Seeking tax justice


In this guest post, Dr Justin Thacker asks why we are so reticent about tackling issues of structural economic justice and highlights one way we could do so on Sunday 6th June – Tax Justice Sunday

For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords…who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the foreigners, providing them with food and clothing. (Deut 10:17,18)

In these words from Deuteronomy, the two sides to our moral responsibilities to the economically vulnerable are highlighted. On the one hand, we are called to provide those who are destitute with ‘food and clothing’. At the same time though, we are also required to implement God’s missional concern for ‘justice’. While I think we have been relatively good in responding to the first of these aspects, we have, I would suggest, been woefully inadequate at addressing the second. Melba Maggay, a Filipino theologian perhaps sum this up most effectively when she says:

Evangelicals are unfortunately stuck in merely providing discrete services to the poor, without addressing the larger context of why people are poor. There is a reluctance to engage in advocacy, to create a public voice and insert the cause of the poor into political space.

There are of course many reasons for such reluctance including the sacred-secular divide, fear of liberal and liberation theologies, an under-realized eschatology, fear of losing our privilege (or from an NGO’s point of view, income), an individualistic gospel and lack of a fully worked out theology of advocacy, and finally an association with communism (for a discussion of these see Offut et al, Advocating for Justice). This last connection is neatly summed up in Dom Hélder Câmara reported statement:

When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.

However, as I want to argue none of these reasons should stop us from engaging in activity which addresses the root causes of material poverty. Not the least of the reasons for this is that it is a thoroughly biblical concern.


Throughout the Old Testament, repeated reference is made to the compassion we should show towards the widow, the orphan, the stranger/foreigner and the poor. These categories occur in combination throughout (Exodus 22:22; Deuteronomy 10:18; 24:17; Job 24:3; Psalm 94:6; Isaiah 1:17; Jeremiah 7:6 and so on). In a chapter I am writing for a book, I analysed every one of the OT references where at least two of these categories appear together. In that analysis, I examined the relevant scripture as to whether its injunction was that we directly help the relevant groups—for instance by providing food or shelter—or whether we should seek justice for the relevant groups by upholding their rights, pleading their cause and so on. I have classified the first of these responses as that of ‘charity’, and the second of these responses as that of ‘justice’, and the summary of what I found is that in 30% of the occurrences, the emphasis was on charity, and in 70% the emphasis was on justice. To be clear, when I refer to ‘charity’ and ‘justice’, I am not referring to whether the words hesed (loosely, charity) or mishpat / tsedeq (loosely, justice) appeared; I am referring to whether the concepts in terms of direct provision of support or advocating for their cause was the primary concern. Some examples of ‘justice’ are reproduced below:

Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statutes, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be your spoil, and that you may make the orphans your prey! (Isaiah 10:1,2)

Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless. (Isaiah 10:2)

The sense we get in these verses (and others) is that while God does want us to respond to the situation of those who are economically vulnerable by providing direct support in terms of food, clothing and shelter, it is even more the case that we must not exploit them, that we must treat them fairly, that we must defend their cause. In short, we must advocate for structural justice alongside our works of mercy.

Tax Justice Sunday

A similar argument to this could be made in respect of the New Testament, and theologically I have set out numerous arguments for why structural justice matters in my Global Poverty book. However, I now want to turn to just one issue that demonstrates the kind of advocacy for justice that I am referring to—namely, tax justice.

We are all rightly concerned about the crushing levels of poverty experienced by the majority of people in the world. In Africa, it remains the case that around a third of children suffer from chronic malnutrition, that every minute two of them die from malaria, and that over 300 million people in that continent lack access to clean drinking water. What makes these kind of statistics even more condemning for those of us who have access to material wealth is the obscene inequalities in our world. Just 22 men hold the same wealth as all the women in Africa, and while inequality has, of course, always existed, it has not existed on this kind of scale for a very long time. In short, the world easily has enough resources for everyone to thrive if only it was shared more justly.

This brings us to the issue of tax justice for one of the reasons why sub-saharan Africa is so poor is simply that we—as in the West—steal its wealth. We do this via debt servicing where many African countries continue to spend more on their debts than they do on their own health or education services—but I want to focus on tax injustice.

It is estimated that tax dodging by large multinationals costs the global south in total approximately $200 billion a year, and sub-saharan Africa around $100 billion each year. This is far more than the continent receives in official aid each year. The important point to remember about this tax abuse is that this is money that is owed to the continent. In a recent report I wrote, I detailed one such example relating to Zambian copper mines where after many years of fighting the Zambian government has finally won a court battle to recoup some of those lost tax revenues. In that specific case, the money they were owed in Zambia would have enabled them to double their spending on health or education if they had received it.

To put this more bluntly, money that should be paying a teacher or nurse’s salary in Africa is in fact helping fund the lavish lifestyle of some multi-millionaire in a tax haven. Tax Justice is about trying to right that wrong.

Sunday 6th June has been designated Tax Justice Sunday and if you are able we would love you to share a short video during your service that highlights this issue. You can download it here.

It uses data from a recent United Nations report to demonstrate the difference that a fairer global tax regime could make. That fairer system is within our grasp. The OECD is currently negotiating how to reform the global tax rules. The US president has set out one way forward. At the moment, the current proposals are not especially fair to lower income countries but there exist ready made proposals for how they could be, and we believe that public pressure on our own government could encourage them to seek a more just solution.

The history of evangelicals and economic justice is one of which we can be rightly proud. Evangelicals were at the forefront of campaigns to end slavery, reform factories, end child labour, eradicate slum dwellings and introduce public health and education, but most of these initiatives were over a hundred years ago. We seem to have lost a bit of our mettle in this regard and tax justice could be the issue where we rediscover this calling.

PS The Tax Justice Sunday video can be shared at any time, not just on Sunday 6th June. For more resources for Tax Justice Sunday see here.


Dr Justin Thacker is the national coordinator of Church Action for Tax Justice. He was formerly the academic dean and lecturer in public theology at Cliff College and continues to lecture on a freelance part-time basis at a number of theological colleges. His most recent book is Global Poverty: A Theological Guide (SCM Press)


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19 thoughts on “Seeking tax justice”

  1. Justin, you write: one of the reasons why sub-saharan Africa is so poor is simply that we—as in the West—steal its wealth. But who is “we” here? I never wanted the bank in which I deposited my working salary to loan it to 3rd World kleptocrats who patently would never pay it back. The banking system has become an evil and it oppresses people in the West as much as outside it.

    Similarly, you talk about the amount of money that tax dodging by multinationals has cost Africa. Brother, it has cost me too! My taxes go to make up what multinats should have paid the UK government.

    Could you summarise what you mean by a “global tax regime”, please? Taxes are levied by sovereign governments.

    Reply
    • Good questions. By the ‘West’ I don’t mean every individual living in the West. Clearly, many of us are opposed to what has been done. I mean the decisions taken by both politicians and bankers to lend inappropriately. So i agree the banking system oppresses folks in the West too, but I do not agree that it does so to the same extent. As a proportion of tax revenue, global south countries lose out far more than we do in wealthier countries.

      Yes, but governments have signed up to a series of bilateral tax treaties which ostensibly are about avoiding double taxation but which in practice mean that lower income countries lose out as the bilateral treaties always favour the wealthier nations as they are the ones with greater bargaining power.

      Reply
    • Could you summarise what you mean by a “global tax regime”, please? Taxes are levied by sovereign governments.

      I believe the USA is proposing that it will declare that the ‘minimum global rate’ of corporate tax is 15%, and that if any US-based company has operations in a country which has a lower rate, the US federal government will confiscate from them the difference between what they paid in tax in that country and what they would have paid if the tax rate there was 15%.

      Quite how this is supposed to benefit poorer countries, rather than simply line the pockets of the US treasury, is utterly beyond me.

      Reply
      • The Global Tax Regime is an agreement between sovereign nations not to tax people or companies on earnings in another country that have been taxed there (even at a zero rate of tax).

        In law a company is a ‘person’ that is a privilege offered by the law, but with it should come ethical and legal duties to contribute to the common good. Like a person a company also has a nationality and so if income is not taxed elsewhere then the company should pay tax in its own country.

        I think it unfair to label taxation as expropriation. Taxation is contributing to the common good of the country.

        The proposal alters the power balance between the small poorer states and the multi-nationals they host (who often have far more income that the government of the small country) – to properly levy taxes on these companies. That way they become more wealthy. The multi-nationals can no longer threaten to go elsewhere because there is no benefit.

        It also provides justice to smaller companies across the world who do not hide their profits in tax havens., yet compete with the multinationals on unequal terms.

        Reply
        • The Global Tax Regime is an agreement between sovereign nations not to tax people or companies on earnings in another country that have been taxed there (even at a zero rate of tax).

          If that’s what it means then it currently doesn’t exist. There are several bilateral treaties to avoid double taxation (I believe the UK and the USA have one) but there is no ‘global regime’ to avoid double taxation.

          It would be better if there were, but there isn’t.

          In law a company is a ‘person’ that is a privilege offered by the law, but with it should come ethical and legal duties to contribute to the common good.

          Companies contribute to the common good by doing business, though. Take Tesco for example. They contribute to the common good by providing food, don’ they? Is feeding people, at reasonable prices, not a contribution to the common good? If you think it’s not you should try living somewhere where companies don’t contribute to the common good, live the old USSR, and enjoy your miles of empty shelves.

          I think it unfair to label taxation as expropriation. Taxation is contributing to the common good of the country.

          Taxation is a way to deal with collective action problems in providing non-excludable, non-rivalrous public goods.

          The proposal alters the power balance between the small poorer states and the multi-nationals they host (who often have far more income that the government of the small country) – to properly levy taxes on these companies. That way they become more wealthy.

          If by ‘they’ you mean the small poorer states, then no they don’t. No state has ever become more wealthy by taxing. Lots of states have become more wealthy over the last few decades: South Korea, Vietnam, etc etc. If you are a poor state that wants to become wealthy, you need to look at what other once-poor, now-wealthy countries did, and copy them.

          Reply
          • A person (in law a natural person) provides a service by their employment yet they also expect to pay tax, why should a company not expect to pay tax?

            Countries that are not able to collect tax on the wealth earned in their country are unable to provide services such as health and education which condemns their people to ongoing poverty.

          • A person (in law a natural person) provides a service by their employment yet they also expect to pay tax, why should a company not expect to pay tax?

            I didn’t say they shouldn’t. You were the one implying that it was only by paying tax that a company ‘contributed to the common good’, as if a company didn’t contribute to the common good simply by providing a service to its customers.

            Countries that are not able to collect tax on the wealth earned in their country are unable to provide services such as health and education which condemns their people to ongoing poverty.

            No, countries with unstable and / or corrupt political systems are unable to provide services such as health and education, and that doesn’t change whether they collect tax or not.

            Again: why do you ignore that we have solid, real-world, undeniable evidence of what lifts a country out of poverty, and it’s not tax?

  2. the root causes of material poverty

    There’s no such thing. Poverty doesn’t have causes; poverty is simply the natural state of all humanity. What is unnatural, what has causes, is wealth.

    Reply
  3. So, I can’t help thinking that a monomaniacal focus on tax misses the point.

    Since 1990 the number of people living in extreme poverty has fallen by three-quarters. And that’s even more impressive than it sounds (and it sounds pretty darned impressive) because there are a lot more people in the world now than there were in 1990. So even though there are more people in general, about one-quarter of the absolute number are living in extreme poverty.

    Most of this has been due to a near-total collapse in extreme poverty in Asia and the Pacific. The only area of the world where lots of people stubbornly remain in extreme poverty is in sub-Saharan Africa. These days extreme poverty is almost entirely concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa.

    Knowing this, surely the important question is: how do we get sub-Saharan Africa to do whatever it was that Asia and the Pacific did, that raised their populations out of extreme poverty?

    (The other thing to note is that clearly what is keeping sub-Saharan Africa in poverty is clearly not ‘an unjust global tax system’, because Asia and the Pacific are just as much a part of the global system as sub-Saharan Africa, and if the global tax system really made it impossible for a country to dig itself out of extreme poverty then we wouldn’t have seen the collapse in extreme poverty that we have seen.)

    So my question is: how many of the countries in Asia and the Pacific which have managed to all but eliminate extreme poverty, did so using their tax systems? I can’t think of a single example of a country which has successfully eliminated extreme poverty doing so by using its tax system; can you?

    Reply
    • This happened in Asia – largely China – because of Western investment in factories there and a low-tariff trade regime within which their goods were sold. It is more effective and less disruptive to move capital (factories) to people than vice-versa, as they live where cost of living is lower. Some see this as exploitation; complex issues! But nobody presently wishes to locate factories in Africa because of political instability, power cuts, the need to pay bribes to keep it going, etc.

      Reply
      • political instability

        Right. It seems to me that that’s the big issue here, not tax. After all, without a stable political system, there’s no point in any tinkering around with the tax systems, because nay extra tax money will just be embezzled, or squandered on vanity projects, or wasted on infrastructure that is abandoned half-completed when the regime changes and priorities shift, etc.

        So surely the first priority, way way before ‘tax justice’, has to be working with these places to build up political stability and the rules of law?

        And once that happens, you can watch poverty disappear practically overnight…

        Reply
        • S,

          You arguments suggest that you might need to re-examine your theology of money. Just as Jesus’ challenge to the rich young ruler (Mark 10:17-31, Matthew 19:16-30, Luke 18:18-30)

          Reply
          • You arguments suggest that you might need to re-examine your theology of money.

            You’ll have to explain to me what you think is wrong with my arguments, I’m afraid. Are you claiming that extreme poverty hasn’t been all but eliminated everywhere but sub-Saharan Africa? Do you think there’s some reason that the processes which eliminated extreme poverty everywhere else wouldn’t work in sub-Saharan Africa?

  4. The problem is clear but the solution may not be. The worry that a lot of people will have about a global tax regime is that it will be another step towards a world government by international law (and not democracy). We are told that international law supersedes domestic law and that when one government gives away its sovereignty it is extremely difficult to get back leading to a non democratic world and ultimately benefiting the big players who influence the fine detail giving themselves plenty of loopholes to exploit the masses even more.

    But take a step back – isn’t the problem you’ve identified a result of the ability of a company to incorporate as a multi-national and then choose how to arrange its tax internationally? What if we went back to the system where if a company wants to operate in a particular country they must incorporate in that country and that local company follow the laws and tax regime of that country. The local company would be owned by, say, the American parent company but that wouldn’t change the local tax and legal implications. Perhaps this is closer to the root cause of the problem you have identified.

    Reply
      • The notion of “international law” is incoherent. There are only international treaties.

        Well, there are conventions about how to interpret those treaties. So that kind of functions a bit like law, as long as states agree to follow the conventions.

        But there’s no ‘international law’ in the sense that there’s no court that can enforce its decisions on sovereign countries if they don’t want it to, no.

        Reply
        • There are various international courts set up by such treaties. So the treaties are law. You are right that a treaty cannot be imposed on third party states, but the effect of this measure makes the powerful governments impose the requirements on the companies who are incorporated there and through them the subsidiaries that do so much to exploit the worlds poor.

          Reply
          • You are right that a treaty cannot be imposed on third party states

            A treaty can’t even be imposed on a signatory state, if the signatory state decides not to honour it. All that can happen if a state decides to ignore a treaty that it has signed is that other signatories have to decide what retaliatory actions they are willing to undertake (up to and including going to war).

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