India: a case of onions first, with a little help from country-by-country reporting

December 23rd, 2010

It seems right to juxtapose two articles in the FT over the last couple of days. First this:

Manmohan Singh, India’s prime minister, already under fire over a multibillion-dollar telecoms corruption scandal, suddenly has a more down-to-earth problem on his plate – the skyrocketing price of onions.

Their price at India’s retail vegetable markets has doubled from Rs35 ($0.78) per kg to Rs80 in the past few days, angering consumers already feeling the pinch from a year of food price inflation and rising fuel prices.

And secondly this:

The Indian fixation with surpassing China’s rate of economic growth is “very stupid” as a measure of the nation’s advancement, Amartya Sen, the world-renowned scholar and Nobel laureate for economics, has warned.

Prof Sen on Tuesday said that such comparisons between the two rising economies were dangerously misguided, and recommended that Indian leaders pay more attention to reducing chronic undernourishment among their country’s 1.2bn people than pursuing ever higher growth targets.

“I don’t think the issue of India and China and which one will have a higher rate of growth is interesting at all,” Prof Sen told students and young entrepreneurs in the Indian capital. “It’s not a serious question how [India’s] 8.5 per cent compares with [China’s] 9.5 per cent.”

Mr Sen was responding to an obsession with India’s climbing growth rate among New Delhi’s policy elite, a focus that often overlooks whether greater activity in parts of the country translates into improved human development indicators.

Indians suffer some of the severest nutritional deficiencies in the world. Stunted development affects about half of the nation’s young children.

This is in no small part what the tax justice debate is about.

It is very easy to obsess about what happens in the UK economy but the truth is most of the people who started the tax justice debate did so out of a concern for developing countries – me included. Our concern is with real poverty – the sort where people can’t get the onions that are a part of their staple diet – because the market system is failing them – and the sort created by an obsession with the goals of neoliberal economics like GDP growth which have little or no impact on the lives of so many people for whom the grind of poverty is a reality around the world.

This was the reason for the creation of country-by-country reporting – endorsed by the FT yesterday – because we believe it will help ensure that the right amount of tax is paid in developing countries. It has many other benefits too – but that one was key to its creation and remains key to my reason for promoting it now.

No, it won’t restore an onion crop devastated by rains. But it will provide a government with resources to help manage the consequences and it will help a government tackle child under-nourishment with all its long term issues.

This is the hope we try to deliver.

If only the world’s major corporations might join in and deliver the same hope. They could if backed by a body – the International Accounting Standards Board – of which I said, what now seems a long time ago,:

The International Accounting Standards Board (IASB) has a chance to do something really powerful this week. It could with one decision do more for development than Live Aid or Live 8 achieved, outdo Bono, make tax evasion and corruption a great deal harder, help increase the tax revenues of most of the poor nations of the world and so bring real relief to their people and begin the end of aid dependency.

Of course that something was to recommend country-by-country reporting.

They ducked the issue then.

They duck it now.

And children have died as a result. Of that I have no doubt.

What do I want for Christmas? Country-by-country reporting, of course!

Written by Richard Murphy

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