What has the Tax Justice Network done?

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It is a well-known fact that any campaign for change goes through four basic stages.

In the first stage those who oppose change deny that there is an issue to be addressed. In the second they reject the prescription for change. During the third stage there is acceptance that the issue is important, and that change is inevitable. In the last stage the opponents of change declare that they have always agreed with those proposing reform

I make this observation because there have been some questions asked on this blog about the role of the Tax Justice Network, the power it might have, and any changes it has created. As a senior adviser to TJN I am often publicly associated with its work, and in the interest of transparency I thought I should address the questions that have been raised.

Let me be clear what the Tax Justice Network is. It is a membership organisation, although the number of individual members is, I quite readily admit, quite small. That is unsurprising. We neither require membership, nor do we actively promote it because the focus of the organisation has been to bring together those of like, or at least similar mind with regard to taxation issues. The object is to promote research and understanding of the impediments that the world's taxation systems create for the effective allocation of resources for the relief of poverty, whether that be domestic or international and whether in the developed or developing world. Membership has always been secondary to that.

Funding has always been very small: the international director, John Christensen, is for example largely funded by a grant from the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. Other funding has been largely research related, although core funding has been provided by Christian Aid, Oxfam Novib and other smaller agencies. Staffing is as a result also very small. We rely very heavily upon volunteers. Much of my own work for TJN has been unpaid, although I do now receive a research grant for work on tax haven related issues funded through TJN by the Ford Foundation.

Given the size of the organisation it is unsurprising that we do, in practice, have no powers at all. Nor do we seek them. That is not our role. Our role is to create research materials that empower others to raise questions about taxation and poverty. Because we believe that tax havens, or secrecy jurisdictions as we prefer to call them, have been a major contributor to poverty in developing countries we have focused very heavily upon their role, and it is in this area that we are best known. We have always sought to be impartial. As such we do not seek to criticise one tax haven over another although many in particular jurisdictions think otherwise, and I admit we have perhaps done more on Jersey than anywhere else. The reason for not picking on individual cases is simple: we think that this is a systemic issue. We also criticise places like the UK and the USA for their tax haven activities. This is most definitely not a small island issue. But I make the point loud and clear: any influence we have (which is quite different from power) is derived solely from the work we have done, and the relevance of the arguments that we have presented.

So what have we achieved? It is, of course, too early to really tell. TJN has only been in operation since 2003, but it is fair to say that an enormous amount has changed since then and we have been one of the most obvious catalysts for that change.

If we go back to 2002 the world's perception of tax havens was very different from that which we now have. The OECD tax haven initiative had been virtually stopped dead in its tracks by the USA, just before 9/11, entirely as the result of lobbying by right wing think tanks in that country who argued that tax havens created tax competition, and that was a good thing. Put simply, tax havens then thought they were in the ascendancy and that they could work unchallenged.

A very small group of us set out to challenge the assumption. Today, it is clear that the governments of Germany, France and Norway (for example) have accepted that argument, as has the incoming US administration. In each case we know that they have been influenced by our thinking.

We know that the EU has been emboldened in its approach by our thinking. Changes to the EU Savings Tax Directive are not our work. But we believe we have encouraged the process.

We know that some UK politicians who have raised this issue have done so on the basis of our briefings.

We know that the governments of many of the world's tax havens monitor what we say, daily. They see us as the principal focus of opposition to their activities. So be it.

We have received explicit support from countries like Norway. That has been translated into their support for our agenda within the United Nations.

Many of the world's well-known development agencies now support our position on tax havens, and see that taxation is now a fundamental component in the development agenda. They include Christian Aid, Action Aid, Oxfam, War on Want, Save the Children (through their work on the extractive industries), CAFOD, and others, and that is in the UK alone. We enjoy similar relationships in many other countries.

Practical ideas that we have promoted, such as country by country reporting, about which I first published in January 2003, are now discussed by the International Accounting Standards Board, have received the support of the European Parliament, and support from major investor organisations. This approach has transformed the thinking of those who look for transparency in the extractive industries.

We partake in dialogue with governments and international agencies around the world. But I reiterate, we do not do so from a position of power: we have none. We simply promote an idea about justice, and an explanation for the cause of injustice that happens to also explain much of the current financial crisis the world faces. People listen because they want to.

That said, I recall that Franklin Roosevelt was wont to say, "you've convinced me, now go out and pressure me." Several others, some in positions of considerable power, have said similar things to us. We can't be the only ones to supply the pressure: we seek to attract others into the gaps we have opened, and it is obvious that they are starting to do so. They will provide the biggest pressure.

What does this represent, in summary? Put it in terms of the Wizard of Oz. In 2003 John Christensen and I (and I think it's fair to say that) sought to open up a Yellow Brick Road for those others who had shown interest in this area but had yet to raise their concerns. In doing so we put our own credibility on the line. We have travelled quite a lot of the world. We have spoken to academics, journalists, diplomats, politicians, civil servants, professional bodies, NGOs and those you might call stakeholders in and out of tax havens. It is pleasing that others have now chosen to join us on that path. But they've done so of their own volition.

And at least partly as a result the worldview of tax havens has changed radically. Almost no one is in denial about the importance of that issue now. Some, mostly located within secrecy jurisdictions still vehemently reject our arguments. That, of course, is their right. But there would appear to be increasing acceptance of the relevance of this issue, and of the need to tackle it, and of the prescription that we offer. It seems to us that we are moving quite rapidly into stage three of this debate, whilst still having to deal with the rejection of our argument by some. I make no prediction as to when stage four will arrive. It remains possible that this will not happen. What is certain is that are certainly not giving up the campaign now.

Because what we do know is that the terms of the debate have changed out of almost all recognition since 2002, and I do believe it fair to say that the Tax Justice Network has played a part in that process. And I take some pleasure from that.