How the West Was Won: What Corporates Who Care for Education Should Do

How the West Was Won: What Corporates Who Care for Education Should Do

By Vernor Munoz, Head of Policy, Advocacy & Campaigns, Global Campaign for Education andFormer UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education (2004-2010)

Summary

This article examines the role of the Global Business Coalition for Education (GBCE) in the implementation of SDG4. It analyzes the legal and moral obligations of corporations to contribute to the financing of public education systems, through paying fair taxes in the countries where they profit and proposes that compliance with this payment be adopted as a requirement for membership in GBCE.

Keywords:

Corporate, Business, Ethics Tax Justice

This article shares some reflections on the role of the Global Business Coalition for Education (GBCE) in the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Agenda and specifically its Goal 4: “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”.

For mysterious reasons, the first reference that came to mind when I decided to write about this was the Metro-Goldwyn- Mayer’s (MGM) Western (1962), whose title this article has, which tells the story of four generations determined to conquer the wilderness, triggered by the Gold Rush and ready to subdue or exterminate the original nations under the Whites so called “law and order”, supported by the US federal troops.

Perhaps we will not find a modern John Wayne in the GBCE, although some coincidences emerge, when we observe how the occupation of territories is naturalized and how some

entrepreneurs understand progress as good businesses, on a framework of opportunities that in the film are set in the Wild West and in our era in education.

Education: Another Gold Rush

Extrapolating the old MGM language, for business seekers, education is the new market’s golden territory, where everything is consumable, including learning. However, for many civil society advocates, including the Global Campaign for Education, education is a right that opens the door to other human rights and is the key to sustainable development. That is why education needs state funding in the first place and not charity or philanthropy.

Human rights law includes these aims in several binding instruments, in which education financing is established as a central state obligation. As the Incheon Declaration and Framework for Action states, there is a US $39 billion external financing gap – but this calculation ignores the much bigger domestic funding gap. The only realistic way for countries to deal with this domestic gap is to maximize the revenue available by building progressive and expanded domestic systems of taxation, reviewing tax and royalty agreements in the corporate sector, and closing loopholes, which enable tax avoidance and evasion by the private sector (Global Campaign for Education, 2016). By increasing the share and the size of the budget going to education, countries will have the possibility to expand their education systems, train more and better teachers, improve the quality of teaching and learning, and provide the resources that families need so that their children successfully complete their education cycle.

Tax Obligations: the Wagons of Solidarity and Social Justice

Taxes are usually set through exhaustive legal frameworks, but many companies work very hard to find legal loopholes to avoid paying corporate tax. Aggressive tax avoidance in order to reduce paying taxes and maximise profits may not be moral but it is legal. In contrast, tax evasion is illegal – but this is rarely needed when companies can recruit the best accountants and legal advisers to find their way around existing laws. It is particularly alarming that many big accountancy firms are actively involved in advising governments around putting in place new laws – and then help their clients to find their way around those very same laws. But something has to give if we are to build progressive and expanded domestic systems of taxation so as to deliver on the right to education. The private sector, including multinational corporations, need to pay a fair share of taxes in the countries where they profit.

In this time of profound inequity, in which the richest increase their power at the expense of the poorest, what used to be considered legal does not always qualify as morally responsible anymore. Paying (almost) no tax at all in countries where some of the biggest corporations operate – whilst those same companies make use of public goods and services – is certainly not paying a “fair share” (Gribnau, Jallai, 2017), and, increasingly, civil society campaigners are calling this out as morally reprehensible.

Moral fault turns into hypocrisy when corporations publicize a message of social responsibility; when they declare and market themselves as joyful defenders of education and even participate in deliberative processes on education policies, without first complying with their obligation to pay the taxes necessary to finance education.

The moral faults of big corporates may not be called out in the wild business world, but when companies seek a seat at the education decision-making table, the standards should

be higher. Participation in national and international policy spaces on education should depend on companies having a reputation for solidarity, transparency and reciprocity – and

paying fair taxes where they make profits is perhaps the most critical indicator of this.

Tax avoidance has a dramatic human cost, as some of the United Nations Treaty Bodies and Special Procedures have shown: “[i]neffective taxation systems, corruption and mismanagement of government revenues from, among others, State-owned businesses and corporate taxation, can limit the resources available for the fulfilment of children’s rights” (Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2013), and “business enterprises that knowingly avoid paying tax are purposefully depriving countries of the resources they need to fulfil their human rights obligations” (Sepulveda, 2014).

Where is the Crisis?

The Global Business Coalition for Education (GBCE) creates a forum where dozen of leading companies can publicise their commitment to education and engage in a range of education

policy discussions, without first doing the one thing that could be most transformative for advancing the right to education: committing to pay fair taxes in all countries where they make a profit – without resorting to aggressive tax avoidance strategies. Unfortunately, in the GBCE’s initiative on education financing,1 there is not a single reference to the need for companies to pay their fair share of taxes. There is not a single mention about the impact of this obligation on public budgets, and not even a single commitment to encourage better tax practices by corporates.

GBCE’s central framing is about ending “the global education crisis”.2 This is, in fact, a confusing message, since it makes people believe that the obstacles faced by education systems are due to intrinsic problems, that is: the crisis is in education.

This is misleading and irresponsible, because it ignores the fundamental factors that underpin the crisis. There is a crisis in education financing and this crisis arises in part from the aggressive tax avoidance by the richest companies that have left public budgets stripped of resources to fund quality public education. There is a tax crisis that the GBCE could play a significant role in addressing – but they have no plans to engage with that crisis.

In face of “the global education crisis”, the GBCE nominates its member corporations as “the next generation actionists”, in charge of increasing “the skills of employees, the income

potential of consumers, and the prosperity of communities where business operates”. This proposal seems to be formulated with the intention of undertaking the vision and mission of the GBCE, which aims “to ensure that every child has the best start in life, a safe place to learn, and skills for the future”. There is no reference to SDG4 and no reflection of the financing crisis or the real role that the corporate members could play in changing their own corporate practices. They are invited and encouraged to sit at the table and present themselves in an altruistic light without having to change any of their existing practices, without having any bars set or tests to pass. They can present themselves as heroes simply helping to win the West once again.

The GBCE website itself is not very transparent. It mentions the existence of a large number of members, but only the founding corporations and another group called “Member Companies” are cited: 28 in total. After reviewing news and public information available on the internet about these GBCE members, I found that 20 out of 28 are mentioned in serious cases of tax avoidance, tax evasion or other types of legal questioning, and at least one name came up in the infamous Panama Papers database.3

Some highlights of the information available from an internet search of the tax affairs of the 28 companies are included below – but I have chosen to remove the names of individual companies as a more comprehensive investigation would need to be undertaken to ensure that quoting specific references would not prompt legal action. Besides, the point is to highlight that this is a pattern of behavior amongst many companies who are part of the GBCE rather than challenging individual companies. This pattern surely warrants a systemic response from GBCE.

  • The companies created “complicated accounting and legal structures that move profits to low-tax Luxembourg from higher-tax countries where they’re headquartered or do lots of business”.4
  • The company “has developed a new tax avoidance scheme. This high-interest related party loan, from a Delaware subsidiary, is worth more than AUD$35 billion”.5
  • “…chief prosecutor is investigating a tax structure used by 48 members of … in Portugal, to remit €53 million from Malta companies they used to pay lower taxes”6.
  • “…is close to agreeing to pay between 1.3 billion and 1.4 billion euros ($1.5-1.6 billion) to settle a dispute with Italian authorities over unpaid taxes”7.
  • “…company agreed to pay $586 million and admitted to turning a blind eye as criminals used its service for money laundering and fraud, U.S. authorities said on Thursday”8.
  • “…the massive, $456m fine paid back in 2005 to settle allegations that it promoted illegal tax shelters in the USA – allegations that could well have seen the firm collapse if criminal prosecution had followed”9.
  • “…firms have been accused of “aggressively avoiding” $100 billion (€90.8 billion) of global tax over the past decade”10.

Conclusion

The most important contribution that most of the GBCE companies could make to education would be to pay fair taxes in the countries where they profit. That would strengthen public systems and set a positive example for mobilizing the private sector towards the realisation of the human right to education. Paying fair taxes is a moral obligation and a prerequisite for those private actors willing to contribute to the debate on education policies. Actively proving that fair taxes are paid and committing to country by- country reporting should be a requirement to become a GBCE member. Setting this as a requirement would be truly transformative even if introduced now, and even if member companies were given a one-year grace period to review and reform their practices. The time of Covid-19 should be a time for transition and transformation – and this should include a fundamental shift in how the private sector engages with and supports the public sector in education.

Endnotes

  1. https://gbc-education.org/what-we-do/the-education-financing-initiative/
  2. https://gbc-education.org/about-us/ Accessed July 19th 2020
  3. https://www.premiumtimesng.com/news/headlines/249298-paradise-papershuge-chunk-dangotes-fortune-now-kept-tax-haven.html
  1. https://www.lexisnexis.com/legalnewsroom/financial-fraud-law/b/blog/posts/accenture-pays-u-s-63-675-million-to-settle-bid-rigging-allegations Accessed July 19th 2020
  1. http://www.world-psi.org/en/chevrons-aggressive-tax-avoidance-exposedglobal-summit Accessed July 19th 2020
  1. https://www.maltatoday.com.mt/news/national/96556/portugal_chief_prosecutor_probes_deloittes_millioneuro_tax_structure_in_malta#.XxTvQp5KiUl Accessed July 19th 2020
  1. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-kering-tax-italy/gucci-owner-kering-closeto-settling-italian-tax-case-for-1-3-1-4-billion-euros-sources-idUSKCN1S10G8 Accessed July 19th 2020
  1. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-western-union-settlement/westernunion-admits-to-aiding-wire-fraud-to-pay-586-million-idUSKBN1532RL Accessed July 19th 2020
  1. https://www.taxjustice.net/2017/09/18/kpmg-false-objectivity-big-four/ Accessed July 19th 2020
  1. https://www.irishtimes.com/business/technology/big-six-tech-companiesaccused-of-aggressive-tax-avoidance-1.4101815 Accessed July 19th 2020

References

Committee on the Rights of the Child. (2013). General Comment No. 16 on State obligations regarding the impact of the business sector on children’s rights, CRC/C/GC/16.

Darcy, S. (2017). ‘The Elephant in the Room’: Corporate Tax Avoidance & Business and Human Rights. Business and Human Rights Journal, 2(1), 1-30. https://doi.org/10.1017/bhj.2016.23

Global Campaign for Education. (2016). Financing Matters: A toolkit on domestic financing for education. https://www.campaignforeducation.org/docs/resources/GCE%20Financing_Matters_EN_WEB.pdf.

Gribnau, H., & Jallai, A. (2017). Good Tax Governance: A Matter of Moral Responsibility and Transparency.

Nordic Tax Journal, 1(1), 70-88. https://doi.org/10.1515/ntaxj-2017-0005

Sepulveda, M. (2015). Report of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. A/HRC/26/28. Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights.