Vanessa van den Boogaard

Research Fellow, International Centre for Tax and Development
at the Institute of Development Studies

Senior Research Associate, University of Toronto

Under review

Explaining informal taxation revenue generation: Evidence from south-central Somalia (with Fabrizio Santoro — abstract)

Co-financing community-driven development through informal taxation: Experimental evidence from south-central Somalia (with Fabrizio Santoro abstract)

Formalisation: A critique and new research agenda (with Max Gallien abstract)

The political economy of taxation in Somalia (with Najibullah Nor Isak – abstract)

Why do armed groups tax? (with Tanya Bandula-Irwin, Max Gallien, Ashley Jackson, and Florian Weigand – abstract)

Tax and governance in the context of scarce revenues: Implications of inefficient tax collection in rural West Africa (with Rachel Beach – abstract)

Works in progress

Informal revenue generation and the state: Evidence from Sierra Leone (book manuscript)

  • In this project, I explore the relationship between informal tax institutions and the state. My research asks whether informal taxation contributes to or crowds out the development of more effective formal structures, and considers the conditions under which informal taxation plays a complementary or competitive role with the state. I inductively develop a theoretical framework to explore variation in the nature of relationships between informal taxing actors and the state. I show that informal tax institutions can bolster state authority and state building in unexpected ways. Informal tax institutions can act as brokers of state building, while states may use these institutions to bolster their own authority. The result is that states may seek to sustain informal processes and outcomes, even where we may expect that they would challenge the state’s legitimacy. Critically, I show that the politics of state building are in part played out in conjunction with informal institutions, forcing us to reconsider the notion and structures of statehood in practice.

  • My analysis draws on a mixed methods research design, combining a largescale survey of taxpayers; over 300 in-depth interviews with key stakeholders, including community and government leaders; over 50 focus group discussions with community leaders, chiefdom authorities, and taxpayers; the compilation of public revenue sources and handwritten informal tax records; the consultation of historical records; and ethnographic immersion over more than a year of fieldwork.

  • My dissertation, which forms the basis for this book project, was awarded the 2019-2020 Canadian Political Science Association Vincent Lemieux Prize, recognizing “the best PhD thesis submitted at a Canadian institution, in English or in French, in any sub-field of political science, judged eminently worth of publication in the form of a book or articles”. The prize jury notes that, the work “is an example of innovative research in political economy…The theoretical framework is sound, and the author manages to integrate the current literature but also brings her own contributions. It is also an excellent empirical project that includes an original survey and hundreds of interviews. It is well written but does not sacrifice sophistication to parsimony. It is also argued with rigour and clarity, and presented in a way that makes it interesting and accessible to diverse audiences in political science.”

Between Allah, the people and the state: Situating zakat in modern Muslim-majority states (with Max Gallien, Umair Javed, and Soukayna Remmal)

  • Although precise estimates of the volume of zakat paid every year are difficult to come by, it is a substantial part of social spending: the annual global zakat pool is estimated to make up between 200 billion and 1 trillion USD. How do citizens in modern Muslim-majority countries conceive of zakat? In this paper, we explore how citizens in Muslim-majority countries zakat, attempting to situate it between religion, charity, and the state. In particular, we ask how the role of the state in zakat affects how citizens conceive of and situate the practice. There is substantial variety in the organisation and function of zakat today, with critical differences in the degree to which states have involved themselves in zakat practices and the respective relationships between citizens, states and other governance providers. It seems plausible that a greater role of the state in zakat, including top-down legal mandates, people may think of zakat more like a tax than a religious contribution. We explore this possibility in the context of Morocco, Pakistan, and Egypt, combining conceptual discussions of zakat, formal and informal taxation and charity with an empirical exploration of zakat practices today. We draw on three nationally representative surveys conducted simultaneously in 2020 and covering over 5000 respondents and over 2,500 zakat payers.

Zakat, tax, and redistribution: Obligation and charity in times of Covid-19 (with Max Gallien, Umair Javed, and Soukayna Remmal)

  • In order to soften the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, states have introduced formal tax reliefs in various forms. At the same time, they are encouraging charitable contributions in order to finance relief efforts. In Muslim-majority states, zakat payments make up a significant part of the fiscal politics of social spending – the annual global zakat pool is estimated between 200 billion and 1 trillion USD. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, some states have been encouraging citizens to increase charitable contributions, and tied zakat distribution to pandemic relief. This brings into focus long-standing questions about the position of zakat between charity, formal, and informal taxation. Based on original survey data of over 5,000 respondents in Egypt, Pakistan, and Morocco, the project examines how different forms of state involvement in zakat collection have shaped public attitudes towards taxation, charity and the state during a pandemic.

Popular support for taxation in times of crisis: Tracking taxpayer perceptions in Sierra Leone (with Wilson Prichard and Nicolas Orgeira)

Informal taxes fill gaps in state crisis responses: Evidence from Sierra Leone during Covid-19 (with Wilson Prichard and Nicolas Orgeira)

Tracking the tax impacts and implications of Covid-19 in Rwanda and Sierra Leone (with Wilson Prichard, Giulia Mascagni, Fabrizio Santoro, and Nicolas Orgeira)

  • While much knowledge is being generated on the impact of the pandemic, we still know very little on its implications on taxation in low-income countries. Yet, tax is crucial to fund crisis response and recovery, in addition to broader development plans and expanded government expenditure. This project starts addressing this gap using unique datasets of survey and administrative data from Rwanda and Sierra Leone. We document significant shifts in formal and informal tax burdens and in taxpayers’ views on the fairness of the tax system and the most desirable means of funding the crisis responses and recovery.

Engendering taxation (with Anuradha Joshi and Jalia Kangave)

  • Most literature on gender and tax is focused on the Global North, with a small but growing body of work focused in the Global South, primarily exploring indirect, small, and informal taxes. There is little on the gendered implications of the recent falls in trade taxes and changes in personal income taxes or the role of formalization and taxation of small business. In this paper, we draw attention to the ways that countries are increasingly raising revenues through taxes that are both regressive and biased against women’s livelihoods and care responsibilities, while foregoing revenues by offering incentives to and allowing tax avoidance by large corporations, transnationals and high net-worth individuals. We argue that the key issues around taxation for poor women in the global south relate to small and micro business taxation, informal taxes and fees, and consumption taxes such as VAT. Governments can seek not only to remove implicit biases against women, but use tax policies to enhance the status of women in the economic sphere by incentivising labour force participation, land asset ownership and the growth of women-owned businesses. Simultaneously, governments should use tax policies to reduce the biases against women (e.g. girls enrolment in school or childcare costs) by not raising revenue through user fees, and properly resourcing public services.

Cash transfers, informal revenue generation, and inequality in Somalia (with Fabrizio Santoro)

  • We partner with an NGO in Gedo region in south-central Somalia and undertake a randomized controlled trial of a matching grant programme involving cash transfers to vulnerable populations. We explore whether cash transfers enabled vulnerable populations to contribute to and participate in community development projects. We draw attention to the ways in which local leaders influence and mediate the relationships between vulnerable individuals and participatory community development projects and highlight the ways in which unconditional cash transfers can effectively be made conditional through social norms and institutions.

The paradox of weak chiefs in Sierra Leone

  • In this project, I exploit variation in the nature of accountability relations between local chiefs and their subjects, demonstrating the extent to which informal taxpaying relations in this context exist on a spectrum of coercion and consent. In this paper project I highlight what I call the “paradox of weak chiefs”. Rather than weak chiefs being less capable of taxing, I find that they tax more coercively as they are both in need of revenues and have less control over sub-chiefs in their jurisdictions, who in turn are more likely to extract revenue coercively. By contrast, where chiefs have access to non-tax revenues (e.g. resource rents), they have less incentive to tax subjects and have greater control over sub-chiefs, limiting informal extraction at lower levels. Though they are more powerful and more capable of taxing subjects, they are thus less inclined to do so. This project contributes to the literatures on the resource curse and the relationship between tax and accountability, extending these theoretical literatures to an empirical case study involving non-state taxing actors.

The role of chiefs in supplementing or undermining the state: Evidence from local governments in Sierra Leone

  • In this project, I explore the role of chiefs in supporting or undermining formal local government tax collection in Sierra Leone and the ways in which non-state actors may serve as accountability brokers between taxpayers and the state. I identify the conditions under which traditional authorities are more likely to support or supplement state taxing efforts and assess the effects that these actors can have on accountability and state-society relations. This work contributes to our understanding of the potential complementarity between traditional authorities and the state in contemporary Africa.

Informal taxation and the provision of public education in Sierra Leone

  • Using original data, I track the extent of informal taxes and payments made to access “free” primary public education and assess the equity implications of informal education taxes where they serve as an effective barrier to access education.

States concessions to chiefs: Informal revenue generation as patrimonial resources distribution in Sierra Leone

  • In a classic model of statehood, the state has a monopoly of taxation. However, evidence increasingly shows that in contexts of weak state institutions, non-state actors frequently engage in informal revenue generation—that is, systems of local public goods finance that are codified and enforced outside of the formal legal system. While we may expect these informal taxing actors to be a threat to the state and its authority, in practice there is considerable variation in the relationship between the state and informal taxing actors, with different outcomes of hybridity emerging. This paper considers one such unexpected outcome, wherein the state coexists with informal taxing actors. Through the case study of traditional authorities and the state in Sierra Leone, I show how and why the state may tacitly accept the presence of informal taxing actors, and even explicitly support them through the granting of informal revenue concessions. I argue that this apparently puzzling state behaviour can be understood through the dependence of the state on informal taxing actors for political outcomes and the reality that such formal–informal hybrid outcomes serve to counterintuitively reinforce state authority.

Labour, tax, and development: Shifting norms around labour taxes from the colonial era to today

  • Informal labour taxes have a long history in former African colonies, though they have not been included in analyses of individual tax burdens and the effective revenue of labour taxes has not been recorded by formal public finance institutions. They have taken a number of forms—from conscripted labour for public works projects in the colonial era to mandated communal labour in the post-independence era—and have been integral to the expansion of state authority. I explore informal labour taxes in Sierra Leone from the colonial period to the present day. I rely on historical records, a unique dataset capturing contemporary informal labour contributions, and over a year of qualitative data collection and ethnographic immersion in nine chiefdom case studies. I trace the perceived legitimacy of informal labour taxes over time, showing how they went from being perceived as “forced labour” to being openly embraced by states and development partners. Once normalized by colonial authorities, a growing international labour movement caused them to be seen as illegitimate. Over time, however, they were reframed by the colonial state as part of “traditional” obligations, with the colonial state legitimizing and institutionalizing them in colonial law. In the post-independence period, there was continuity in the state’s engagement with informal labour taxes, which were seen as central to the “self-reliance” movement. Later shifts in development theory and praxis saw informal labour taxes as indicators of “ownership”, “participation”, and “sustainability”. Accordingly, informal labour taxes have been revived and re-legitimized by the epistemic development community. Though the relative legitimacy of informal labour taxes has shifted over time, states and development partners insufficiently appreciate the burden of mandatory unpaid labour on individuals, as well as how informal labour taxes have contributed to the expansion of state power over time.

Informal revenue generation and inequality in the DRC

  • Using original data from the eastern DRC, I am completing a paper project assessing the distributional effects of informal taxation on quality and access to a broader range of public goods.

A tax by any other name? Conceptions and perceptions of taxation across languages (with Ane Karoline Bak Foged)

  • As taxation has become a prominent issue on the international development policy agenda, a growing body of research has focused on taxpayer perceptions and experiences of taxation. A strand of this research emphasises the importance of the historical, political and social context of taxation and we position ourselves in line with this research as we explore the emic definitions of taxation across contexts, languages, and time periods. We show that the conception of taxation in different contexts is highly shaped by the language used to describe it, with language in turn being a product of histories of colonialism, conflict and extraction by societal, traditional and political actors. We argue that studies of taxation, particularly survey-based research, needs to be complemented, if not informed, by a deeper understanding of the meanings ascribed to taxation in a given context. This will strengthen measurement and interpretive validity of taxpayer perception data as well as provide important nuances to and perhaps explanations of how variations in and dynamics of taxpayers experience and interact with the tax system.

Data collection in progress

The logic of armed group taxation: A new dataset (with Tanya Bandula-Irwin, Max Gallien, Ashley Jackson, and Florian Weigand)

Block management system and formalisation: An ethnography and evaluation of a taxpayer registration process in Freetown (with Max Gallien and Giovanni Occhiali)

City markets and informal taxation in Africa (with Max Gallien)

Informality and trust in the state in times of Covid-19: Evidence from Lahore (with Deepta Chopra, Max Gallien, Shandana Mohmand, and Umair Javed)