Papers under review

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

  • In recent years, domestic and international policy attention has often focused on broadening the tax base in order to include a greater share of the population in the “tax net”. This is based, in part, on the hope that the expansion of taxation will result in positive “governance dividends” for taxpayers. However, the implications of extending the tax base in rural areas in low-income countries has been insufficiently considered. Through the case studies of Togo, Benin, and Sierra Leone, we demonstrate that extending taxation to rural areas is often highly inefficient, leading to little, if any, revenue gains when factoring in the costs of collection. Where revenues exceed the costs of collection, they often only cover local government salaries with little remaining for the provision of public goods and services. The implications of rural tax collection inefficiency are thus significant for governance and public service delivery, accountability relationships with citizens, and taxpayer expectations of the state. Accordingly, we question the rationale for extending taxation to rural citizens. Instead, we argue for a reconceptualization of the nature of the fiscal social contract, disentangling the concept of the social contract from the individual. Rather, a collective social contract places greater emphasis on the taxation of wealth and redistribution and recognizes that basic rights of citizenship are not, or should not, be contingent on paying direct taxes to the government. Rather than expanding taxation, we argue for the expansion of political voice and rights to rural citizens, through a “services-first” approach.

Formalisation: A critique and new research agenda (with Max Gallien) — R&R

  • Individuals in low-income countries contribute substantially to the financing of local public goods through informal taxation, with significant implications for equity, redistribution, and service delivery. In conflict-affected contexts, the importance of non-state service delivery and welfare provision is well recognized, though the role and implications of citizens in contributing to the funding of these public goods though informal taxation is often overlooked. Through a detailed exploration of informal taxation in south-central Somalia, we contribute novel evidence of the magnitude and regressivity of informal taxation and explore the relationship between informal taxation, the state, and ongoing statebuilding processes in the country. We rely on original data from surveys with over 2300 households and 117 community leaders, as well as deep contextual knowledge derived from qualitative research in the region. Our study finds that informal taxation in south-central Somalia is prevalent and deeply embedded within clan-based and Islamic institutions, representing a significant and regressive share of annual household income. We further show that informal taxation serves to fill gaps left by weak state capacity, that sub-national governments may actually benefit from informal taxation, and that informal taxing authorities are more effective tax collectors than the state. While existing hypotheses about the prevalence of informal taxation focus on the material and capacity gaps left by weak states, we deepen the understanding of informal taxation by showing that it can bolster perceptions of and legitimacy of the state. This has important implications for understanding statebuilding processes from below, suggesting that governments may have little incentive to extend their taxing authority or to assert control over informal taxes in some contexts. These findings have important implications for our understanding of public goods provision and statehood in conflict-affected contexts.

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

  • 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.

The politics of taxation and tax reform in times of crisis: Covid-19 and attitudes towards taxation in Sierra Leone (with Wilson Prichard and Nicolas Orgeira)

  • The Covid-19 pandemic has had significant fiscal implications around the world. A key question facing governments is whether and how the pandemic has shaped taxpayer attitudes and what that means for the prospects for tax reform and new revenue raising in the wake of the pandemic. We aim to understand the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on attitudes toward taxation and, in turn, to unpack what the crisis reveals about the dynamics and politics of taxation more broadly. We do so in the context of Sierra Leone with novel survey data, collected before the pandemic, shortly after the pandemic’s onset, and for almost a year afterwards. Four key findings emerge. First, immediately after the onset of the crisis we see increased support for taxation in Freetown, despite escalating economic challenges. Second, however, we also see taxpayers express increasingly conditional attitudes toward taxation; that is, at the same time that they show greater general support for taxation they become more likely to believe that one could refuse to pay taxes if government fails to deliver services in return. Third, while we lack baseline data before the pandemic on support for progressive taxation, we find rising and sustained support for progressive taxation over the course of the pandemic. Finally, although we see an initial increase in support for taxation immediately after the onset of the pandemic, we find evidence of that support eroding over time, potentially reflecting a combination of continued economic hardship or declining feelings of social solidarity. These findings have potentially significant implications for understanding both immediate responses to the pandemic, and the broader politics of taxation and tax reform.

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; we position ourselves in line with this research as we explore the emic definitions of taxation across contexts, languages, and time periods. We explore how the conception of taxation in different contexts is closely interrelated with the language used to describe it, with language in turn being a product of histories of colonialism, conflict, and extraction by social, 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 content and interpretive validity of taxpayer perception data as well as provide important nuances to the understanding of the dynamics of taxpayers’ experiences of contemporary states and systems of taxation.

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

  • Somalia has the weakest tax capacity in the world. In many ways, this is unsurprising given the collapse of the state in 1991 and the instability that has followed. In this paper, however, we argue that an analysis of taxation in Somalia cannot begin with the collapse of the state, drawing attention to understudied legacies of colonialism and conflict that shape the political economic dynamics that limit the contemporary state’s capacity and will to tax. Relying on historical and qualitative interview data and applying a political settlements analysis, we argue that top-down or technocratic institutional reform will not succeed if it does not transform underlying political and social relations and informal institutions. We show how the historical legacies of colonialism, a post-conflict authoritarian regime, and civil war gave rise to informal institutions, norms, and networks that continue to undermine the state’s capacity and will to expand taxation, particularly as it relates to the business community. In this context, informal institutions of tax negotiation, the unwillingness to introduce new taxes or expand the tax base, and the forbearance of tax enforcement has a political logic that can be explained through three central mechanisms. First, the discretion and autonomy afforded by the weakness of the current system enables rent-seeking by front-line tax officials and collectors, while the broader institutionalization of informality benefits would-be corporate taxpayers. Second, the intertwining of networks among political and economic elite underpins the disincentives of senior administrative officials and politicians to extend taxation on the business community. Third, the critical role that the business community has played in enabling stability and supporting state institutions over time further limits incentives to expand business taxation. In light of significant international investment in tax policy and administrative reform and some successes in recent years, we consider ways in which resistance to reform has been overcome in this context. We fundamentally argue that tax reform will fail unless it addresses the overarching elite bargains and political settlements that represent the greatest obstacle to reform. Concretely, reform has been possible where it has evaded the attention of would-be resisters, strengthened popular support for reform, or otherwise distributed the benefits of institutional reform. Most critically, reform has been possible where international development partners have put pressure on the government to undertake reforms, even when misaligned with the political settlement in the short-term. Though such strategies represent risks for instability and sustainability, in the longer-term they can transform underlying social relations and support the development of a more inclusive political settlement and society. In effect, international support can be used to strategically “unsettle” or reshape political settlements, increasing and broadening the number of actors with an interest in formal institutions. This analysis illustrates the value and necessity of analysing political settlements in order to deepen our understanding of what is possible in terms of institutional reform and fiscal capacity building.

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

  • 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.

Catch them if you can: The politics and practice of a taxpayer registration exercise (with Max Gallien and Giovanni Occhiali)

  • Tax registration drives have become an increasingly popular intervention to expand the coverage of tax nets across Sub-Saharan Africa. However, doubts have recently been casted on their impacts, as there is increasing evidence that they do not lead to substantial revenue increase and might skew the tax registry towards overrepresenting vulnerable groups. Little explanation for these outcomes is available for why this is the case, as the literature focuses on the outcomes of these exercises rather than on their processes and premises. We seek to fill this gap through an evaluation of a tax registration exercise of small and medium-sized enterprises in Freetown, Sierra Leone implemented by the National Revenue Authority. We argue that the conflicting objectives between national and international stakeholders, as well as between street- and higher-level officials, combined with a technocratic view of the exercise which underestimate its political nature, led to its likely unsatisfactory outcome in revenue terms. However, we also identify non-revenue outcomes that may still be seen as positive from the perspectives of policymakers, such as familiarising many businesses with a revenue authority they previously had very little engagement with. While this outcome of registration exercises is frequently overlooked by similar evaluations, it is one that local officials recognize as important in “building future taxpayers”.

Mobile money taxation and informal workers: Evidence from Ghana's E-levy (with Nana Akua Anyidoho, Max Gallien, and Mike Rogan)

  • In recent years, governments in low-income contexts have increasingly introduced specific taxes on mobile money transfers as a means to raise revenues. Often, these are explicitly promoted as a way to tax informal economic activity, while critics have noted their potential negative impact on lower income groups. Ghana’s “E-Levy”, introduced in May 2022, is a particularly interesting case study, as it was explicitly justified as a way to tax Ghana’s informal economy, but also includes a 100 cedi/day threshold to limit the tax burden on lower income groups. This paper uses data from a new survey of 2,700 self-employed informal workers in the Accra Metropolitan Assembly (AMA) collected in April and May 2022 to examine the likely impact of the E-levy on informal workers and explore how this relates to how it is perceived. We find that while the overall effect of the E-Levy is highly regressive, with users in the bottom quintile paying the largest share as a proportion of their income, the threshold is effective in sheltering some low-income users from facing new tax burdens. We show that most informal workers disapprove of the E-Levy, reflecting both concerns about its equity impacts and disappointment with the government’s performance. Notably, while women are less likely to be liable for E-Levy payments, they are substantially more likely to disapprove of its introduction.

Engendering taxation: A research and policy agenda (with Anuradha Joshi and Jalia Kangave)

  • In recent years, increased attention has been paid to the gender dimensions of taxation, though there has been limited research on the subject, particularly in lower income contexts. This paper reviews the existing literature and related debates on gender and tax in low-income countries, identifying knowledge gaps, and mapping broader issues that are relevant to understanding the gendered impacts of taxation. The paper makes four broad observations. First, there has been insufficient gender-disaggregated data analysis, which is required to draw generalizable conclusions about the gendered impacts of tax policy. First, though existing research focuses on formal direct taxes, these are less relevant for women in lower income contexts, given high participation rates in the informal economy. Instead, presumptive taxes, user fees, and informal taxes place a disproportionate burden on low-income women. Third, there needs to be greater attention paid to the ways in which women in senior and junior positions in tax administration can affect how taxpayers interact with tax authorities. Finally, any assessment of the impacts of tax policy on gender needs to consider revenues and expenditures together to ensure that the positive effects of tax policies are not undermined by budgets or vice versa. We conclude by showing that, with the few exceptions outlined above, tax policy and administration is often an unwieldy instrument to address gender equity; instead, other policies related to labour markets, social protection, and public services can target gender equity more directly.

‘A disease of air-conditioned rooms’: Gendered Geographies and Vaccine Hesitancy Among Informal Workers (with Max Gallien, Shandana Mohmand, and Umair Javed)

  • Are informal workers, who have less or more contentious experiences with the state, more vaccine hesitant? This paper explores attitudes towards Covid-19 vaccination programmes from the perspectives of informal workers in the context of Lahore, Pakistan, where we draw on in-depth conversations with 93 informal workers across four sectors. What we find is a surprising disconnect between vaccine scepticism and actual decisions to get the vaccine. Those that are vaccinated did not necessarily believe in its effectiveness, while, contrary to our expectations, trust in the state did not seem a critical factor in shaping health-seeking behaviour. We also observed striking sectoral variation in perceptions of the pandemic and willingness to get vaccinated, with greater scepticism and hesitancy among male-dominated street vendors and transport workers, than among female home-based manufacturing and domestic workers. We argue that this is driven by gendered geographies of labour and public space, which determine workers’ experience of lockdowns and cross-class interactions. Our findings contribute to highlighting heterogeneous dynamics within the informal economy, and to ways in which gendered geographies of work and movement can play a critical role in shaping responses to public health measures, likely beyond the context of informal work.

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.”

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

  • In this paper, we ask whether social protection programs can increase participation in community development programs and examine how this affects trust and community decision-making. We study the impacts of an unconditional cash transfer program to vulnerable households that was designed specifically to encourage contributions to and participation in community-driven development (CDD) projects using a randomized controlled trial in south-central Somalia. We collect data from surveys, conducted before and after the intervention, with almost 600 individuals eligible to receive cash transfers. We assess the impacts of the program on recipients’ informal tax contributions, participation in CDD and decision-making, and perceptions and expectations of local leaders and the state. We find no substantial increases in informal tax participation, payment amounts, or community participation for cash transfer recipients’ households relative to vulnerable households not (randomly) selected to receive the transfers. However, we do find positive impacts on perceptions of non-state community leaders and the local government, despite the local government not playing a direct role in the provision of social protection. This analysis has important implications for social protection interventions in conflict-affected contexts and for broader understandings of the impact of social protection programs on state-society relations in contexts with weak formal institutions. It highlights the challenge of increasing the engagement and participation of vulnerable households, who may have numerous other competing priorities, while also highlighting potential positive spillover effects for the state and local governance actors.

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.

States concessions to chiefs: Informal revenue generation as patrimonial resource 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.

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

Feed the hand that doesn't bite you: Informality, tax and markets in Kinshasa (with Yannick Bokasola and Eddy Ngwakoyo)

Gender and taxation in Accra's informal economy (with Nana Akua Anyidoho, Max Gallien, and Mike Rogan)

Informal workers and the state: The politics of connection and disconnection during the pandemic in India (with Max Gallien and Harshita Sinha)

Data collection in progress

Informal taxation and the provision of "free" public education: The impacts of a policy reform in Sierra Leone

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

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