By Cecilia Mulenga, Zambian tax activist
I was robbed of my best friend. She died in childbirth as there was no health clinic near her home. She was in her eight month when suddenly she started bleeding. There was no help where she was. She died together with her child. If we had a functioning tax system in Zambia which made multinational companies pay their fair share, which meant our public services were properly funded, then my friend might not have died. I got so angry after this that I had to become a campaigner. I realised I had to do something to fight for tax justice in Zambia and across the world.
In Zambia we have had strong economic growth over the past 7 years. But during that time the number of people living below the poverty line increased to 74%. We are losing $3 billion a year to tax dodging from just 3 multinational mining companies. For many years we have been the largest producer of copper in Africa but clearly not everyone is sharing in this wealth. Instead the gap between the rich and the rest is increasing, and Zambians are being denied their rights to basic services like health and education. How can this be after 50 years of independence?
I have been campaigning on tax justice for many years now. I do this in my spare time, alongside my full time job. I work with others to raise awareness among Zambians and to hold our decision makers to account. One thing would make this job much easier, if we knew how much all multinationals operating in Zambia are actually dodging in taxes. Our revenue authorities don’t have this information because companies which operate internationally aren’t required to publicly declare where they do business and where they pay taxes. Without this information, our job is much harder because we are often going into the battle blind, or at best partially sighted.
In April this year I took part in a tax justice tour around Europe, along with 9 other activists. When we were there I found out that the European Commission had just announced that it would be making companies headquartered in the EU to publicly declare this information but we will only see what companies pay in EU countries and a few others. This is a step in the right direction for Europe, but what about the rest of us? What about me and my fellow Zambians?
Tax dodging isn’t illegal but it is immoral. Tax should be a contribution of money paid by citizens or businesses to governments. Companies will make it look like they are making little or no profits. If all multinational companies were required to publicly declare where they do business and where they pay taxes, if they were transparent, then the Zambian Revenue Authority would stand a much better chance of raising funds that could be spent on the schools, roads and hospitals that we know improve our lives.
I know that my work is cut out to also raise awareness among officials here in Zambia. Many of them haven’t lived without, they don’t know the effect that inadequate services have on the people like myself. If that money ends up in the hands of someone who hasn’t experienced poverty then we have work to do to make sure taxes raised are channelled into public services. But I would like to focus on this, rather than just getting basic information which should be publicly available anyway.
If we don’t get basic measures like country-by-country-reporting, my fear is that a lot of Zambians will still be living in poverty. The rich are getting richer, but people are getting poorer because there is so much secrecy about how the money is being spent.
But I am hoping that our campaigning will lead to a better future for our children’s children. If a child is born under a tree then you know that their future is not looking bright. My hope is that every child is covered for in our national health budget. That all children can be born safely in a fully equipped health centre. When I was on the tax tour in Denmark, I visited a maternity ward in Copenhagen. It was so nice I had to double check it wasn’t a hotel. Every Danish woman has their own midwife, I could not believe this. I asked if I could take the maternity ward home in my suitcase. I know I can’t do this. But I know I can fight for a better future. Even if we have just a little bit of that Danish maternity ward, it will be better.
My message to politicians in Europe to step out of your comfort zone and see the situation on the ground. When I was flying back home from Europe, I could smell the poverty in the sky. I was happy to be home but I was also charged up to do more. If politicians did they same then maybe they would too. It’s easy to make these decisions when you are in Brussels or other European capitals. If they can’t get on a flight and come visit, then I would share my story with them. I will never get bored of talking about the story of my best friend, about the inequalities in Zambia. I would advise politicians to be human. If this was your sister or wife then you would want to do something about it too. I don’t believe in tomorrow, we have to do this today, before it’s too late.