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Africa: Capital Losses, What Can Be Done?

AfricaFocus Bulletin
Nov 20, 2012 (121120)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

"Both rich countries and Africa suffer from a global system of financial secrecy, in which rich individuals and large companies hide income and assets from public scrutiny and from taxation by transferring them across borders. ... despite many differences ...the same structural realities and the same institutions are implicated in the "fiscal crises" of Europe and North America and in the failure of African states to capture and channel sufficient resources to development." - Introduction to special issue of ACAS Bulletin on "Africa's Capital Losses: What Can Be Done?"

Today's two AfricaFocus Bulletins contain selected articles from the newly released issue of the Bulletin of the Association of Concerned Africa Scholars, on "Africa's Capital Losses: What Can Be Done?" The full bulletin is available at

This Bulletin contains the editors' introduction and an overview article by Raymond Baker of Global Financial Integrity, "Plundering a Continent." The other Bulletin sent out today (available at contains an article on "Debt Audits and the Repudiation of Odious Debts," by James Boyce and Léonce Ndikumana.

For previous issues of AfricaFocus Bulletin on illicit financial flows and related issues, visit

See particularly, with excerpts from the book "Africa's Odious Debts,", on "Capital Flight Updates," and, "Global Pirates vs. Tax Justice."


Books Issue Coming Up - Send in Your Suggestions

In early December, AfricaFocus will be doing one of its periodic books issues, listing new and notable books that may be of interest to readers, including new books by AfricaFocus subscribers. Please send in your suggestions to

One book sure to be included, which I can strongly recommend to anyone interested in Mozambique or in the complexities of "post-independence" in any country which has won freedom after a prolonged struggle, is "S is for Samora: A Lexical Biography of Samora Machel and the Mozambican Dream" by Sarah LeFanu ( The book is beautifully written, insightful, and innovative in its format, which consists of multiple short entries/essays in alphabetical order.

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++

Africa's Capital Losses: What Can Be Done?

Association of Concerned Africa Scholars Bulletin

No. 87, Fall 2012

Editors' Introduction

William Minter and Tim Scarnecchia

William Minter is editor of AfricaFocus Bulletin and a member of the ACAS Advisory Council. Tim Scarnecchia is associate professor of history at Kent State University and co-editor of the ACAS Bulletin.

When presidential candidate Mitt Romney released his 2011 tax return in September 2012, Huffington Post journalist Zach Carter calculated that 267 of the 379 pages of the return were devoted to investments in foreign companies and partnerships. Of the 34 offshore companies involved, 30 were located in countries considered to be offshore tax havens by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

But Romney is far from an exception among the rich in the United States and around the world. According to a Tax Justice Network report released in July, the global superrich hold at least $21 trillion in offshore accounts protected by secrecy, both in well-known tax havens such as the Cayman Islands and in a shadow financial system involving the world's largest banks and related financial industry institutions. That minimum estimate is equivalent to the size of the U.S. and Japanese economies combined.

In their 2011 pathbreaking book, Africa's Odious Debts: How Foreign Loans and Capital Flight Bled a Continent, Léonce Ndikumana and James Boyce demonstrate the systematic draining from Africa of resources by this global system, in which rich individuals and large companies hide income and assets from public scrutiny and from taxation by transferring them across borders. Africa's situation is aggravated by its vulnerability in the world economy, by the weaknesses of African states, and by the misguided assumption that this pattern stems only from the personal corruption of African leaders. In fact, despite the many differences between the rich countries of the West and developing countries in Africa, the same structural realities and the same institutions are implicated in the "fiscal crises" of Europe and North America and in the failure of African states to capture and channel sufficient resources to development.

We asked Ndikumana and Boyce to put together this special issue of ACAS Bulletin, titled "Africa's Capital Losses: What Can Be Done?" The goal of this Bulletin is to provide a better understanding of the ways capital is lost and the measures that can be taken in Africa and in rich countries to stem this hemorrhaging of resources.

The issue of illicit financial flows is moving higher on the agenda of Western countries and the international community more generally. Notably, mechanisms that have been developed for tracking flows associated with drug smuggling or support for terrorism turn out to be precisely the same mechanisms needed to track resources sent across national borders to evade the tax authorities of both rich and poor countries. This is creating new opportunities to address illicit financial flows of all kinds.

The contributors to this issue are among the leading authorities in the field. They have been asked to cover specific aspects of the topic in accessible language and to suggest further resources for those seeking to explore the topics in more depth. We are delighted with the result, and we hope this issue will be widely used to draw greater attention to the topic of illicit financial flows, which is of fundamental importance for Africa and for countries around the world. The capacity of the 1% to evade their responsibilities and undermine the public good depends on a deeply entrenched network of financial secrecy that spans national boundaries. Exposing this web of institutions to public view and recapturing public resources for public goods requires joint action by scholars, policymakers, and activists that also crosses national and institutional boundaries.

Plundering a Continent

Raymond W. Baker, Director, Global Financial Integrity

Raymond Baker is the Director of Global Financial Integrity and a Senior Fellow at the Center for International Policy in Washington, D.C., researching and writing on the linkages between corruption, money laundering, and poverty. He is the author of Capitalism's Achilles Heel: Dirty Money and How to Renew the Free-Market System. In 2011 he was named to the High Level Panel on Illicit Financial Flows from Africa, chaired by former President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki.

In 1961 I arrived in Lagos, Nigeria, to take over the management of a company. One of the early conversations I had was with an "old coaster," a British gentleman who was managing director of a UK-based trading company that had been active along the west coast of Africa since the late 1800s. I asked him, "How do you do business in Africa?" He looked me skeptically up one side and down the other and wasn't very forthcoming. I got the distinct impression that he did not like Americans showing up in his former British colony so soon after independence. But I pressed on as is my American manner and asked further, "Well, okay, tell me, how do you price your imported cars and textiles and building materials to sell in the Nigerian market?" He answered, "Price? Price is not a problem. I'm not trying to make a profit."

Imagine my surprise. I had just finished Harvard Business School learning all about how to make a profit and here in Africa one of the first persons I encounter tells me he's not trying to make a profit. What could be going on here?

It took me awhile to realize that what he was talking about was transfer pricing. Everything he imported was priced at such a high level that, indeed, the Nigerian subsidiary was not supposed to make a profit. It was only supposed to pay the bills for its imports, with all potential profits shifted back to the UK within the invoices of what was being purchased for resale locally. It took me some time longer to realize that most foreign companies were doing similarly and a bit longer still to figure out that many Nigerians involved in foreign trade were doing the same thingoverpricing imports and underpricing exports in order to shift money out of the continent and into foreign bank accounts. Thus began my education in unrecorded, hidden, usually illegal financial flows and the harm they do to developing countries.

The 1960s marked the takeoff point in developing the structure that facilitates such cross-border illicit financial flows. There are two reasons that account for this. First, the 1960s was the decade of independence. Between the late 1950s and the end of the 1960s, 48 countries gained their independence from colonial powers (1 Some of the political and economic elites in these countries wanted to take their money out by any means possible, and western financial institutions and even governments serviced this desire creatively and effectively.

The 1960s also marked the decade when multinational corporations accelerated their expansion across the world. There were already a handful of international oil and trading companies with operations in perhaps a dozen countries, but the thrust to expand globally took off simultaneously with the decade of independence and has continued since. Many multinational corporations utilized a practice continuing today-aggressive transfer pricing and money laundering schemes to shift profits from countries where they are in business into locations where they are often not in business.

How is this possible? How do you lose money or operate at little or no profit in countries where you are heavily invested and make money in countries and enclaves where you are not invested? Quite simply, you use the global shadow financial system to shift your revenues and profits across borders at will.

This system comprises a number of elements. Tax havens, rising from four or five in the 1950s, now number upwards of 60 situated all around the globe. Most of these tax havens operate as secrecy jurisdictions, meaning that you can establish entities behind nominees and trustees such that no one can find out who are the real owners and managers of these entities. The most popular form-disguised corporations-now number in the millions around the world, more in the United States than in any other country. Anonymous trust accounts are part of this structure. Fake foundations are available, enabling you to donate money to your own foundation and then designate yourself the beneficiary of the distributions. Trade mispricing is the most commonly used device in the global shadow financial system, accounting for more than half of illicit crossborder financial flows. And then there are many specialized forms of money laundering available, so that capital movements can be facilitated through interest payments, derivatives, swap contracts, entirely fake transactions, barter, and more. This global shadow financial system was built by those who live in the countries into which the money arrives, not by those who live in the countries out of which the money comes.

At Global Financial Integrity, we estimate that the shift of laundered money out of Africa over the last 30 years is very roughly on the order to US$1 trillion (Kar and CartwrightSmith 2010). It could be half that and it could easily be twice that, depending on what cannot be seen in our analyses. Whatever the proper figure, we are dealing with an order of magnitude resulting in a devastating impact on the poorest continent and its one billion-plus people.

For many well meaning observers, including the authors of the Washington Consensus promoting unfettered international trade, the only concern here is the loss of tax revenues. Important as this is, the larger impact is the loss of capital to the economies of the continent. Retaining resources in countries has a multiplier effect on domestic activity. Losing resources drains bank accounts, curtails investment, worsens poverty and inequality, and contributes to political instability.

For a half century the western media has focused attention on corruption in Africa. Much of this attention is well deserved. I lived 15 years in Nigeria and retained business interests there until three years ago, so I am not unfamiliar with the reality. But in our analysis of global cross-border illicit financial flows, we think that the corrupt component, stemming from bribery and theft by government officials, is only about three percent of the total. The criminal component arising from drugs, human trafficking, counterfeiting, illegal arms trading, and more is about 30 to 35 percent of the global total. Trade mispricing, in which multinational corporations are heavily involved, is about 60 to 65 percent of the global total. We have not made a separate analysis of these percentages for Africa. The corrupt component may well be higher, and then again the trade mispricing component may also be considerably higher. But the ranking of the three is no doubt correct.

What is missed by most development experts and economic and political analysts is the systemic nature of this problem. Drug trading is approached as a problem to be fought largely through eradication and interdiction. Human trafficking is basically conceived of as a problem of immigration and border control. Corruption is fought from the bottom up more often than from the top down. Money laundering is a matter of know your customer and suspicious activities reports. What we do not want to admit to ourselves is that all three forms of cross-border illicit financial flows utilize the same shadow financial system to shift their revenues and profits. The key fallacy in global anti-money laundering efforts is the idea that commercial interests can hold on to their use of the shadow financial system to move commercially tax-evading money and at the same time make others give up their use of the shadow financial system to move corrupt and criminal money. This is not possible. It is the facilitating system itself that must be changed.

How? Two guidelines are important. Recognize, first of all, that the goal is to curtail illicit financial flows rather the impossible one of stopping them. And second, encompass both rich and poor countries in accomplishing the necessary reforms.

Broadly speaking, the answer is to replace the shadows with transparency. This means a number of steps.

First, banks and other financial intermediaries should be required to know the natural persons owning and managing all financial accounts. This proposal elicited a response from a Wall Street banker who asked, "Do you have any idea how much it would cost us to know the beneficial owners of all our accounts?" The answer is it costs nothing. You put the shoe on the other foot. You the banker sends a letter to each of your non-personalized account holders requesting within six months the name(s) of the natural person(s) owning the account. You advise of the penalties of making a false declaration to a bank. And you advise that if you subsequently find that the information given is incorrect you will have no choice but to block the account pending disposition according to law. Immediately you the banker will get correct information on probably upwards of 99 percent of your accounts. Hopefully the holders that do not want to respond are the accounts that you would prefer not to have anyway. To put it simply, there is no argument in favor of not knowing with whom you are doing business. This is an issue of huge significance in the fight against corruption, crime, terrorism, and tax evasion, and it is the element of the shadow financial system that is the easiest to curtail.

Second, adopt consistent anti-money laundering (AML) policies across the globe. AML has been important on the world scene for two decades. And for two decades money laundering has been growing. How can this be? Very simply, our efforts are more geared to looking for the money after it has passed from one party to another instead of curtailing the flow before it begins. The shadow financial system defeats AML efforts. The Arab Spring is informative. The Mubaraks, the Ben Alis, and the Kaddafis were found to have large deposits abroad, as yet untallied. But with revelations pouring out of these countries, banks were quick to freeze these accounts, pending further determination of their disposition. Of course, the question is, "Why did you take the money in the first place?" And the reason is because vast gaps are left in global AML efforts, with a decided bias toward easily accepting the money and asking questions only later, if at all. The United States and Europe are replete with laundered money scandals and will continue to be so until AML regulations are tightened and sanctions against sheltering ill-gotten gains are stronger.

Third, automatic exchange of tax information needs to be implemented globally. The argument that African nations and other developing countries cannot deal with the volume of data that would be produced through automatic exchange does not stand up to scrutiny. Any nation can deal with the 10 names or 100 names on their tax rolls with the largest incomes. Automatic exchange has been a reality in the European Union for years. It has existed between the United States and Canada for decades, yet remains to be implemented between the United States and Mexico. Prime Minister Manmoham Singh of India called for automatic exchange at the Cannes G-20 summit in 2011. India is certainly an example of an emerging market country with billions spirited abroad, billions on which tax information should be provided.

In relation to this point, note that all the available measures of global inequality are decidedly underestimates, because they do not include earnings on capital deposited by citizens outside their countries. Those incomes from interest, dividends, and rents pile up abroad and largely slip through the global accounting net, meaning that the rich in many developing countries are far richer than they appear to be. The global gap is wider than income statistics show and getting wider every year. Poverty appears to be declining, but inequality is rising and that poses the greater problem in the long run to reconciling democracy and capitalism. Automatic exchange of tax information is a key toward fighting money laundering and its impact on income inequality.

Fourth, trade mispricing, moving more illicit money across borders than all other methods combined, has to be curtailed. And this is the toughest to accomplish. Fortunately, there is a growing set of data on world market pricing that can be accessed online. Customs officers could compare prices on an invoice to world market data to quickly and fairly check for discrepancies. Customs declaration forms that had a statistically significant deviation from market prices would then be pulled out for further review. Use can be made also of pricing declarations backed up by the signatures of importers and exporters. Both can be asked to sign a statement saying that "The transaction herein is priced at world market norms with no element of mispricing for the purpose of manipulating VAT taxes, customs duties, or income taxes, and the transaction conforms to all exchange control regulations, banking statutes, anti-money laundering laws, and terrorist financing prohibitions in the countries of origin and destination." Certainly, some exporters and importers will readily violate such a clause. But there are not many multinational corporations that will run such transactions through their tax planning departments for the prohibited tax manipulations and then ask their people to sign a statement saying they did no such thing. Remember, what we are trying to accomplish here is to curtail-not eliminate but curtail-illicit cross-border financial flows. This issue of trade mispricing needs to be addressed now and cannot wait for a perfect world decades down the road.

Finally, country-by-country reporting is an important step leading toward greater integrity in the global financial system. Discussed in another paper in this bulletin, efforts are underway to require extractive industries to report on their payments to governments, vitally important to Africa. But this merely begins what needs to be accomplished, which is full financial reporting in each country, so that corporations cannot continue this process of losing money where they are in business and making money where they are not in business.

Africa has taken a major step on the road toward curtailing cross-border illicit flows. The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa has named a High Level Panel to research how this phenomenon affects the peoples of the continent and what can be done to surmount the problem. Led by former President of South Africa Thabo Mbeki, the panel constitutes the first effort by a continent-wide organization to come to grips with the reality of massive flows shifting money from poor to rich countries.

Above all else, this is a problem requiring concerted effort by both sides of the equation-those in the countries out of which the money comes and those in the countries into which the money arrives. The solutions are not technically difficult. The issue is a matter of political will.


Kar, Deve, and Devon Cartwright-Smith. 2010. Illicit Financial Flows from Africa: Hidden Resource for Development. Washington, DC: Global Financial Integrity.

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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