Fri, Oct 7, 2016
The only way to reverse governmental neglect of rural areas is, paradoxically, start stringently collecting taxes in rural areas, no matter how unprofitable it may be for the government at the very beginning of such initiative.
In practice, farmers here in rural Tanzania do not pay taxes today. The reason is rather obvious. On one hand, it is just too logistically difficult to collect taxes on millions of farmers who live far apart from one another. If attempted, the cost of collecting taxes (walking around villages asking for cash) probably would exceed the collected amount by many times. Only systematic usage of mobile money can resolve this problem. Without a scalable way to have farmers themselves hand over money for fear of credible threats of punishment, everyone will just evade tax.
But even if farmers are willing to pay taxes and can do so systematically, they honestly do not have much to pay at the moment. Previous post already noted that in the villages here, any cash that is obtained is immediately spent to minimize the need for charitable community giveaways. Being cash-poor directly translates to tax-poor, and being tax-poor unfortunately means that in many cases, the provision of services in the villages remain subpar even at the low base for which the national standards are set. It makes logical sense, if one does not provide taxes, why should one expected to receive government services?
After all, with limited budgets, African governments are wise to channel spending on projects that are expected to have good returns (in terms of bigger future tax base). If villages cannot provide taxes to begin with, it simply makes no sense for governments to devote money on villagers, no matter how desperately in need of certain services they may be. Only the bare minimum needs to be spent in order to secure rural votes during election times. The near-complete absence of government focus on rural projects is partially why there is such a stable and visible NGO sector that exclusively cater to the needs of rural communities.
The only way to reverse governmental neglect of rural areas is, paradoxically, start stringently collecting taxes in rural areas, no matter how unprofitable it may be for the government at the very beginning of such initiative. If the government knows that it can persistently collect taxes from rural areas, it is then incentivized to plow money into rural development that can in the long-term, increase the amount of taxes it can receive from farmers. Only then it can initiate projects requiring large amount of funding that is out of reach for most NGOs, whether it be irrigation to increase yield or domestic agricultural R&D to counter MNCs.
In what form the taxes are to be collected requires a bit of innovation. Collecting monetary amounts from cash-poor farmers makes little sense, but collecting a portion of their farm harvests, as percentage of whatever kgs of whatever crops, is much more realistic for the payees. By calculating tax in proportion to overall harvests, the method also forces governments to develop a much more comprehensive and robust mechanism for tallying harvests (to ensure people pay proper amounts), giving a much better sense of where agricultural production is lagging behind potential and would thus require more investment for development.
Such a scheme in essence would make the government perhaps the biggest middleman supplier of agricultural produce in the country. While the author is not at all optimistic about government revenues being used prudently, in the best case scenario, the sheer quantity of government sales in agricultural produce can be substantial enough to affect market prices for staple crops. If sold at right timing, the resulting decrease in market prices may help control food prices domestically (and even internationally), benefiting people at the lowest rung of economic hierarchy (such as the villagers) who spend the biggest portion of income on food.
The fact of the matter is that collecting taxes on farmers is not at all a new concept. The empires of antiquity relied on agricultural production and its taxation to maintain financial capacity and vitality. Laws on protection of individual property were created to ensure the right legal environment is in place for maximizing agricultural production. It is not surprising then that some of the most valuable and daring of ancient engineering feats are water works, diverting rivers and underground aquifers for the purpose of creating more fertile lands that can produce multiple crops a year.
To tax farmers, thought this way, is but continuing a millennia-old tradition that ensured civilization thrived and progressed under the auspices of bountiful harvests. Rural Africa, with its near-exclusive dependence on rain-fed agriculture, cannot progress in other fields because failing domestic yields force governments to spend precious foreign currencies on food imports for a rapidly growing populace. And government officials tolerate this reality because they see no reason to invest time and money in improving agricultural productivity. Only by starting to get local farmers to pay taxes can the incentives be aligned for change.
Image Credit: http://naija247news.com/
Xiaochen Su is a Chinese-American hailing from San Diego, CA. He holds a Master's degree in International Political Economy from the LSE.