Tax Justice Network’s Alex Cobham on how financial secrecy fuels inequity

For today’s Humanosphere podcast, we’re talking with Alex Cobham about how financial secrecy and tax havens fuel inequity around the world.

Next week, another installment from the so-called Panama Papers is expected to be released by the international consortium of journalists that received the leaked documents from a Panamanian law firm. The firm, Mossack Fonseca, assists corporations, wealthy individuals and others who want to move their assets ‘offshore’ to avoid scrutiny (or taxes) at home.

The Panama Papers have been a bombshell in a number of countries, forcing the resignation of Iceland’s Prime Minister and making life awkward for British PM David Cameron. Things may change, or become more awkward with the next release of information, but so far this issue hasn’t caused much of a similar ruckus in the U.S. because, so far, few Americans have been named in this particular leak.

Does that mean Americans don’t have a problem with financial secrecy and tax avoidance? Au contraire, cher lecteur et de l’auditeur! Listen in and learn!

Alex Cobham, Tax Justice Network

Alex Cobham, Tax Justice Network

Cobham is a development economist and director of research at the international Tax Justice Network as well as a visiting fellow at King’s College London IDI. Over the last fifteen years, he has held various policy and research posts, including serving as a fellow at the Washington, DC-based Center for Global Development, chief policy adviser at Christian Aid and head of research at Save the Children (UK). Humanosphere’s executive editor Tom Paulson met up with him in Oxford, where he is a junior economics fellow at St Anne’s college and a researcher at Queen Elizabeth House.

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We talk with Cobham about how today’s massive amount of financial secrecy, not just tax avoidance, contributes to global inequality – in both rich and poor countries – how new disclosures show that the stereotypical corrupt African despot can’t even come close to the financial corruption at work in the U.S., the U.K. and other wealthy countries and, finally, what we can do to fix this mess.

(Editor’s note: One positive sign is that President Obama today announced his intention to crack down on offshore, illicit financial behavior. The probability of this actually happening without public pressure and attention, however, is perhaps not so positive. The Obama Administration’s earlier proposed new tax treaties aimed at curbing illicit behavior in two of the world’s largest tax havens, Switzerland and Luxembourg, have been sitting on the shelf in the U.S. Senate for five years now….)

As usual, before we talk with Cobham, Paulson and I talk over some of Humanosphere’s top news highlights – including the story by Tom Murphy on the UN Security Council adopting a resolution to protect hospitals and health care workers in war zones from being attacked. Since assaults on humanitarians during combat are already considered war crimes, we wonder if the UN resolution will do anything to deter this murderous behavior. Most disturbing is that these attacks are on the increase, carried out by all sides in the fighting.

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We also point to a story by our London-based correspondent Charlie Ensor on a proposal to find a new and better way to measure progress against poverty and inequity. It’s called the Social Progress Index and Charlie, who attended a meeting in Iceland held by those promoting this new development yardstick, explained what makes it new and different – and why some think it may still need more work.

Finally, we cite Lisa Nikolau’s story on a Kaiser Family Foundation survey showing that Americans’ knowledge of and appreciation for U.S. efforts in global health has declined recently. For much of the new millennium, global health had been the darling (both in terms of funding and attention by policy makers) within the aid and development community. As Lisa notes, the public is very aware of Zika virus right now. But beyond attention to the threat of a new infectious disease, the survey shows a marked decline in public awareness of the many other important efforts ongoing against other diseases of poverty.

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About Author

Imana Gunawan

Imana Gunawan is Humanosphere's social media manager and podcast producer. A University of Washington graduate in journalism and dance, Imana's interests include underrepresented communities, the intersection between politics and culture, global-local issues and the arts. She can be reached at @imanafg on Twitter or imana@humanosphere.org