Tax justice and creative activism: an interview with Natasha Adams

Natasha Adams and Rebecca Bramall

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

This article first appeared on openDemocracyUK

 

Since the global financial crisis, tax justice has been rising up the political agenda. In the context of austerity, reporting on corporate and celebrity tax avoidance has achieved unprecedented levels of media coverage. For NGOs campaigning on global tax justice, there is much to gain from its current political salience. It is in this context that ActionAid UK – a leading international development charity – developed an innovative campaigning tool:Show Me the Money: A Tax Treasure Hunt. For 18 months, ActionAid campaigners regularly guided groups of people around Mayfair, using the central London location as a backdrop to explore the complex issue of global tax dodging. In the wake of the final tour, Rebecca Bramall caught up with Natasha Adams, Tax Campaign Manager at ActionAid UK, to reflect on this intervention and discuss what it can tell us about the challenge of imagining, representing and communicating about tax justice.

Rebecca Bramall: Why did ActionAid start campaigning on tax in 2008?

Natasha Adams: It came out of looking for sustainable financing for development and alternatives to aid. ActionAid’s campaign for tax justice is not an anti-aid campaign; we want to move away from aid, but it can’t simply be cancelled overnight. The campaign started in 2008 just before the financial crash, and after that point the narrative around tax avoidance exploded, opening up a lot of space to run it as a campaign issue.

RB: Where did the idea of creating a walking tour to explore the issue come from? I know you were inspired by the Occupy London tours, but what else was motivating you?

NA: People understand the basic injustice of tax dodging, but because it seems so complicated, they can feel that it’s very difficult to do anything about it. In my role as coordinator of activism for ActionAid, I wanted to find a way of making the subject accessible. It was an intern, Tom Barns, who came up with the idea – we were chatting about the Occupy Tours, how much we’d enjoyed them, and how good they were at explaining the financial crisis and the role that the City of London had played. And Tom suggested that we could look at doing one on tax. I went away and looked at the headquarters of the companies that we’d done exposés on, and found that there was an area of Mayfair that would make a good route for a tour, and so I wrote a script and took it from there.

RB: You spoke about trying to find a way of engaging people in this very technical, very off-putting, very complex, issue. Can you say more about the nature of that challenge?

NA: People get blinded by technicality and told they don’t understand what’s possible – so we’ve always tried to make the tours about explaining, but also trying to offer solutions and to offer hope about how things can change. I don’t think you necessarily need to get involved in all of the policy detail and have answers for everything – it’s about political will and believing that it’s possible for things to change.

RB: How do you toe that line between presenting the issues in a way that is manageable and engaging for people, without over-simplifying them?

NA: The tax tours give you the opportunity to go into the subject in quite a bit of depth. Where issues are complex, we try to retain the spirit of the processes we’re talking about. So for instance, at one of the stops on the tour we act out transfer pricing and explain how that works. Of course, the example that we have in our report is much more complicated than the scenario we act out.

RB: So there’s a scripting process: you have to organise technically complex issues into a meaningful story for the purposes of tour…

NA: We’re balancing different considerations. Because we’re doing this from the perspective of an NGO, we want to showcase the research we’ve done and the things we’ve campaigned on, and we want to give people a bit of hope. But it’s also about working with the geography of Mayfair and figuring out how we can make the stops on the tour actually work. We also try to link stops to UK-based issues as much as possible – corporations that have been in the media that people will know about.

RB: Does the complexity of international tax law also make it challenging for you as campaigners to navigate this terrain? Do you always feel that you have a reasonable grasp of the subject and of the issues?

NA: We have an amazing policy team who decide what we’re campaigning on. Priorities are set within the international campaign, and then we’ll look at how the UK can contribute. Our policy officers go away and do their research – they go to international tax seminars, bring their knowledge back to the team and up-skill colleagues that work in media and advocacy. In every NGO I’ve worked in there’s been something of a tension between policy and campaigning. In policy, you want everything to be 100% perfectly correct; that’s brilliant for people who are experts in what you’re talking about, but it’s not the way that you get people involved in campaigns. It’s a constant balancing act to decide how much detail to provide. We want people to get what we’re saying, understand why something’s a problem, and understand their role in how they could change it, but we don’t want to put people off by making issues overly complicated.

RB: It was presumably quite labour intensive for you to be running this event, bearing in mind the number of people who actually came on a tour. But it was very productive in terms of press and media coverage – the tour was featured in Time Out, the FT, and the Guardian and in many other publications. Was that something that you anticipated from the beginning? Did you design it to be media and press friendly, or was that a happy accident?

NA: Usually the tours would attract about 20 to 25 people. It’s quite hard for NGOs to get people to come to activist events, and to run an event where you got that many people in a room to talk about complex tax issues, that would be quite a feat. So actually, even though it was a relatively small number of people that came, it was a really good result for us.

We did think about press coverage, but we didn’t really know how long we would run the tours for. So we thought we’d just try it out and see how it went. Early on, a journalist from the Evening Standard came along on a tour. He wrote up a big piece, but it died in the legal department… and then we ran the tour for a few months with no media until the Guardian picked up on it. As soon as that piece appeared then we were getting journalists from all over Europe – we were in Die Welt, and the FT came and covered it, and we got a huge amount of coverage.

RB: You created a very strong iconography for the tour, and the way that you used props certainly suggested to me that you’d thought through how it might be represented in the media.

NA: I think if we did it again, we’d probably do more staged photos at the beginning. The idea has spread around ActionAid internationally – my colleagues in the Netherlands created an Amsterdam Tax Tour, and they did that very much aimed at getting press coverage from the beginning.

RB: One of the reasons why a publication like Time Out covered the tours is that you managed to combine an activist event with an activity that it falls under the category of entertainment – a walking tour. Presumably that was part of your strategy as well – to create an event that was enjoyable as well as informative?

NA: Attending an NGO event isn’t anyone’s idea of a fun thing to do with friends. But if you know that a friend of yours is annoyed about tax dodging and that they like going on walking tours, our tax tour is an enjoyable thing to do – especially if you give people the opportunity to go to the pub afterwards to carry on the conversation.

RB: To what extent does that idea of doing more ‘fun’ things around serious issues have a precedent in the campaigning tools and practices that are being developed now in the sector, do you think?

NA: I’m not sure that it really has enough precedent. We don’t have enough time to think about creative approaches to activism, and I think that’s a real shame. I wish more creative stuff would happen. There are artists doing interesting activist stuff, there are activists doing arty stuff that’s interesting, but NGOs aren’t engaging with those possibilities.

RB: So presumably one of the things that you’d like to see come out of this project is a recognition that creative approaches to activism can be very effective – they can help you get media attention and engage different audiences?

NA: I hope so.

RB: The publicity material for the tour states that it ‘uses place and storytelling to bring tax dodging to life’. Mayfair is a very strange place. It produces very distinctive feelings – a very strong sense that not you’re really supposed to be there, that it’s not for you. It is a bit otherworldly, isn’t it? So when you take people on the tour, you’re engaging with this strange place. Were you conscious of those feelings and affects? Was there a sense in which you were trying to push against them a little during the tour – to occupy the space differently?

NA: I guess so. I had never really been to Mayfair until I went on an Occupy tour of hedge funds and the role they played in the financial crash. When I went to scope out a route for this tour I felt very out of place. I was walking around with a notebook, trying to figure out where we might stand, how the route might work, and I really felt that it was not a place for me, it was not somewhere I was supposed to be.

The tour starts at the Eros statue at Piccadilly Circus, which is very touristy, and then it goes deeper into Mayfair, and it ends up in residential streets and quiet streets with offices, and then eventually you come out at Bond Street, so you take a tour through a private bit of Mayfair that you wouldn’t normally walk through. You see increasingly extreme symbols of wealth. We go past two yacht shops, and the cars and the people get posher and posher. Near the end, we stop at Claridge’s. That’s actually where we got the most abuse on the tour – we got asked to move, and we got people making comments.

RB: Being with the ActionAid guides gives the group a confidence, I think, and a feeling that they have a right to be there, and to look at these things in the way that you’re encouraging us to look. It felt to me that there was a very deliberate strategy; that you were saying ‘we need to look at this’ – literally to look with our eyes, but also to pay attention to the affluence of the place.

NA: It’s not about rich-bashing, but it is important to draw attention to the fact that so much wealth is concentrated in just a few people’s hands. There are always homeless people on the route, so you see both sides; you see people sleeping in doorways on bits of cardboard and stepping out of Rolls Royces in unbelievably expensive designer clothes.

RB: Occupation has been an important element in UK Uncut’s tax activism, of course. Do you think there’s a relationship between the strategies you’ve employed in terms of identifying spaces – whether they’re ordinary commercial spaces like banks and coffee shops or spaces where we feel that we don’t really belong – and entering them, being in them, and talking about them in a different way?

NA: Yeah, I think so, though working for an NGO there’s a limit to what you can do. When we spoke to the insurers about the our plans, they were really worried that it was going to be a protest, that we would actually be occupying the buildings, that people might be arrested. With a walking tour you are subverting things a little bit, but you’re not breaking the law.

RB: You’re using place to bring tax dodging to life – and the place you’re using is Mayfair, which is a location that is practical and accessible because it’s in central London. But what you’re really trying to do is to encourage people on the tour to think about other, more remote places – you’re asking them to think about Malawi, or Zambia, as well as about secret places, offshore places, tax havens… It seems to me that in pursuing a very ‘placed’ approach, you were taking people to Mayfair, and getting them to examine that place, but you were also trying to get those other, more remote places into the picture as well. So, were you conscious of that challenge, and how did you engage with it?

NA: I think it’s really difficult. We struggle to find issues that people can campaign on locally, because tax dodging is such an international problem. It is really hard to pin down those ‘other places’. We try to tell the story in many ways; we start off outside Barclays, talking about what a tax haven is, and the role that tax havens play in the many crown dependencies and overseas territories that the UK is responsible for.

Then we talk about SAB Miller and Associated British Foods – we talk about the tax dodges that they did from developing countries and tell stories of the people who were affected.

We have discovered that ‘David and Goliath’ stories are a really good way of communicating the injustice and impacts of tax dodging on developing countries. We found a woman who was working next to a huge SAB Miller beer factory in Ghana. She sells their beer, and she pays more tax than the company does – because she’s paying some tax and they’re paying none at all. And we did something similar on Zambia Sugar, which is owned by Associated British Foods. I went to Zambia and met our activists there who work on tax, so we had personal stories that we could talk about. It’s also about bringing the issue of the shrinking of civil society space into the dialogue – drawing attention to how difficult it can be to campaign in different countries.

RB: I’m reminded of a point that John Urry makes in his book, Offshoring. He argues that offshore doesn’t have to be literally offshore. It doesn’t have to be offshore from centres of economic power, so you could say offshore is everywhere. It really felt like you were making that point quite clearly: we might prefer to imagine that tax dodging happens somewhere else, but simply by walking into Mayfair we can see how these activities are being organised from places that are very much ‘onshore’ – from the centre of London.

NA: I think that’s true. Offshore is a virtual space where things are shifted around on balance sheets.

RB: How important are brands to this process of making tax dodging intelligible? How did you decide which brands to discuss on the tour, and what difference does focusing on familiar British brands make in engaging your audience?

NA: If we’re looking at doing an exposé on a company, public familiarity with that company would be one of the criteria. We haven’t tended to focus on companies that are relatively poorly known in the UK, because we won’t get as much media coverage, and people don’t know who they are, so it doesn’t make the issue as tangible for them. It’s a shame because there are plenty of companies with less familiar brands that are doing equally bad things when it comes to tax.

The point of focusing on a particular company is not to simply point the finger and force them to change their behaviour – we want to expose what they’re doing, and then on the back of that outrage, push for the rules to be changed, so that it can’t happen again. That’s the objective.

RB: Do you feel that there are noticeably different levels of engagement and interest when you talk about certain brands – Starbucks, for instance – that people have really incorporated into their lives, that are almost part of their identities?

NA: The companies that everyone tends to think of when they think about tax dodging in this country are Starbucks, Google, Amazon, Facebook – and probably Vodafone as well, because of UK Uncut’s work. Apart from Vodafone and Starbucks, they’re big nebulous tech brands, and there’s a real argument to be had about ‘where does this business operate?’ But other companies are avoiding their tax as well.

RB: I watched a video that ActionAid produced called The Power of Tax. It’s about Zambia Sugar, but the narrator is at pains to point out that this is a subsidiary of Associated British Foods. It expresses the idea that there’s a connection back to the company that puts breakfast cereal on your table.

NA: This is the same company that owns Primark, that owns Ryvita, that owns Pataks, that owns Twinings Tea, and if you make that clear, people do have a real connection to the issue, and it means something to them. However, that often leads to the desire to boycott these companies. On the tour, people would often ask, ‘So who should we be buying from? Surely we should boycott these companies?’ But actually, the problem is, almost all big international companies are avoiding tax. We did some research which showed that 98% of the FTSE 100 companies are routinely using tax havens. They’re all at it; it’s normalized. And so, unless you stop buying from any multinational company – which is possible, but increasingly difficult when you think about how we live our lives – boycotting’s not really meaningful.

RB: I think it’s helped with the visibility of the problem with, say, Amazon. And of course, there are multiple reasons why consumers might want to avoid buying from Amazon.

NA: Yeah, it has had some impact on Amazon and also on Starbucks actually, because there was such a big scandal around their tax dodging, people did stop buying and that affected their sales, and that’s why they offered a tax ‘donation’ in 2012.

RB: Obviously there is huge interest in this debate right now, and the issue of tax avoidance is being covered right across the mainstream media. It’s not just the Guardian covering tax exposés – you’re also getting stories in the Daily Mail and the Metro and the Evening Standard – which is really unexpected. In the last few months we’ve also seen a whole series of television documentaries broadcast on this topic – The Town that Took on the Taxman(BBC Two), How the Rich Avoid Tax (C4), Britain’s Trillion Pound Island (BBC Two).

But media coverage of this issue often seems to support quite an internal argument about the UK that is directly shaped by the context of austerity. It seems pretty clear that people have become outraged about tax avoidance because of the link that has been made to austerity – to cuts to public services and welfare. Groups like UK Uncut, and the trade unions, and plenty of other social actors, have made a very appealing and commonsensical argument thatthere is an alternative to spending cuts. If you go after tax avoiders, you can do something about the deficit, and you can mitigate the cuts to public services.

So on the one hand, this level of interest in the issue of tax avoidance must be very useful to ActionAid. But on the other hand, the internalization of the debate about why it matters – the argument that closing the tax gap would negate the need for austerity in the UK – that is perhaps quite problematic for ActionAid, as an organisation that is seeking to communicate the globalconsequences of tax avoidance. So, has the mainstreaming of the issue of tax avoidance helped or hindered your cause?

NA: I think it’s really helped. Through our campaign, we are arguing that tax could be a sustainable source of development finance. It’s a means through which governments that are heavily reliant on aid, that have very little money, could provide the public services that just don’t exist at the moment. And I think that that narrative fits together very well with the anti-austerity position that you described.

Because ActionAid is an international development charity, the relationship between tax avoidance and austerity lies outside the mandate of our charitable objectives, so it’s not something we can talk about, though we have worked with other organisations who make those connections. The continued interest in tax avoidance gives us an ‘in’ to talk about our campaign, and to argue that there is a kind of comparable injustice in a development context.

The public are not massively interested in international development; support for work on global poverty has been falling for a long time. And so the constant news agenda around tax dodging is really helpful. When there’s outrage about Google’s tax affairs in the UK, we can use that as an opportunity to talk about what is happening at a UK, EU and international level, and the impacts that tax dodging is having on development. It has helped us make global tax justice a big issue and get it on the agenda in way that it just wouldn’t be if those arguments about UK corporation tax weren’t happening.

RB: So overall, you think that the fact that the issue has political salience and that there’s a kind of momentum there – overall, it’s been helpful in raising awareness of global tax justice issues?

NA: I think so.

RB: People don’t just close down when they realize that you’re not going to talk to them about the NHS or…

NA: No! I think that the two arguments can run in parallel in people’s minds. An awareness of the impact that lost tax revenues can have on public services also helps when we want to communicate how inadequate public services are in some countries. Our current campaign focuses on the UK-Malawi treaty, and Malawi has around 300 doctors for a population of 16 million people.

RB: So that’s interesting: you’re suggesting that what’s been useful in the UK-based argument is that people have been encouraged to think about tax and spend – to notice that something’s happening with government expenditure and to think about where that money comes from. And what you’re saying is that the experience of thinking about tax and spend might enable people to think about tax and spend in Malawi or whichever country you want them to focus on. So there’s a kind of patterning of economic imaginaries.

NA: I think that’s true. But also, we’re not arguing that the UK needs to collect less tax in order that Malawi can collect more tax. This is a universal issue which is affecting everybody in different way, and it’s the corporates and the wealthy global elites who are winning. It’s a fundamental economic distribution argument. The alternative, which is to talk about aid – ‘we should be generous, we should be giving this money’ – that’s a much harder argument to make, in fact, when people are feeling the pinch in their own lives.

RB: So in a sense, the argument that tax can be a sustainable source of development finance bypasses that problem as well, because you’re not saying that it’s just about giving – you’re offering a different kind of solution. What do you see as the legacy of running the tax tours?

NA: We’d really like to find some way of putting the tour online, perhaps a podcast or a video, so that it is archived. And I think it has opened up a dialogue about how we can be more creative – we’ve talked about developing other creative activist interventions. Across the federation there have been a few different countries that have picked up the idea and run with it in a slightly different way.

RB: Certainly ActionAid are going to be campaigning around tax for the forseeable future?

NA: Yes. We’ve got 25 countries that work on it, and we’re campaigning on the UK-Malawi treaty. That’s part of a bigger effort to try to get the UK to have a policy framework for all of its tax treaties with developing countries and with conduit tax havens that takes development principles into account. And at the same time we’ve got countries across the federation that are pushing on these issues. So we want to try to fix the global rules. Ultimately what we want to see is the establishment of a genuinely accountable global body that takes responsibility for setting these rules. In the meantime, bilateral tax treaties are something that individual countries can do something about straightaway, and hopefully there’ll be a snowball effect. The OECD have recently made the same proposal about the importance of modifying tax treaties, one of a series of measures they are recommending to tackle tax dodging.

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