The idea that economic growth needs good governance and good governance needs economic growth takes us to a perennial chicken-and-egg debate: Which comes first in development—good governance OR economic growth? For decades, positions have been sharply divided between those who advocate “fix governance first” and others who say “stimulate growth first.”
Europe and Central Asia
As the world is increasingly interconnected, international taxation – traditionally more of a niche issue for tax lawyers – is receiving more and more attention in wider discussions on economic development: Double tax treaties, or agreements that two countries sign with one another to prevent multinational corporations or individuals from being taxed twice, have become more common, with more than 3,000 in effect today. And while they may contribute to investment, some have also become an instrument for aggressive tax planning.
The saying goes, ‘water is life’, and how so true! But water also drives economic and social development. Clean water supply is vital for health, hygiene and livelihood. Water is essential for agriculture and critical to energy production – and much, much more.
However, more than a billion people currently live in water-scarce regions, and as many as 3.5 billion could experience water scarcity by 2025. Water scarcity is a recognized cause of conflict and migration and is among the top global risks. To be sure, conflict and migration likewise contribute to scarcity of water!
Photo credit: Dmitry Karyshev
Armenia was faced with a slowing economy, sinking remittances, and inefficient tax administration. At the same time, ordinary taxpayers had to navigate arduous processes when paying taxes. The Armenian government was eager to reform its tax administration. Below is a transcript of what we learned when we spoke to World Bank experts working with Armenian tax officials to make things better.
Julia: I’m Julia Oliver.
Maximilian: I’m Maximilian Mareis.
Julia: And we have been talking with tax experts around the World Bank to find out about what they do.
Maximilian: So, let’s start with this project in Armenia. Why did we get involved?
Julia: Well, the global financial crisis hit Armenia and its three million people pretty hard. In 2012, when the World Bank began working with policymakers to improve the country’s tax administration, the country faced a pretty bleak picture. Foreign remittances were low, and the domestic economy was slowing. In addition the country had high levels of informal employment.
The invitation for new SAFE Trust Fund applications is now open until 7 March 2016
What is SAFE?
A recent World Bank report “The Small Entrepreneur in Fragile and Conflict-Affected Situations” looked into the motives and challenges of small entrepreneurs in FCS countries and made a number of interesting discoveries. They found that compared to entrepreneurs elsewhere, entrepreneurs in FCS have different characteristics and face significantly different challenges. FCS enterprises tend to be small, informal and to be engaged in sectors that are trade and service oriented.
Three other things they found are illustrated in the charts below. These findings came as quite a surprise to us.
They spend hours waiting in line at tax offices.
In March 2014, with support of the World Bank, a Delivery Unit (DU) was set up in the Romanian Prime Minister’s Chancellery. Its mission: Get better results quicker for the PM in four priority areas.
Tax administration was one of them. The PM’s concern was the pain of paying taxes. Offering online services, for the first time, was one of the ways to decrease the cost of compliance. The DU estimated that they could save the taxpayer up to 12 days a year of waiting at the tax office.
The DU’s role was to plan for these improvements together with the Romanian Ministry of Public Finance and the Tax Administration Agency (NAFA). In a Delivery Agreement, the specific targets, metrics, activities, deadlines and responsibilities were spelled out. The DU was to then monitor the progress monthly against an agreed trajectory and help unblock problems in implementation.
In September 2014, the NAFA launched the online taxpayer platform called Private Virtual Space (PVS). It allows taxpayers to file their tax returns, get their tax bills and see their payments. The target was to enroll 30% of the eligible taxpayers by December 2015. Though the DU tracked progress monthly, the enrollment rate was still at 0.6% in June 2015. Clearly, the monitoring on its own did not help.
But taxes are fundamental to governing a country.
Without taxes there would be no law and order, no security, no pensions and no social safety net.
Collecting a sufficient amount of tax revenue to finance public services without distorting the economy or discouraging people from working is a challenge everywhere. In Romania, the challenge is especially difficult as the culture of voluntary compliance has yet to take hold: Romania ranks among the lowest countries in the EU in terms of the tax gap and the amount of revenue raised as a percentage of GDP.
The economy is growing quickly, which has an unfortunate side effect: more opportunities for tax evasion.
Photo: Daniel Kozak, World Bank
The first time I came to Bucharest in 2013 the Bank office offered to arrange a pick up from the airport. Being a seasoned traveler, I declined the offer. I reasoned that I had lived and worked in so many countries I could manage the transfer to the hotel without assistance. I was wrong.
I picked up my luggage to find a local cab outside the airport. A taxi driver offered me a ride. I didn’t negotiate the price upfront seeing that he had a meter in the car.
Twenty minutes later we reached the hotel. The meter read Lei 200 - at the that time about $60. That was over twice the going rate but there was little else I could do. I felt cheated as so many tourists do.
I learned from the experience, accepted offers of help from colleagues and paid more attention to rates going forward.
An electronic kiosk had been installed at the airport. Arriving visitors could now press a button to get an estimated wait time to hail a taxi. I took my ticket. It was a smooth ride.
What made the difference?
The new taxi ordering system is now available on mobile phones mirroring, in many ways, the service provided by Uber. Passengers can rate drivers and increase accountability.
Bucharest has gone from being a difficult place to find an honest cab driver to one of the most convenient.
The change has been driven by incentives and improved technology.
Two decades ago, when I interned at the French Embassy’s economic mission in Moscow, I was asked to look into bankruptcy laws and their implementation. The Embassy wanted to advise French companies on how to get business done in the new Russia—we are talking mid-1990s—when there were no reliable guidebooks on how to navigate the transition to a market economy.
So I was asked to read recently approved, Western-inspired bankruptcy laws, given a phone book and asked to find two dozen companies around Moscow. I was to meet with their CEOs and find out how insolvency and bankruptcy procedures actually worked in practice.
I came away with one key finding: In fact, the distortions brought about by hyperinflation, bartering and the transition from Soviet to Western accounting meant the liquidity and solvency ratios that underpinned the institution of bankruptcy had essentially become meaningless.