Latest Developments, October 19

In the latest news and analysis…

The truth about tax agreements
The Tax Justice Network writes that the Cayman News Service “has blown the lid on one of the biggest lies of recent years about tax havens/secrecy jurisdiction” that tax information exchange agreements (TIEAs) bring transparency to tax havens.
“On the face of them TIEAs appeared “fearsome” with one tax authority forcing another to disclose information on foreign nationals, [Mourant Ozannes’s Robert] Shepherd noted, but actually there was a good deal that trust professionals could do to protect beneficiaries and honour obligations of confidentiality, citing a number of hoops that tax authorities needed to go through to extract information. For example, the onshore authority must initially identify the tax payer in question about whom they require the information and equally they must have exhausted all local powers to gain information first.

Ziva Robertson from Withers said that there was a big difference between the political will to be seen to be creating TIEAs and the actual economic effect of their implementation.”

Inclusive growth and inequality
The International Monetary Fund’s new economic outlook for Sub-Saharan Africa predicts continued high growth for the region and disputes the apparent disconnect between growth and poverty reduction, while conceding that inequality is rising.
“First, for the region as a whole, the link between poverty and growth is generally weak. But this relationship is considerably stronger for the region’s high-growth countries.
Second, there is evidence of growth having been fairly inclusive in the region’s high-growth countries. We find, for example, that the lowest quartile in three out of the four case studies (Ghana, Tanzania, Uganda) has enjoyed fairly high increases in consumption. But there are signs that in many of these countries higher-income households have enjoyed still higher growth in consumption. This implies some increase in inequality, broadly in line with patterns observed in a number of high-growth Asian countries.”

Malaria vaccine agnosticism
New York University’s Karen Grépin urges caution over the news of a possible malaria vaccine that set off so much excitement earlier this week.
“But as a public health professional, I just don’t think that enough new evidence has been presented for us to think that we found a “game changer” when it comes to malaria prevention and control. The real question, at least in my mind, that is relevant in this discussion is: does this vaccine provide any real lasting immunological protection in the target populations? The interim study was not set up to address this question. The actual full study was but, and I am not entirely sure why, the interim results were published anyway years before the real results of this study are going to be known. I am not the only one who questions the merits of this approach, in the accompanying editorial in the [New England Journal of Medicine] by Nicolas Witte, a true expert in this area, said “there does not seem to be a clear scientific reason why this trial has been reported with less than half the efficacy results available”. But of course we all know it is not always just science that drives most scientific discussions.”

GM food politics
IRIN reports on the ongoing debate over genetically modified food in Africa which finds itself in the middle of an ideological and commercial rivalry between the US and EU.
“A deep mistrust also prevails in Africa, given the fact that two power blocs – the EU and the USA remain divided over GM.
Only one strain of GM maize, Monsanto 810, and one modified potato, have been approved in the EU, and most countries grow neither commercially. Spain accounts for about 80 percent of GMO grown in the EU in terms of land under cultivation, but Austria, France, Greece, Hungary, Germany and Luxembourg have banned all GMO cultivation.
On the other hand, in the USA, where 70 percent of maize is GM, GM food need not be labelled. Some food experts say both the EU and the USA have vested interests in promoting their respective views in Africa, which is seen as a potential market and supplier of either GM or non-GM products.”

The Overseas Development Institute’s Jonathan Glennie questions the common claim that poor countries will suffer too unless Europe recovers quickly from its current economic crisis.
“But growth in some parts of the world and not others is just as plausible as growth all over the place. Plenty of economists view the rapid growth of Europe and the US in the past two centuries as a cause of impoverishment in other countries, rather than an unrelated consequence of sound economic management and hard work.
While income per capita has grown rapidly in the rich world for the past three decades, from about $14,000 (constant 2000) to about $26,000, it declined in sub-Saharan Africa (from $571 to $507) and stagnated in all low-income countries (at around $240) until things started to get marginally better in the first decade of this century. It is simply not the case that western prosperity is necessarily associated with prosperity elsewhere.”

Commodity bonds
Harvard University’s Jeffrey Frankel argues poor countries that depend heavily on resource exports are vulnerable to market volatility and could benefit from issuing commodity bonds rather than borrowing in dollars.
“The advantage of such bonds is that in the event of a decline in the world price of the underlying commodity, the debt-to-export ratio need not rise. The cost of debt service adjusts automatically, without the severe disruption that results from loss of confidence, crisis, debt restructuring, and so forth.”

Millennium Villages Project transparency
The Center for Global Development’s Michael Clemens and the World Bank’s Gabriel Demombynes argue that the Millennium Villages Project uses evaluation methods that make it impossible to judge whether or not it is having the desired (and claimed) results.
“A critical element of persuasive impact evaluation is that it is independent and transparent. An independent and transparent analysis of its data could make the MVP evaluation more persuasive. The MVP has told us, however, that it will only consider making data available to outside researchers after it has completed publishing all of its work on data collected through 2016. This suggests the MVP will not share any of the data it has collected until roughly 2020, 15 years after the project began.”

Apples to apples
Oxfam’s Duncan Green has posted a World Bank list of the world’s 100 largest economies, which includes countries, companies and cities, thereby prompting a number of apples-to-oranges comments and a subsequent update to the original post.
“Fascinating comment from [the Bretton Woods Project’s] Peter Chowla, pointing out that a better comparison is between government tax revenue and corporate revenue, and when he crunched the numbers (he didn’t include cities), he got only 29 countries in the top 100 – the rest were corporates.”

Latest Developments, October 18

In the latest news and analysis…

FDI dangers
Reuters reports international negotiations have not succeeded in producing voluntary guidelines to curb land grabs in poor countries, a phenomenon driven by uncertain markets and a race to the bottom to attract foreign investment.
“Countries who want to attract investment are currently competing with each other to provide buyers with the best deal, such as a low price for land, low taxes, and few demands for employment creation and protection of the local food system, [the U.N.’s special rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier] De Schutter said.
Targeted African and Asian countries would benefit from a common set of guidelines, which would increase their bargaining position and make it easier for them to demand conditions to protect vulnerable land-users, he said.”

Conflict minerals
Reuters also reports on the battle in Washington over the Securities and Exchange Commission’s attempts to implement a legal provision requiring companies to disclose if their products contain “conflict minerals” from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“Companies and business groups have largely opposed the measure as proposed, saying it captures far too many companies who do not directly manufacture their goods and have little say or knowledge about the origins of the minerals used in their products. They have urged the SEC to implement the plan over time, and also to give relief to companies that use trace amounts of the minerals in question.
But lawmakers, human rights groups and some socially conscious investors have decried the delay in the SEC’s rulemaking process.”

Resource caution
In the midst of all the excitement about Africa’s current rate of economic growth, Oxford economist Paul Collier warns of the dangers of relying on revenues from resource exports.
“The meltdown in commodity prices over the last two months perfectly illustrates the volatility inherent in these global markets. Resource-rich low-income countries are typically highly dependent upon the tax receipts from resource exports for government revenue. The rents on commodity extraction are highly geared on the price and so are even more volatile than prices. Since taxes are designed to capture the rents, government revenue is thus deeply unpredictable.”

Remittance curse
Economist and mathematician David Ellerman suggests remittances can represent a curse in the same way as resource wealth is often thought to do.
“Like the discovery of oil, the flow of remittances back to the sending country will increase income levels but that itself does not amount to economic development. In fact, it may have the opposite effect. Many of the resource-curse arguments apply to the ‘oil wells’ of remittances. The pressure on the governments to facilitate job creation in the sending countries is much reduced when they can export their unemployment problem and even receive a sizable inflow of hard currency in return.”

Intimidating investigation
Oxfam is reporting that people who complained to the NGO of being forcibly evicted to make way for the Ugandan operations of UK-based New Forests Company – as highlighted in an Oxfam report on land grabs released last month – now say they are being intimidated by employees of the company which had promised an independent investigation in the original allegations.
“We have heard from many people in these communities that they are feeling intimidated by the recent actions of NFC, which are totally at odds with the principles of an independent and transparent investigation,” according to Oxfam’s Vicky Rateau. “They have already lost their homes and land and many have been subjected to violent behavior. They need a credible investigation not further pressure.”

Malaria vaccine
The Guardian’s Sarah Boseley reports on a possible new malaria vaccine that has roughly halved the incidence of the disease in trials to this point.
“The arguments over value for money will be starting even now. Donors will want to figure out whether bednets or artimisinin drugs are a better investment than a vaccine that will reduce the number of malaria cases but not stop the disease in its tracks.
Price will be a critical factor in these considerations. [GlaxoSmithKline’s Andrew] Witty says they will do everything they can to get it down. He is looking at the costs involved in manufacturing and supply – even at the price of the vial. He is prepared to offer licences to get the vaccine produced cheaply in India or in Africa itself.”

Feminist development
The Overseas Development Institute’s Jonathan Glennie argues for the reassertion of feminism as the “theoretical underpinning” for women’s rights around the world but cautions against the imposition of cultural values.
“The certainty that has typified feminist struggle in the west, and has been one of the reasons for its great successes, does not often work cross-culturally. Certainty can only arise indigenously – and there are plenty of national feminist organisations across the world that are leading the fight in their own countries, in their own way (see the debate about the Gisele Bündchen adverts in Brazil, for example). In the international sphere, certainty must be replaced with humility about what the answers are and, crucially, a profound openness to learning from other cultures.”

Rejecting happiness
The Center for Global Development’s Charles Kenny thinks the recent craze among politicians to develop happiness measures as policy-making tools is misguided.
“This isn’t to say that politicians shouldn’t care whether their people are happy. But life is complicated and so is what makes up a good one. It is time to give up looking for a single indicator to capture how we’re doing at it.”