Are the People Aware? Talking about Tax Justice and Poverty by Pascal Andebo

On August 23rd the Jesuit Hakimani Centre (JHC) in Nairobi, engaged with over 50 representatives from the public in an initial attempt to discuss the challenge of many people living in poverty and facing inequality, and what to do to address these social ills in society. This was a result of the Tax Justice and Poverty project that the JHC as a social centre is engaged in. The event was hosted by the Jesuit Hekima Institute of Peace Studies and International Relations (HIPSIR).

Since 2012, the Jesuit Hakimani Centre has been partnering with the Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection (JCTR) in Zambia and the Jesuitenmission in Germany to study the underlying causes of the growing challenges of poverty and inequality. In this effort, the institutions also proposed one of the unorthodox solutions that would come from the Catholic Church; taxes. They seem to have taken the Biblical saying of Jesus: “… give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God”, literally. It is important to look behind to see the rationale for such a proposal: borrowing has only plunged our countries into a debt trap and economic subjugation from countries that are well-off. Additionally, there is a growing number of super-rich individuals and corporations that are now dominating the governance and sharing of resources of the Common Good, in ways unprecedented. Whether the growing numbers of the wealthy is a sign of economic progress or failure, and the way they obtain their wealth is becoming questionable too. First, a third of the wealth of the super-rich is simply inherited, undermining social mobility and genuine economic progress and creating a rich aristocracy. Another third of their wealth is obtained due to crony capitalism; connections to governments and monopoly. They secure concessions to provide services exclusively, striking corrupt deals in the process by inflating costs of the services, with kick-backs to those in positions of power and authority. This enables the wealthy to be sole beneficiaries of business and economic policies which they influence. Consequently, the super-rich use their wealth to pay as little taxes as possible, making use of secretive tax havens, using wealth managers, buying politicians and pliant media to drive the processes. In the process, they deprive the countries of the much needed resources to address poverty and provide services. I agree with a friend who recently posted: “Poverty exists not because we cannot feed the poor but because we cannot satisfy the rich”.

This and other growing challenges affecting the world’s and Africa’s majority population and their governments is a matter of concern. It therefore brings to mind the question of: are the people aware? Do they know about the resources that exist for the commons, yet are being used by a few? Do they know they have a role to play in how these resources should be shared and how more can be generated through their contributions for the common good? Do they have an understanding of how to seek accountability from their leaders for using the resources, and whom to ask for this? These questions reminded me of another one: “who are the people? In response to this last rhetorical question, one of my teachers had earlier responded: “The people are those who do not have to ask who the people are…”
In Kenya, reference to the plight of the ordinary citizens in this conundrum is now being depicted by Wanjiku, a typical Kenyan woman who has been shaped by a fate that society has bestowed upon her. She is a wife and a mother, whom society expects to take her full responsibilities while depriving her of the resources and opportunities. She is also expected to progress and become the super-woman! Is there anything for Wanjiku, then?

With such in mind, members of the public; ordinary citizens, professionals, religious leaders, gathered to listen to and discuss the challenges of poverty and inequality in their society in relation to the findings if the Tax Justice and Poverty research. A presentation of the research findings then lead to a discussion spear-headed by three panelists on why it is important to use taxes as a solution and how taxation and resource allocation should be reviewed in Kenya. Representatives from the Kenya Revenue Authority then responded to the questions the research and participants raised about taxation, and presented the basics ordinary citizens should know about tax matters that affect them. At the end of the day, a female participant proposed that the issues discussed need to be taken out to the public, not only by the JHC and KRA, but by the affected citizens themselves. I thought she was right as she stood-up for Wanjiku, who for long has been seen as a victim. Wanjiku can actually rise up, but she needs to be aware. That is what JHC attempted to initiate by this activity.