Developing countries are losing more than $1tn (£614bn) a year in „illicit financial flows“, stemming from crime and corruption, according to estimates. This fast-rising figure is already 10 times the total amount offoreign aid these countries are receiving.
Between 2002 and 2011, governments in the developing world are thought to have lost a total of almost $6tn, largely due to poorgovernance and lax regulation, according to Global Financial Integrity (GFI), a Washington-based watchdog. Included in its estimates are ill-gotten wealth from purposefully incorrect trade invoices, the use of shell companies and tax havens and other accounting gimmicks.
„This gives further evidence to the notion that illicit financial flows are the most devastating economic issue impacting the global South,“ Raymond W Baker, GFI’s president, stated in the introduction to the report released Wednesday, calling the numbers a „wake-up call to world leaders on the urgency with which illicit financial flows must be addressed“.
Particularly worrying is the fact that the rate at which these outward flows have been growing appears to be increasing substantially.
In 2002, for instance, the earliest year that GFI’s researchers have examined, illicit financial flows are thought to have been around $270.3bn. By 2011, the latest year for which estimates are available, that figure had grown to $946.7bn, and has likely increased since then.
When adjusted for inflation, this translates into an average growth of more than 10% a year, while the 2011 number constituted a 13.7% increase on the previous year.
„Outflows have certainly been increasing,“ Dev Kar, GFI’s chief economist and a co-author of the report, told IPS. „During the economic crisis both imports and exports declined, but as economic activity has recovered so too have these outflows.“
Kar also cautioned that the GFI estimates are conservative. They include neither unofficial financial flows nor large-scale cash transactions, and as such are unable to offer a glimpse of broader underworld economies, including drug or human trafficking.
Asia is seen as having the most significant problems, accounting for around 40% of all illicit outflows from developing countries. While Africa’s share was only around 7% in 2011, the continent did have the highest ratio of average illicit flows to gross domestic product, at around 5.7%.
With Africa also the world’s most aid-dependent region, an increasing concern for many is how to staunch the flow of some of this illicit capital so it can be ploughed back into public sector spending such as on health, education and public infrastructure.
Major development institutions have started paying attention to such discrepancies. The humanitarian group Oxfam estimates that some 32 trillion dollars are currently sitting in tax havens around the world, for instance, and suggests that taxes on this sum could raise nearly 190 billion dollars a year.
„Governments should agree to end global hunger by 2025 and an end to tax havens, which could help pay for this and much more,“ Stephen Hale, advocacy head for Oxfam, said in a statement. „Tax-dodging effectively takes food from hungry mouths.“
The past year has actually seen notable moves by the international community to close down certain avenues used to hide or shield unreported wealth from prying states. Major multilateral groupings including the Group of Eight (G8) rich countries and the Group of 20 (G20) industrialised countries, for instance, have put tax abuse at the top of their list of priorities.
This summer, a high-level United Nations panel negotiating the next phase of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), for which the deadline is 2015, stated that one of its highest priorities would be tackling the abuse of offshore tax havens and illicit financial flows.
The following month, nearly a dozen EU members agreed to the world’s first multilateral system of tax information exchange, based on similar bilateral US requirements passed three years ago.
„The fact that illicit financial flows are being mentioned in the G20 and other international organisations – that didn’t exist before,“ Brian LeBlanc, a junior economist with GFI and a co-author of the new report, told IPS. „Earlier, these issues were seen solely as a developing country problem but now we’re seeing developed countries taking action. So we’re making some progress.“
Yet transparency advocates urge that far more needs to be done, and GFI’s Kar says that he expects the moves that have been taken so far will have little impact on illicit financial flows in the near term.
„The G20 has basically not tackled the shadow financial system, which remains largely intact – there have been no moves to improve transparency, not much has been done on tax havens or blind trusts,“ he says.
„Importantly, much of the conversation currently focuses on developed rather than developing countries. We believe that governance are the main engines of illicit flows, and in the major countries governance is simply not improving – in fact, it’s deteriorating in many countries.“
GFI has published research on illicit financial flows for several years in a row. Yet Kar says the startling estimates presented appear to have made little impact on government officials in many developing countries, even as state coffers in those countries struggle in the aftermath of the global financial crisis.
„In most countries it’s had almost zero impact, with government officials refusing even to acknowledge that this is a problem. Malaysia, for example, will only say that our estimates are overstated,“ Kar says, noting that Malaysia ranked fourth on GFI’s list of the largest exporters of illicit capital.
„There remains a powerful, corrupt nexus between politicians and business, covering the financing of elections, non-transparency of business conduct, kickbacks in government contracting,“ Kar added.
„These are huge issues, and we expect a long process before countries come to accept the fact that illicit flows are a problem – and then to move to implement policies to deal with the situation.