Given the significant amount of coverage which the UK foreign aid budget receives in the press, in political discussion, and in charities’ external communications, the public would be forgiven for thinking that the UK sends vast swathes of money overseas. The UK does spend a significant amount of money on international development – in fact it was the first G7 country to meet the UN’s 45-year old aid spending target. The current foreign aid budget stands at approximately £12 billion which is around 1.6% of government spending.
Overall, rich countries send a total of around $125 billion in foreign aid to developing countries each year. Now that is a lot of money, and governments of wealthy nations use this as evidence of their generosity. However, the dominant ‘aid narrative’ glosses over the various ways in which rich countries extract wealth from developing nations, effectively taking back their aid contributions. Below are some examples of how this is achieved:
In the olden days (pre-1980s), the responsibility was on lenders to make sure that their loans would get repaid. Lending to riskier countries (e.g. those in the developing world) offered a higher rate of return, but carried with it the risk that the borrowing country would default on its loan and the lender would lose out.
This all changed in 1982 when Mexico defaulted on its loans. The US Treasury and the International Monetary Fund, rather than incurring the huge losses which this would have entailed, decided to step in. Instead of letting the loan default, these organisations rescheduled the debt in exchange for Mexico’s adoption of certain economic policies which opened the country up to foreign interests and which are widely regarded to have damaged the Mexican economy, making it more difficult for them to repay.
This treatment, known as ‘structural adjustment’, then became standard. The result has been that the amount of debt owed by developing countries has spiralled as more and more interest was piled onto loans which should have been defaulted on while new loans had to be taken out to cover the repayments, leading to debts many times larger than the original sum. In many cases, so much interest is accrued that the original debt is repaid several times over. For 2015, the debt service paid on external debt by low and middle income countries exceeded $800 billion.
Tax avoidance is theft, plain and simple. Multinational corporations take full advantage of public spending on infrastructure, education, law enforcement, etc. in the countries in which they operate, and then don’t pay for it. Unlike theft, however, for the most part tax avoidance is perfectly legal and carried out through a process known as trade mispricing.
Let’s say that I own an internet search provider – let’s call it ‘Moogle’ – operating in the USA, the UK, and the British Virgin Islands. Now, profits have been good this year and Moogle US and Moogle UK have both made $10 million. However, Moogle British Virgin Islands, since it really only exists on paper, has no profit at all to show. Before the end of the tax year I decide that what the US and UK branches need is a snazzy new logo, so they each pay Moogle British Virgin Islands $10 million for this important work. And would you look at that, hey presto! When the taxman comes round to Moogle US and UK, they unfortunately haven’t made any profit to be taxed on. Perhaps they should take a leaf out of the British Virgin Islands branch’s book where there is $20 million awaiting significantly more ‘business-friendly’ tax rates.
Tax avoidance in developing countries effectively constitutes a transfer of wealth from the public purse to the private coffers of multinational corporations by and large headquartered in the rich countries. In 2012, developing countries lost approximately $991 billion in illicit outflows – greater than the combined foreign aid and foreign direct investment they received that year.
Of course, tax avoidance does not just benefit multinational corporations based in the West, but also wealthy companies and individuals within developing countries who wish to conceal their profits from the tax authorities. However, large-scale tax avoidance is only possible because of the existence of tax havens, the vast majority of which are controlled by a handful of Western countries. For instance, the largest network of tax havens has the City of London at its centre, which controls secrecy jurisdictions throughout the British Crown Dependencies and Overseas Territories.
Global trade rules can be highly varied, but the most important are those concerning tariffs and regulation of foreign investment. Tariffs are taxes which countries put on foreign goods in order to give an advantage to their own industries. For example, when Japan’s car industry first started out it couldn’t compete with foreign imports, so the Japanese government introduced tariffs which allowed the domestic car industry to grow and nowadays it is one of the best in the world. Regulation maximises the benefit which developing countries get from foreign businesses operating on their soil – for example, requiring them to transfer technology or buy materials from domestic suppliers.
The main thrust of international trade agreements in recent years – primarily as a result of pressure from rich countries – has been to reduce tariffs on manufactured goods (by and large produced in developed countries), and to reduce regulation. Reducing tariffs means that emergent manufacturing industries in developing countries are outcompeted by more established rivals in the developed world, meaning that developing countries are stuck in low-productivity industries such as agriculture and textile manufacture. Reducing regulation means that corporations based in the developing world are able to exploit cheap labour or extract natural resources in a developing country, send the profits back home, and contribute little or nothing to the country’s economic development.
It’s difficult to give an exact figure as to how much these unfair and one-sided trade rules have cost developing countries, but economist Robert Pollin of the University of Massachusetts has estimated the cost at $500 billion a year.
A recent report by Global Financial Integrity which comprehensively examined international financial flows found that for every dollar in aid received by developing countries, $24 is lost through other means.
Of course foreign aid is not the only money which developing countries receive from their wealthy counterparts. In 2012, developing countries received a total of $1.3 trillion from aid, foreign investment, remittances, income from abroad, etc. At the same time, $3.3 trillion flowed out of them, meaning that they experienced a net loss of $2 trillion that year. That’s $2 trillion that could have been spent on combating poverty, improving healthcare, developing industry, or adapting to climate change. Far from being recipients of enormous swathes of cash, overall developing countries are net creditors to the rest of the world.
The fact that the UK spends billions of pounds each year in aid to developing countries is common knowledge. However, the vast amount of money that rich countries receive back from developing countries is not nearly as well known. Perhaps public attitudes towards foreign aid would shift if more people knew that, far from sending too much money abroad, the UK and other rich countries currently do far more harm than good in the developing world.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.
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