoughts on the difficulty of communicating such an important but complex issue: 

In March, I was extremely excited to be able to attend the Tax Justice Together conference in Amsterdam with Oxfam Ireland. The tax justice movement is one of the largest social justice movements of the past few years and it is gaining momentum all the time. The conference was an opportunity for activists from all around the world to meet and discuss how best we can continue to work together to campaign for change to the global tax system. 

Within hours of arriving at the conference it became clear that there was one common problem we all faced when campaigning on tax justice in our communities: tax justice sounds boring. Unless you work in the financial industry or are a ‘tax justice nerd’ (the sort who is extremely excited to attend tax justice conferences...) anything to do with tax sounds dreary, dull and complicated. 

And it can be all of those things. Phrases like ‘tax treaties’, ‘capital gains’ and ‘bilateral investments’ are not the most easy to relate to when trying to talk to people about why tax matters. But there was also a very clear and urgent issue that any Oxfam supporter can relate to: 

Tax injustice sustains poverty – as long as there is an unfair tax system, there will be poverty. 

Without any jargon or financial knowledge needed, we can all understand that anything that maintains poverty or makes it worse is something we need to fight against. 

Developing countries are losing billions every year because of tax injustice. Tax injustice has many aspects to it and I am going to focus on just one of those. One of the main culprits is multinational companies avoiding paying tax – tax dodging. They do this through schemes such as tax treaties. Put very simply (because I don’t want to bore you but mainly because I’m not an expert either) tax treaties are an agreement between two countries to avoid paying double tax. 

So, if one multinational company (let’s call them WeLoveMoney) is registered in two countries that have a tax treaty, they will only have to pay tax in one of those counties. WeLoveMoney operates and makes an awful lot of money (which they love, hence the name) in one of those countries, the country that is developed and wealthy. But they are also registered in the developing country, where they don’t make much money but source or create their product. Can you guess which country they choose to pay their taxes in?

So because of perfectly legal loopholes, WeLoveMoney pays a very small amount of tax in the developing country where it is also generating profit and that country's government does not get its fair share of tax - money that is needed to help pay for healthcare, education and essential public services. Without the money they’re rightfully owed, poverty continues. 

The rights and welfare of the some of the poorest people in the world are being harmed by the current global tax system.  So if you hear me and other activists talking about tax, we’re really talking about poverty, about injustice and about inequality. 

And that’s not boring. 

#MakeTaxFair

Tax activists on tour | #MakeTaxFair

We've got four very special guests coming to Ireland next week - tax campaigners from Malawi, Kenya, Nigeria and Zambia. These activists work tirelessly to change the policies and structures that allow rich individuals and multinational companies to avoid paying the tax they owe. You can meet them in person in Dublin and Belfast (details below).- Dublin (April 16): http://bit.ly/1USs2Me- Belfast (April 19): http://bit.ly/23u29DX

Posted by Oxfam Ireland on Sunday, April 10, 2016

 
#MakeTaxFair tour with Tax Justice Together: We've got four very special guests coming to Ireland this April - tax campaigners from Malawi, Kenya, Nigeria and Zambia. These activists work tirelessly to change the policies and structures that allow rich individuals and multinational companies to avoid paying the tax they owe. You can meet them in person in Dublin (April 16) and Belfast (April 19).

Why tax matters?

The impact of an unfair tax system should not be measured in numbers and facts – but in its shocking human impact. 

When countries don't receive the money they are owed in tax, people suffer. Children can't go to school, parents work hard but it doesn't pay so their families still go to bed hungry at night, communities living in poverty don't have a say in the decisions that affect them. Inequality grows and poverty is made worse.

Clockwise from left: 1. Munni stands beside an open drain in Horijon Polli, the slum where she lives with her family. 2. Munni at work – despite working hard every day, Munni dreams of work that really pays. 3. Munni cooks breakfast with her two-year old son.  Photos: Adrian Lloyd/Oxfam

Munni Basfur lives with her husband and four children in one room in Horijon Polli, a densely-populated slum in Bangladesh that is home to approximately 6,000 people. Oxfam is working with partners there to improve public health facilities, rebuilding toilets and sanitation systems as well as building new bathing blocks. 

For people like Munni, the effects of inequality are felt on a daily basis. Munni works incredibly hard every day to make ends meet – as a cleaner in a company and then again in a local government office.

And yet still she dreams of job security: “I call my job a “one/two job”. One: today I have it. Two: tomorrow I don’t.”

Help make change happen for people like Munni. Take action today.

Oxfam Ireland's tax justice project is funded by the European Union

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#PanamaPapers: Death and taxes

The only two certainties we have are death and taxes, so the saying goes.

The Panama Papers released this week by the ICIJ show the enormous lengths people will go to in order to evade or avoid paying taxes. But they don’t show the serious impact of such actions — which can literally mean death for some.

A story which emerged from Cameroon last month illustrates this in the most tragic way. Monique Koumate (31) was expecting twins. Her partner took her to hospital when she went into labour and started experiencing complications. But because they didn’t have the money to pay the fees required, she was reportedly left outside the maternity unit in the city of Douala for hours, in desperate need of urgent care, the door closed to her.

Top-left:Front page reports from Cameroon of Monique Koumate's tragic death. "Lanquinitinie Hospital: Horrifying!",  "Woman, twins abandoned to die during delivery". Top-right: People in Cameroon took to social media to pay their respects and express their horror at Monique's death. Botom: Protestors hold banners saying "Never again a Monique Koumate in my country!" Photo credits, clockwise from top: 237online.com, CulturEbene, Simonoteba.com, TheObserveres.France24.com, CameroonOnline.org, camer.be/obesso.net. 

Monique’s family did their best to help her — a graphic video shows a woman reported to be her niece trying to perform a caesarean section using a knife — but one twin was stillborn and the other died moments after birth. Monique also died on the steps of the maternity unit — three lives lost feet away from the medical attention they needed but could not afford.

Cameroon has a severe shortage of doctors, just one for every 5,000 people. The government introduced a fee-based system for healthcare in a bid to bridge a funding gap and make services more widely available.

Illicit financial flows out of Cameroon are 63% of the country’s health budget and the equivalent of its entire foreign direct investment and aid each year.

VIDEO: PROTEST FOR MONIQUE KOUMATE, MARCH 13 2016

MANIFESTATION A LAQUINTINIE

MANIFESTATION DEVANT L'HOPITAL LAQUINTINIESE TAIRE, NE RIEN FAIRE, ETRE NEUTRE EST PIRE QUE CRIMINEL!RAPPEL DES FAITS:Une femme qui décède devant un hôpital faute de moyen. Arrivée à l’hôpital les médecins refusent de la prendre en charge parce qu'elle n'a pas d'argent.. Chose surprenante ce sont ses soeur qui ouvrent son ventre avec une lame rasoir pour essayer de sauver les bébés. Quel images pour le Cameroun .Les bébés sont-ils vivant ? ......Malheureusement aux dernières nouvelles ils ont aussi perdus la vie grâce à ceux qui ont prêter serment de sauver des vies humaines. .Que c'est pathétique pour les hôpitaux du CamerounQuel sadisme et méchanceté au point de laissé mourir 02 bébés innocent. ..Une plainte doit être déposer contre cette instance criminelle sur cet acte de non assistance à personnes en danger et de plus pire encore des bébés. ..Que la communauté internationale sur le programme de la santé saisisse cet affaire qui ne doit rester sans suite afin que justice soit faite pour ces bébés innocent. ..ceci pour en sauver d'autres qui peuvent subir le même sortMAINTENANT PLACE A LA MANIPULATION :Faites Attention! Les agents de manipulation de l’opinion nationale et internationale sont deja en marche. Une premiere tentative de manipulation qu’ils essayent de faire passer est de dire que Monique et ses bebe étaient deja décédés avant d’arriver a Laquintinie (Dites meme qu’ils sont morts 4 jours avant). Une autre tentative de manipulation veut faire croire q l’opinion que la courageuse soeur de monique serait l principale responsable du drame ceci juste pour dédouaner les médecins et infirmiers principaux responsables de ce drame.

Posted by Vert Rouge Jaune on Sunday, March 13, 2016

The day after the video of Monique Koumate's death was published, several hundred people gathered in front of the hospital where she died to protest at Cameroon’s failing healthcare system. Source: Vert Rougue Jaune/Facebook

Every single year, poor countries lose around €150bn/£119bn due to tax dodging by wealthy individuals and companies. This is money that should be used to fund schools, hospitals, homes and infrastructure.

INEQUALITY IS OUT OF CONTROL

It’s part of the bigger and growing problem of economic inequality. An Oxfam report published in January showed that just 62 people own as much net wealth as the poorer half the world’s population — approximately €1.62tn/£1.25tn.

Think about that for a moment: the number of people who could probably comfortably fit inside your local pub, own as much as 3.6bn people do.

Our economic system is skewed in favour of the wealthiest. Far from trickling down, income and wealth are instead being sucked upwards at an alarming rate.

One of the trends underlying this concentration of wealth and income is the return to capital versus labour. In almost all rich countries and in most developing countries, the share of national income going to workers has been falling. This means workers are capturing less and less of the gains from growth.

In contrast, the owners of capital have seen it consistently grow (through interest payments, dividends, or retained profits) faster than the rate the economy has been growing.

Tax avoidance by the owners of capital, and governments reducing taxes on capital gains, have further added to these returns.

Thanks to the recent revelations and previous investigations such as Lux Leaks, public awareness — and frustration — has increased dramatically. Ahead of the Irish general election in March, an Oxfam Ireland survey conducted nationwide found that 82% of people agreed that measures to specifically address tax-dodging needed to be a priority for the incoming government and Taoiseach.

The survey also showed growing concern in relation to large-scale tax dodging with 86% of Irish people holding the belief that big companies and wealthy individuals are using tax loopholes to dodge paying their fair share.

All governments, rich and poor, have to work together to tackle the inequality so clearly illustrated by the Panama Papers because it is their citizens who are the biggest losers. They need to fix the system and penalise banks and any others who facilitate tax-dodging.

Real transparency is needed — establishing public registers of the beneficial owners of all companies, foundations and trusts (so governments know who really owns and benefits from them and can tax them accordingly).

We also need to know where companies really make their profits and where they are paying their taxes. This would allow countries to fairly tax multinationals where their profits are. To achieve this, a simple solution is on the table.

Country-by-country reporting, as it is called in tax jargon, would require multinational companies to publish this information. Some countries, including Ireland, say they’ll implement it, but the information won’t be made public.

This is a crucial flaw — because if the information remains confidential between tax authorities, the public and civil society won’t be able to hold multinationals to account for their tax practices — and developing countries won’t be able to scrutinise the global tax arrangements of multinationals in their territory.

As political leaders in Ireland continue to engage in discussions on government formation, the measures Ireland can take to assist in the reform of the global tax system should be part of the agreement of any progressive Programme for Government. The human cost of doing anything else is simply too high.

Jim Clarken is Chief Executive of Oxfam Ireland. This article was first published by The Irish Examiner.

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Panama Papers and the human cost of tax dodging

Imagine sharing your home with a housemate who raids your section of the fridge, frequently ‘borrows’ your things without telling you and doesn’t make any effort to clean or maintain the shared living space. A housemate who can well afford to pay their way – but doesn’t contribute their fair share towards the bills.

That’s how putting up with tax dodgers feels. It leaves the vast majority of people, i.e. ordinary tax-payers, making up the shortfall left by those who can most afford to pay it but don’t. Tax dodging also hurts the most vulnerable in society who can’t access quality public services as a result.

As details emerge from the Panama Papers exposé by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, a spotlight has been shone on tax dodging by wealthy individuals the world over.

It’s the latest major investigation into tax dodging by the worldwide organisation of reporters following LuxLeaks in 2014 and Swissleaks last year.

Panama Papers is a rare glimpse into a toxic global tax system where wealthy individuals, who in a progressive tax system should be paying the most in tax, have the biggest incentives to exploit this weak architecture to avoid paying their fair share.

Their names are in the news. But the names of those most harmed by tax dodging are not. As long as tax dodging continues to drain government coffers the world over, there is a human cost with less to spend on vital public services and the resources needed to tackle poverty, put children in school and prevent citizens dying from lack of healthcare.

Every single year, poor countries lose approx. €150 billion/£119 billion due to tax dodging by wealthy individuals and companies.

Outside a hospital in Malawi, parents and their babies sit on the ground in the long queues.

Public health facilities in Malawi are free at the point of use, meaning they are not as regressive as is the case in many countries in Africa where fees are charged (making them out of reach for the poorest). But persistent shortages of medicines and staff mean that these facilities often provide a very poor quality service, despite the best efforts of their few heroic health workers.

As a nurse, I love my job and I love helping people,” says Vitumbiko Mhango who works at the Kamuzu Central Hospital and Bwaila maternity clinic.

Inequality in Malawi

“A shortage of staff is really impacting on our delivery of services. Patients have to wait very long for many hours just to be attended to. It makes me feel sad because as a nurse I feel I’m failing my job.”

Malawi has experienced rapid economic growth in recent years, but the gains of this growth have not been spread evenly and the gap between rich and poor has widened at an alarming pace. Today, half of all Malawians live in poverty.

We have calculated that the lost tax revenue from the money revealed to be held by Malawians in HSBC accounts in Geneva – as revealed by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists in their SwissLeaks exposé in 2015 – could pay the salaries of 800 nurses for one year.

When taxes go unpaid due to widespread avoidance by wealthy individuals and companies, government budgets feel the pinch – the coffers are drained when it comes to investing in healthcare, schools and infrastructure. But universal and affordable public services are vital to lifting people out of poverty and it is the poorest, unable to afford ‘to go private’ who suffer the most when they are not provided by the state.

There is no getting away from the fact that the big winners in our global economy are those at the top and the gap between them and the rest of society is widening. Earlier this year, our research showed that just 62 billionaires own the same wealth as the poorest half of the population – so few they would fit onto a coach from Belfast to Dublin.

This elite group has become more exclusive over the years – falling from 80 members last year and 388 as recently as 2010. Our economic system is heavily skewed in the favour of the wealthiest, and arguably increasingly so. Far from trickling down, income and wealth are instead being sucked upwards at an alarming rate. Once there, ever more elaborate tax dodging and an industry of wealth managers ensure that it stays there, far from the reach of ordinary citizens and their governments.

All governments, rich and poor, must work to end tax dodging because it is their citizens – their electorate – who are the biggest losers. They need to fix the system and penalise banks and any others who facilitate tax dodging.

Ahead of the Irish general election in March, an Oxfam Ireland survey conducted nationwide found that 82% of people agreed that measures to specifically address tax dodging needed to be a priority for the incoming government and Taoiseach. The survey also showed growing concern in relation to large-scale tax dodging with 86% of Irish people believing that big companies and wealthy individuals are using tax loopholes to dodge paying their fair share of taxes.

The global tax system clearly does not serve the citizens of the world and this must change. Real transparency is needed – for example, establishing public registers of the beneficial owners of all companies, foundations and trusts (so governments know who really owns and benefits from them and can tax them accordingly).

We also need to know where companies really make their profits and where they are paying their taxes. This would allow countries to fairly tax multinationals where their profits are. To achieve this, a simple solution is on the table.

Country-by-country reporting, as it is called in tax jargon, would require multinational companies to publish exactly this information. Some countries including Ireland have said they will implement it but this information won’t be made public. This is a crucial flaw – because if the information remains confidential between tax authorities, the public and civil society won’t be able to hold multinationals to account for their tax practices – and developing countries won’t be able to scrutinise the global tax arrangements of multinationals operating in their territory.

As political leaders in Ireland continue to engage in discussions on government formation, the measures Ireland can take to assist in the reform of the global tax system should be part of the agreement of any progressive Programme for Government.

Jim Clarken is CEO of Oxfam Ireland.

(Published 3 April 2016)

Listen back to Jim Clarken's interview on the Panama Papers on RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, 4 April 2016.

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Musical chairs increases the tragedy for vulnerable people in Macedonia

As thousands of people continue arriving in Europe seeking safety and security, Ruth Tanner recently visited the Oxfam programme for people on the move in Macedonia.

Vulnerable people on the move, from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere are facing arbitrary profiling at borders on the basis of nationality. This pushback denies the right to an individual assessment of protection needs and constitutes a violation of international and EU law. Authorities have now closed their borders to all, creating a further humanitarian crisis.

Last week I visited the Tabanovce camp in Macedonia. The camp itself is not very big, given the number of people living there. It consists of two neat rows of white containers, and some larger tents, including a food tent feeding hundreds of people with hot soup as we arrive. The place is designed to be a rest stop for a few hours or a night before people continue their journey, but is now home to over a thousand people.

It has been wet every day for the past week and the damp and cold permeate everything. People are sleeping in the containers, a handful with bunkbeds and heating, home to families with lots of children. Most people are in containers with no heating. Three large tents, originally waiting rooms for those about to cross the border, are now makeshift homes, with benches rearranged to be turned into beds and a chaotic arrangement of mattresses and blankets.

There is also a large cabin for women and children. It has the feel of a nursery with children’s scribbled pictures on the wall. In the corner, a two-week-old baby sleeps peacefully in a crib, his mother lying next to him on a mattress on the floor. At the door two little boys negotiate with us for a ball to play with. “It’s raining, it’s late, rest tonight and I promise to bring you one tomorrow” offers my guide, a lawyer with Oxfam’s partner the Macedonian Young Lawyers Association, working hard to calm and offer advice to the people of the camp.

The camp is full or people who were turned away at the border due to their nationality or for not having papers filled in correctly. The team tell me about a woman from Syria, travelling with her three children. Her husband is waiting for them in Germany. They filled the forms in correctly, are from the country and a city which is on the list approved for transit, yet for some reason she and her children were refused entry. The lawyer doesn’t understand why, so she can’t give the family any answers.

Cases like hers are typical. Over the past few weeks, more and more restrictive and discriminatory rules have been introduced. First, everyone who was registered could travel, then only Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans, then suddenly only Syrians, but only from certain cities who declared the right destination country. At the borders there are translators whose job it is to determine accents and even ask questions like, “Do you know this restaurant, this shop, are you really from the town you say you’re from?” Arbitrary rules are turned into even more arbitrary decisions by border guards and translators; now even these rules and regulations have ceased to matter, as the borders are closed to everyone.

The border was closed on Monday lunchtime, an hour or so before over 400 Syrians arrived. They had been told they were crossing to Serbia, their papers were approved and they were moved past the camp, a hundred yards up a dirt track to the fields between the two countries. In this game of musical chairs, they were unlucky – the Serbian police refused them entry, and the Macedonian police wouldn’t let them back.

The night they arrived, Oxfam staff along with others from the camp and the police, battled the wind and torrential rain to put up some tents to provide shelter in the dark field for the hundreds of people, mainly women and children, who were now stuck.

When I arrived, 48 hours later, this no man’s land is a sea of mud. A young man comes to talk to us. “Can you help?” he asked our translator. “My baby’s sick.” He went to fetch his wife and baby from a tiny tent nearby. The worried-looking parents held the baby close as they waited in the dark for help to come from the camp. They are not able to walk the 100 yards back to the camp for help, they must wait for it to come to them.

Back at the Tabanovce camp, I notice two young men with rucksacks and rolled up sleeping bags on their backs. For some, like them, the wait and the not knowing is too much. Every night there are fewer people in the camp than the night before. Vulnerable and invisible, with borders closed and hope fading, they’d rather take their chances with the smugglers than risk being sent back.

Border closures, coupled with a stark lack of legal routes, are not the answer to managing the arrival of refugees and migrants in Europe. People, not borders, are in urgent need of protection. Oxfam is calling on governments to end the series of discriminatory and dangerous measures adopted by European countries to deter vulnerable people from seeking safety. Instead they must take action to ensure that the immediate humanitarian needs of people on the move are met, and to live up to their obligations under international law.

Ruth Tanner is Oxfam’s Advocacy Advisor in South East Europe.

listen

 

Giovanni Riccardi Candiani, Senior Humanitarian Programme Advisor with Oxfam, with an update from Lesbos, Greece, on the refugee crisis, the EU Turkey Deal and how Oxfam is responding.

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