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Top Ten Books on Illicit Financial Flows, Tax Justice, and Africa

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Recent AfricaFocus Bulletins | More on illicit financial flows and tax justice

This listing is in order of suggested reading, putting the highest priority books (and those most accessible to the non-specialist reader) higher in the list.

1. Tom Burgis, The Looting Machine: Warlords, Oligarchs, Corporations, Smugglers, and the Theft of Africa's Wealth. New York: Public Affairs, 2015. 330 pages.

For understanding how the connections between Africa and the international partners in the system of illicit financial flows work, this book should be your first stop.

"A rich collage of examples showing the links between corrupt companies and African elites" - The Economist. First-hand reporting from Angola, Nigeria, other African countries, and around the world where the companies, banks, and other "tax haven" facilitators hide the loot.

"The looting machine has been modernized. Where once treaties signed at gunpoint dispossessed Africa's inhabitants of their land, gold, and diamonds, today phalanxes of lawyers representing oil and mineral companies with annual revenues in the billions of dollars impose misely terms on African governments and employ tax dodges to bleed profit from destitute nations. In the place of the old empires are hidden networks of multinationals, middlemen, and African potentates."

2. Nicholas Shaxson, Treasure Islands: Uncovering the Damage of Offshore Banking and Tax Havens. New York: St. Martin's, 2011. 264 pages.

Written several years ago, but still the best readable overview of how tax havens work around the world.

The story includes not only small obscure island countries but also rich countries, such as Switzerland, Luxembourg, Hong Kong, Ireland, the Netherlands, the UK, and the United States.

"I began to see how the terrible human cost of poverty and inequality in Africa, Latin America, and other parts of the world connected with the apparently impersonal world of accounting and financial regulations and tax law. Africa's supposedly natural or inevitable disasters all had one thing in commone: the movement of money out of poor countries and into parts of Europe and the United States, assisted and encouraged by the tax havens and a pinstripe army of respectable bankers, lawyers, and accountants."

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3. Léonce Ndikumana and James K. Boyce, Africa's Odious Debts: How Foreign Loans and Capital Flight Bled a Continent. London: Zed Books, 2011. 135 pages.

Pioneering study linking Africa's debts and the outflow of capital through both debt-servicing and other finanicial flows.

Africa is actually a net creditor to the rest of the world. Money borrowed by dictators on behalf of their countries has left the continent again to reside in private bank accounts in rich countries. "The subcontinent's external assets are private and in the hands of a narrow and wealthy stratum, whereas its external debts are public and therefore borne by the people as a whole through their governments."

"Africa is bleeeding money, as capital flows into the private accounts of African elites and their accomplices in Western financial centers."

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4. Bastian Obermayer and Frederik Obermaier, The Panama Papers: Breaking the Story of How the Rich & Powerful Hide Their Money. London: Oneworld 2016. 366 pages.

Fascinating story of investigative journalism with "big data," by the two German journalists who received the data from a still anonymous "john doe."

Particularly interesting is the use of new technology and collaborative research by journalists around the world, including in seven different African countries: South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana, Mali, Senegal, and Tunisia. "Commercial lawyers sitting in European corporate head offices put a lot of thought into how they can use offshore companies to ensure their African subsidiaries pay as little tax as possible in those countries."

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5. Michaela Wrong, It's Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistleblower. New York: Harper, 2009. 368 pages.

Still one of the most compelling accounts of corruption within an African country. Highlights the role of whistleblower John Githongo.

The primary focus is on internal corruption at the highest levels of the Kenyan government. But it is notable that the story also includes the complicity of Kenya's bilateral donors, the World Bank, and a shell company named Anglo Leasing and Finance Ltd., which was no more than a street address in Liverpool. Notably, one of the related companies involved recently showed up in the Panama Papers.

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6. John Christensen and Dan Hind, eds. The Greatest Invention: Tax and the Campaign for a Just Society. London: Tax Justice Network, 2015. 272 pages.

Compilation of short articles from the Tax Justice Network, from 2003 to 2015. An essential source for development of the debate and the research.

The 'demand' side of 'petty' corruption (bribes) is the most visible kind of corruption. But it is far less important than the "higher level corruption of major companies and governments from the [global] North."

"International banks and other financial intermediaries have played the key role in establishing and maintaining the offshore financial systems which enable dirty money to flow from South to North with relative ease and impunity."

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7. Branko Milanovic, Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalization. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016. 299 pages.

Definitely the most significant and accessible data-based analysis of global income inequality.

The focus is on understanding the extent and changes in income inequality, using a unique dataset compiled from household income surveys from 1988 to 2008, as well as the author's previous research and analysis of changes over last several hundred years. The greatest emphasis is on the "global plutocracy" (1% and above) and on the global middle classes.

The methodology takes account of both inequality within countries and inequality between countries. The data shows, for example, that the lowest 10% in the United States has roughly the same average income as the average income for South Africa as a whole, which is in turn much higher than the average income in most other African countries.

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8. Gabriel Zucman, The Hidden Wealth of Nations: The Scourge of Tax Havens. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015. 129 pages.

According to Thomas Piketty (see below), this book "is the best book that has ever been written on tax havens and what we can do about them."

It includes a history of tax havens, beginning with the role of Switzerland in the period between World Wars I and II. It also provides a quantitative estimate of the amount of money involved, and proposes as the key to a solution the politically difficult creation of a worldwide register of financial wealth as the basis for just taxation.

Zucman estimates that the share of financial wealth in Africa held "offshore" in tax havens at about 30%, as compared to above 50% in Russia and the Middle East. The percentage is much less in the United States (4%). But there is still about $130 billion a year lost to the U.S. treasury by "profit-shifting" to lower-tax jurisdicions.

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9. Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014. 685 pages.

A best-selling and fundamental work that has been more praised than read, which has had enormous impact in bringing greater attention to the issue of economic inequality.

Notable for its proposal (in Chapter 15) of "a progressive global tax on capital, coupled with a very high level of international financial transparency," in order for democracy to "gain control over the globalized financial capitalism of this century."

For a much shorter presentation of Piketty's views, see his speech in South Africa (2015 Nelson Mandela lecture).

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10. To be determined. Please nominate additional books in email to

Most recent bulletins on illicit financial flows and tax justice

June 4, 2018  West Africa/Global: Tax Evasion without Borders
    "On paper, the company that engineered and built the [$50 million mineral sands] processing plant [in Senegal] was SNC Lavalin-Mauritius Ltd, a local division of SNC Lavalin [Canada]. In reality, SNC Lavalin-Mauritius wasn’t involved. It was a shell, created for the specific purpose of helping the engineering giant avoid tax payments. The company had no construction equipment and no office of its own. It operated from inside the Mauritius office of the offshoring law firm Appleby, which helped SNCLavalin create the shell company." - West Africa Leaks

March 12, 2018  Africa/Global: Charting Where They Hide the Money, 1
    "Switzerland, the United States and the Cayman Islands are the world’s biggest contributors to financial secrecy, according to the latest edition of the Tax Justice Network’s Financial Secrecy Index (FSI). ... Kenya, which this year set up its own tax haven in the form of the Nairobi International Financial Centre, is an example of how interests of western financial service lobbyists have successfully lured governments into a race to the bottom. Kenya, which has been assessed for the first time in the 2018 FSI, has an extremely high secrecy score of 80/100." - Tax Justice Network

March 12, 2018  Africa/Global: Charting Where They Hide the Money, 2
    "Overall, the City of London and [its] offshore satellites constitute by far the most important part of the global offshore world of secrecy jurisdictions. Had we lumped them together, the British network would be at the top of our index, above Switzerland." - Tax Justice Network

January 15, 2018  Africa/Global: World Trends in Inequality
    "The divergence in inequality levels has been particularly extreme between Western Europe and the United States, which had similar levels of inequality in 1980 but today are in radically different situations. While the top 1% income share was close to 10% in both regions in 1980, it rose only slightly to 12% in 2016 in Western Europe while it shot up to 20% in the United States. Meanwhile, in the United States, the bottom 50% income share decreased from more than 20% in 1980 to 13% in 2016." - World Inequality Report, 2018

January 15, 2018  South Africa/USA: Inequality is Extreme and Still Rising
    "I came here because of my deep interest and affection for a land settled by the Dutch in the mid-seventeenth century, then taken over by the British, and at last independent; a land in which the native inhabitants were at first subdued, but relations with whom remain a problem to this day; a land which defined itself on a hostile frontier; a land which has tamed rich natural resources through the energetic application of modern technology; a land which once imported slaves, and now must struggle to wipe out the last traces of that former bondage. I refer, of course, to the United States of America." - Robert F. Kennedy, University of Cape Town, June 6, 1966

December 11, 2017  Africa/Global: Paradise Papers, Plus
    The Paradise Papers investigation, based on a leak of 6.8 million documents from the offshore law firm Appleby, is the largest of recent revelations of the hidden world of financial manipulation used by both multinational corporations and rich (high net worth) individuals from around the world. Like the Panama Papers investigation that won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize, it is based both on "big data" analysis and on collaborative investigative reporting by teams of hundreds of journalists. But it is based on the records of only one offshore law firm, albeit one of the most prominent. Despite the size of the leak, it still reveals only the tip of the iceberg.

September 25, 2017  Africa/Global: How Women Lose from Tax Injustice
    A new report from the Association for Women in Development (AWID), authored by Dr. Attiya Waris in Nairobi, makes a powerful case that women lose disproportionately from illicit financial flows, which reduce the tax base and deprive states of the resources to invest in critical public goods, and that addressing this issue is key to efforts to combat gender inequality. The point should not be surprising, but too often the impact of tax evasion and tax avoidance is cloaked in jargon that makes it less visible than cases such as overt discrimination against women in employment and wages. In contrast, this report stands out for its clarity. AfricaFocus strongly recommends the full version, which is available on-line at

July 17, 2017  Congo (Kinshasa): Inga Dam Mirage Recedes, Again
    The latest projections for the Inga 3 hydroelectric project on the Congo River to become operational, cited in press reports last week, are 2024 or 2025. But even if the project is financed and constructed, says a new report, the project will likely provide only minimal electric power for the people of Democratic Republic of the Congo and burden the country with more unsustainable debt.

July 10, 2017  Africa/Global: Following the Money
    "As an important tool in our fight against corruption, tax evasion, terrorist financing and money laundering, we will advance the effective implementation of the international standards on transparency and beneficial ownership of legal persons and legal arrangements, including the availability of information in the domestic and crossborder context." - G20 Summit Communiqué, Hamburg, July 8, 2017

June 6, 2017  South Africa: #Guptaleaks - Will Heads Roll?
    "The Guptas have until now escaped investigation from the state agencies because they have purchased indemnity. You have to hand it to the Guptas; the way they went about capturing the state is quite impressive. Not only did they buy the president and his son, they targeted key people in government that could act as their minions. When people were resistant to their agenda, they scouted for bootlickers and had them appointed. They paid off people in the security agencies to make sure they would not be bothered with criminal investigations." - Daily Maverick, June 5, 2017

May 24, 2017  Nigeria: Corruption Undercuts Boko Haram Fight
    "Nigeria's corrupt elites have profited from conflict; with oil prices at a record low, defence has provided new and lucrative opportunities for the country's corrupt kleptocrats. Former military chiefs have stolen as much as US $15 billion – a sum equivalent to half of Nigeria's foreign currency reserves – through fraudulent arms procurement deals." - new report on "Weaponizing Tranparency"

April 17, 2017  Africa/Global: New Reports Show Massive Tax Losses
    On April 15, "tax day" in the United States, tens of thousands of demonstrators in over 200 communities around the country marched to demand that President Trump make public his tax returns ( Protesters also denounced his use of taxpayer funds for his personal profit and military escalation while his administration continues its assault on spending for urgent public needs at home and around the world. There is no sign that the President will comply with the demand for transparency. But the award of a Pulitzer Prize last week to the international consortium that exposed the Panama Papers was only one indicator that the drive to expose tax evasion, tax avoidance, and corruption around the world will continue.

Complete listing of bulletins on illicit financial flows, tax justice, and debt, 2003-present