Ask a Man How Many of His Fish Are Being Stolen…

June 1st, 2011

‘Give a man a fish’, goes the old saying, ‘and he’ll eat for a day. Teach him how to fish and he’ll eat forever.’

In its time, this was a progressive message, arguing for sustainable development approaches over simple aid-giving, but it now sounds rather dated. Worse than the apparent gender bias is the underlying assumption that development solutions involve ‘us’ teaching ‘them’ how to avoid being poor.

The thrust of Christian Aid’s work on financial integrity, and that of the Task Force and its other members, is quite different. Our work, not least in generating estimates of the scale of developing country losses due to a lack of financial transparency, has been motivated by a desire to see developing countries and their citizens engage directly in order to challenge abuses – and in doing so, to pursue improvements in governance alongside growth in the revenues available for public expenditure to support health, education and wider development outcomes. These estimates – not least those of Global Financial Integrity – have, over the last five years, become increasingly influential. Just last week, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton cited estimates of illicit outflows from developing countries in excess of $1 trillion a year.

For the rich nations to be seized of the importance of this issue is crucial, if global policy change is to occur through the G20 and elsewhere. But, ultimately, progress will depend on the demand for change from developing countries and their citizens. This is not about anyone learning to fish; rather, it is about women and men in poverty beginning to see how many of their fish are being stolen, and by whom.

This is why two pieces of recent news are so welcome. First, the African Forum on Financing for Development discussed the scale of illicit flows, concluding that collective action was needed by the stakeholders in African development (h/t Christian Aid’s Dereje Alemayehu, who took part). The UN Economic Commission for Africa is to conduct the first African and Africa-wide study of illicit flows, designed to provide a comprehensive assessment of the scale of the problem with a view to motivating rapid policy change.

Second, the Indian government (h/t TJN) has commissioned a detailed study “to quantify unaccounted income and wealth stashed within and outside the country”, from the leading research institutions including the National Institute for Public Finance Policy (one of Christian Aid’s partners at the International Centre for Tax and Development).

Developing country governments, as well as their citizens through civil society mobilisation, are increasingly taking control of the illicit flows agenda. The more research into illicit flows is carried out, the stronger will be the demands for domestic and global action.

Let a man assess how many of his fish are being stolen, and he may just demand them back.

Written by Alex Cobham

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