Can You Open Fiscal Space by Closing Civic Space?
Not if you want domestic revenue mobilization to succeed
Why we must not trade civic space for fiscal revenue
We hope you share this blog on social media. But if you live in Uganda, it might cost you. Literally. On July 1, the government of Uganda enacted a social media tax, as well as a mobile money tax – which will make freedom of expression and access to information more expensive.
The government has committed to step up its efforts around revenue collection, or Domestic Revenue Mobilisation (DRM) – joining 42 other countries as signatories of the Addis Tax Initiative (ATI). In development circles, there is increasing emphasis on DRM and getting countries to be less dependent on external funders who may have their own agenda. But should the basic human rights to freedom of expression, access to information and inclusion be sacrificed at the altar of domestic revenue collection?
Of course not. In fact, it is likely to be counterproductive.
Part of wider crack down on civil society
Restricting space for citizens to raise their voices in exchange for tax revenue is not a viable domestic revenue strategy. Reducing civic space erodes the social contract between citizens and government, which is the most important component of a strong and fair tax system. With restricted civic space, citizens have no avenue to hold government accountable. The taxes have evoked a lot of ire among citizens who already feel stifled in offline civic spaces that the government has actively clamped down on.
In Uganda, free speech online has been under attack for several years. The government blocked access to Facebook and Twitter just before a tight presidential election in 2016. This new social media tax further threatens freedom of expression by hampering access to 58 digital platforms – ranging from Facebook, WhatsApp to Skype, and mobile network companies have already adapted to facilitate the tax.
In the Uganda context, this is worrisome. With the recent Public Order and Management Act (which requires police permission for more than 5 people to assemble), social media platforms were providing an important alternative to assembly and association. As one Ugandan journalist, Lydia Namubiru, put it: “For Ugandans, the social media levy isn’t just another tax. It is the latest in the government’s efforts to punish and discourage online expression.”
The poor are most affected
These two taxes will squeeze poor Ugandans the most. The social media tax will make access to information even more unaffordable – estimated to cost the poorest Ugandans nearly 40 percent of their income for 1GB of data. And in a country where one in two adults access mobile money, the mobile money tax could make poverty and inequality worse. Poverty levels in Uganda have actually increased recently, rising from 19 percent in 2013 to 27 percent today. Inequality, too, is increasing and many Ugandans lack access to basics such as health and education.
Tax policy (and Domestic Revenue Mobilisation strategies) should be designed to reverse these trends, not accelerate them.
Ironically, these taxes only serve to sow suspicion against a government that is bent on collecting money from a silenced citizenry. If citizens do not trust their government or its institutions, raising revenue will be an incredibly difficult task (ask any tax administration about the importance of voluntary compliance). And in Uganda, efforts to increase domestic revenue are already quite challenging – collecting very little and relying greatly on consumption-based taxes, which disproportionately affect poorer households.
Better ways to raise revenue
There are many ways to raise revenue without overburdening citizens and violating their rights. Why not take up excise tax reforms (as proposed by Tax Justice Alliance-Uganda) which could raise at least 122 billion Ugandan shillings? Or reduce tax exemptions that, according to research by Oxfam and SEATINI, amount to US$630 million annually – a big chunk of which are giveaways to the most capable taxpayers, including foreign companies and even parliamentarians. These are just two potential options for Uganda to consider.
Uganda has recently announced its intention to develop a Medium-Term Revenue Strategy (MTRS) – something that donors like the IMF and World Bank are keen to support. Its success will depend on generating broad buy-in from Ugandan society and greater trust. Repealing the social media and mobile money taxes would be a good start to winning back citizens. But a public dialogue on creating a fair and transparent tax system is the necessary next step.
By: Nathan Coplin, Joseph Olwenyi, Sophie Kyagulanyi, Patience Akumu