This paper synthesizes the findings from what, to our knowledge, is the first set of in-depth case studies on civil society engagement in tax reform. In these cases, we look at campaigns promoted by civic actors in seven countries that either proposed and pushed for specific tax reforms or opposed reforms that had been introduced by the government.
Regular citizens and civic actors have historically played a very limited role in the formulation of tax policies. In recent years, however, interest in the role that civil society can play in tax reform has been growing steadily, driven by the domestic resource mobilization (DRM) agenda linked to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and by recent efforts of international non-governmental organizations (NGOs)—in collaboration with country-level groups—to reform the rules of international taxation.
To document successful examples of civic tax advocacy and generate useful lessons for other organizations interested in this work, we commissioned in-depth case studies of the Yellow Vests movement in France, tax administration reforms in Guatemala, the invalidation of a double taxation agreement between Kenya and Mauritius, the fight against opacity of tax amnesties in Mexico, the increasing of “sin taxes” and oil excise taxes in the Philippines, opposition to new taxes on mobile money transfers and social media in Uganda, and advocacy of higher income taxes on wealthy individuals in three US states. Evidence from these case studies also help fill a gap in the existing literature on the political economy of tax reform, which does not cover the role of civic actors in any level of detail.
The cases show that civil society engagement in tax reform can play a role in making tax systems fairer and more equitable while generating revenues to finance important public services. More importantly, they help us to understand the types of strategies and tactics that very different organizations and movements use to engage with very different types of tax reform. Not all our cases are unqualified successes: what they demonstrate, rather, is that tax reform is a longer-term process defined by a mix of failures and partial successes, as well as more resounding victories. These cases help us to think about tax reform over time, rather than as a single moment, and therefore nuance our understanding of the role of civil society and the meaning of successful tax advocacy.
How did civil society groups across these cases engage with tax reform? The evidence we gathered highlights five themes, which also point to useful lessons for other tax advocacy initiatives:
Narratives, messaging and media. Tax reform is a battle of ideas. It requires tax advocates to craft narratives about the need for changes in tax policy and to be able to communicate them effectively by using different media in a strategic way. These narratives need to be powerful and convincing enough to counter and neutralize those used by opposing actors, such as the argument that low taxes are vital for economic growth. The first narrative that was used in the campaigns we cover is about promoting fairness and equity, arguing that the burden of taxation should be distributed fairly and that those that have more should pay more (or at least pay everything that they owe). The second narrative is related to the idea that governments need sufficient resources to adequately fund public services, either through direct earmarking or through an increase in general revenue collection. A third narrative—used by a smaller number of groups—is linked to the need for more transparency and for clear anti-corruption measures in tax administration. These narratives helped CSOs frame issues to win the policy argument and galvanize supporters and were more often used conjointly as complementary arguments, rather than in isolation. Beyond crafting narratives, though, civic actors need to be able to disseminate and amplify their messages through different types of media to make sure they reach their intended audience.
Choosing the right strategy. Our case studies find civic actors exploiting a wide array of venues for advocacy, from working directly with the executive, to lobbying legislators, to trying to influence public opinion through organizing events and working with the media, to taking governments to court. The most successful organizations use multiple strategies, rather than rely on just one. Successful cases seem to deploy a mix of “insider” and “outsider” strategies, supporting and lobbying governments directly on reforms, but also applying external pressure on them through mobilization, protest, lawsuits, and media campaigns. Not all strategies are available in all contexts, of course, but civic actors should start with the assumption that they must diversify their strategies and pursue multiple approaches, knowing that only some of them may eventually succeed.
Building effective coalitions. A critical strategic consideration in tax reform is to identify both allies and opponents. The key to success is building coalitions with allies that are powerful enough to overcome resistance from opponents. To confront reform resistance—coming mostly from governments and the business sector—civic actors in our cases built coalitions with a wide range of actors. Some built relationships with parts of government or business, taking advantage of splits within these actors. Others appealed to civic actors or movements that were not specifically interested in tax policy but were mobilized around a broader vision of government and public services. In some cases, civic actors were able to galvanize support from both these directions.
Capacity, capacity, capacity. Engaging in tax reform debates often requires high levels of technical capacity—both in the economic and legal spheres. However, technical capacity is only one of three different types of capacity that are important for successful tax advocacy. Based on our case studies, civil society groups also use political capacity to engage with various actors both within and outside government, and communications capacity to effectively disseminate research findings and reform proposals, and to craft forceful narratives and relay key messages to target audiences. In cases where not all types of capacities are available within a single organization, as will very often be the case, partnerships and coalitions can help address important gaps. Most of our cases indicate that successful organizations engage in long-term advocacy agendas involving significant learning and capacity augmentation over time. At any given moment, therefore, a capacity to learn and adapt may be as important as other kinds of capacity.
Political opportunities. Advances in policy reform often occur at specific points in time when unanticipated changes shift the balance of power and relative influence of key policy actors, alter public perceptions and affect government priorities; these key moments open up opportunities for advocates to step in and push for change. Some of these changes may come from the ballot box, or when corruption scandals hit the headlines. When opportunities arise, civil society must be prepared, or risk having to wait a considerable time for another window to open. This means working over the longer-term to build capacity, media networks and potential coalition partnerships that can be mobilized at opportune moments. Our cases suggest that it is those civic actors who make such long-term investments that are best situated to make progress when the right moment for reform arrives.
Tax advocacy is a long-term endeavor, requiring significant commitment over time from civic actors—and accordingly, sustained support. Success may come only after repeated failures, but those failures can help navigate to more effective pathways and ultimate success.
We hope that these findings and lessons from pioneering groups—and the much richer evidence in the full write-up of their cases—will provide other civic actors with inspiration and the motivation to pursue tax advocacy across different country contexts and ensure that citizens across the world have the voice that they deserve in shaping government tax policies.
A full synthesis paper documenting the studies is available here, along with summaries of each country case study.
This paper synthesizes the findings from what, to our knowledge, is the first set of in-depth case studies on civil society engagement in tax reform. In these cases, we look at campaigns promoted by civic actors in seven countries that either proposed and pushed for specific tax reforms or opposed reforms that had been introduced by the government.
In late 2018 and early 2019, a diffuse social movement known as the Yellow Vests (gilets jaunes) organized protests in France against various regressive tax policies. Initially spurred by an increase in fuel prices due to higher taxes introduced by the Macron government, the movement incorporated many lower income and rural citizens who had never been politically active before and who rejected all links to existing political parties and trade unions. They were motivated by a deep sense of unfairness, believing that elites were harassing them through higher taxes without anything in return. The protesters eventually augmented their initial demand to repeal the fuel tax by demanding the reintroduction of wealth taxation and the organization of citizen referenda to inform future policy choices.
The French tax system is characterized by high consumption and local taxes. Although the country enjoys robust social spending programs, its tax system is less redistributive now than it was in the past. Since the early 2000s, the country’s value-added tax has accounted for around half of all tax revenues (outside of social insurance taxes). In addition to the VAT, taxes on petroleum products and tobacco have increased substantially over the past several decades; both fall disproportionately on lower-class residents in rural areas. At the same time, the country’s wealth tax has been sharply contested since its introduction in 1981. Right-wing parties have long fought for its repeal—succeeding once, briefly, before it was reinstated—while left-wing parties have campaigned on expanding its rate and reach.
In 2017, Emmanuel Macron proposed to replace the wealth tax with a real estate asset tax, gradually abolish the local housing tax for most residents, and (in a nod to green concerns) increase environmental taxes. At the same time, his government introduced a package of pension and social insurance reforms that reduced benefits for current retirees. Macron’s new taxes on fuel consumption included numerous business exemptions; as a result, the increase primarily affected rural households, where car use was most prevalent.
Such was the context in which the Yellow Vest movement emerged onto the political scene in 2018, bringing disaffected retirees and rural laborers—as well as others angry at the government—into the streets. Though there were protests prior to the introduction of increased diesel prices in September 2018, the latter gave momentum to what became the Yellow Vests movement. In October, a maintenance technician posted a video to social media calling for motorists to display their yellow safety vests (required by law to be carried in vehicles) as a way of registering their opposition to the new tax. The next month, via a Facebook event, a truck driver called for a blockade of public roads.
The organizers of the Yellow Vests movement rejected all links with formal organizations, such as political parties and trade unions; they relied solely on social media to spread their message and organize protests around the country. Mainstream media gave the movement more visibility than its support may have warranted: coverage was continuous even as the number of demonstrators involved in the Yellow Vests movement quickly declined, from 300,000 during the first week of protests to 166,000 the following week, and several tens of thousands by January. Contributing to this decline was the refusal of organizers to develop a broader coalition, or even to adopt a message that would resonate beyond the parochial concerns of their most committed protesters. In addition, while initial media coverage helped amplify the movement’s messages, over time media reporting on a limited number of violent acts and the bigoted remarks of some participants undercut their support.
The Yellow Vest movement incorporated into its ranks several alienated groups, mainly in rural areas, who had not previously been involved in political protest. The movement drew on retirees and low-paid workers who no longer felt able to live on what they earn from their work; by donning the high-visibility vest, they were able to rediscover a form of dignity and recognition. The imperative of tax justice helped unite the movement; the reintroduction of the wealth tax quickly emerged as the best way to “make the rich pay” and thus became a rallying slogan. Initial protests also demanded Macron’s resignation, but eventually the Yellow Vests coalesced behind two main reforms: the reintroduction of a wealth tax, which they saw as a symbol of basic fairness, and the introduction of citizen referenda for policy changes, which they hoped would ensure their voices were heard in future reforms.
Over time, the main opposition political parties attempted to appropriate the popularity of the movement (except for the Greens, who remained resolutely hostile to a protest triggered by criticism of the carbon tax). The far right attempted to link the Yellow Vests to the struggle against immigration. The socialist left attempted, unsuccessfully, to redirect the protest energy toward a referendum on reintroducing the wealth tax. Union leaders were divided: some viewed the movement as potential allies against tax injustice and in favor of public services, while others objected to the movement’s anti-tax ideology and sought to distance themselves.
Faced with the public popularity of the Yellow Vests movement, Macron ultimately offered some economic concessions. In a televised speech in December 2018, he announced a series of “emergency economic and social measures”: freezing fuel tax increases, freezing certain energy charges, increasing the minimum wage by 100 euros for all employees, and cancelling some of the pension changes for low-income retirees. He also offered an alternative political opportunity to the referenda: a series of public meetings held across the country, at which citizens were invited to debate. These meetings were well attended: over 10,000 local meetings were held across the country, and the website set up by the government gathered over 1.4 million contributions. However, some issues were excluded from consideration—most notably, the reintroduction of the wealth tax was not within the scope of debate. On this question, for both political and ideological reasons, Macron never wavered.
The Yellow Vests movement was partly successful. Although they achieved their initial goal of reversing the fuel tax increase, many Yellow Vests clearly wanted more than this. Its protests captured the attention of all the major media, even though the number of demonstrators never exceeded 300,000, in a population of over 66 million. However, neither of the two main policy demands that emerged over time from the protests—the reinstatement of the wealth tax and the organization of citizen referenda to address future policy changes—were implemented. And none of the demands of the Yellow Vests resulted in significant political reforms.
The movement was resolute in its opposition to “inside” advocacy strategies: when the prime minister offered to receive representatives from the Yellow Vests in December 2018, the scheduled meeting was called off due to threats and intimidation targeted at those who planned to attend to represent the movement. Recurrent violence and clashes during its demonstrations contributed to diminishing the movement’s legitimacy, and its systematic refusal to form alliances with political parties and trade unions—or to enter into talks with the government—ensured that the Yellow Vests movement would remain a revolt by a minority. By refusing to appoint leaders interested in entering policy negotiations, the Yellow Vests movement failed to impose real tax reform. Its main success was giving voice to an invisible working class and popularizing the theme of tax injustice, which remains at the heart of the public debate in France.
The Yellow Vests are unique among our cases in that they represented an organic movement rather than a professional civic organization or coalition of organizations. While the movement never became institutionalized like other organizations we feature, the ways in which it was able to harness social media—and traditional media—highlight both the potential and pitfalls of alternative forms of civic organizing around tax reform.
The movement demonstrates that ordinary citizens can impact tax reform even when they lack technical and political capacities that are often deemed essential. The Yellow Vests relied almost exclusively on social media to drive influential organizing and protest efforts. While this was enough to force the government to drop a contentious tax change, it was not enough to bring it to the table to negotiate the movement’s more proactive agenda around citizen referenda, nor was it willing to yield on the wealth tax.
In part, the stymied progress on their demands was due to the movement rejecting the idea of negotiation. The Yellow Vests also rejected other strategies used by civil society organizations across our cases, such as building coalitions, working with legislators, or using the courts. The movement’s social media approach was successful despite, rather than because of, a lack of campaigning tools online that might have helped to sustain and grow it. While there are many movements around the world that have been spurred by online organizing, most fizzle out quickly. Our other cases demonstrate that tax reform is a long game and requires organizing and campaigning over time. In turn this suggests a different set of capacities, including a more deliberate approach to online outreach.
This summary is derived from Alexis Spire’s case study paper: “The Yellow Vests: A French cry for tax justice.”
The Central American Institute for Fiscal Studies (Instituto Centroamericano de Estudios Fiscales), or ICEFI, was founded in 2005 to independently evaluate the fiscal policies of Central American countries. The Guatemala City-based think tank counts a number of former senior government officials among its staff and is well respected for the quality of its analyses and for its contributions to public debates on fiscal matters. In 2015, it took advantage of a major corruption scandal to call for new legislation to enhance accountability in the country’s revenue administration agency (the Superintendencia de Administración Tributaria), or SAT, which was considered opaque and ineffective. Apart from presenting technical proposals, ICEFI worked with legislators and the media, and built broad coalitions in support of reforms. As a result of the campaign, Congress eventually adopted a new law whose main innovations had been proposed by ICEFI.
Among all Latin American countries, Guatemala collects the lowest amount in taxes—12.1% of GDP in 2018, compared to an average for the region of 23.1%. The country’s low collection rate has hindered its ability to make social investments, perpetuating some of the highest levels of poverty and inequality in the region. Over half of revenues are collected through the value-added tax, which is regressive and very burdensome for poor Guatemalan families. The tax system also is undermined by widespread evasion—estimated to be as high as 80% for corporate income tax—and lax enforcement.
The Guatemalan tax authority (SAT) had long been perceived to be inefficient and corrupt. But it fell into deep crisis in April 2015, when a special prosecutor accused the agency’s acting and former superintendents of extracting bribes in exchange for providing large companies with tax exemptions and refunds, as well as tolerating fiscal fraud and illegal smuggling. The “La Línea” scandal deeply shook Guatemalan society—particularly after it was revealed that the corrupt actions had been ordered by the country’s president and vice president, who had each profited from the scam. After peaceful mass demonstrations, and following regular Constitutional procedures, both elected leaders resigned and were soon arrested; public discussion called for an overhaul of the tax administration system to make it more transparent, accountable, and effective.
In early 2016, a newly elected Congress set up a committee to consider such reforms. In support of this process, ICEFI developed a series of reform proposals and gathered support from various actors. At the time, the SAT’s leadership were direct subordinates to the president. Members were appointed by the president and could be removed by him, and the board’s responsibilities were mainly advisory. SAT did not have access to taxpayers’ bank accounts, which could have been used to verify consistency of tax returns with banking operations. This lack of access also prevented information exchange with other countries’ tax bureaus, placing Guatemala on the OECD’s “gray list” of tax havens.
The reform that was eventually approved in 2016 (Decree 37-2016) addressed each of these issues. First, it changed the process of appointing the SAT superintendent, removing the power from the president and placing it with the board of directors. The superintendent is now nominated for a period of four years and must meet specified tax collection targets. Although the president retains the power to nominate board members, she/he must do so from a short list prepared by an ad-hoc commission. The reform also created the Administrative Tribunal for Taxes and Customs (Tribunal Administrativo Tributario y Aduanero, TRIBUTA) to review taxpayers’ complaints against SAT rulings; previously, this review had been done by the board itself. Finally, the decree amended Guatemala’s banking law, modifying secrecy provisions to give SAT access to taxpayers’ bank account information. As a result, SAT can now establish information exchange agreements with tax authorities in other countries and comply, for the first time, with international conventions on the prevention of money laundering and terrorist financing. In addition to these reforms, the congress also developed a multi-year strategic plan to ensure enforcement of the reform.
ICEFI’s campaign began just days after the La Línea corruption scandal broke in April 2015, when the organization released a statement asking the government to design a roadmap to reform the SAT. This statement also proposed the creation of a technical-political roundtable including participants from civil society organizations, academia, business, government and the international community. ICEFI also quickly initiated a social media campaign (#exijosathonesta), though its reach was limited.
In May 2015 ICEFI publicly launched its roadmap proposal in draft form so that citizens and organizations could discuss it and make changes. ICEFI was able to formulate its initial reform proposals quickly because of its longstanding history analyzing the Guatemalan tax system and its deep knowledge of the institutions that administer it. This roadmap included some of the key structural reforms that would be included in Decree 37-2016, including ensuring the superintendent’s independence from the president and modifying the powers of the board of directors. ICEFI hosted a public presentation of the roadmap in Guatemala City, and then—upon favorable reception—decided to take the proposal to other cities outside the capital. This initial stage of ICEFI’s campaign focused on bringing in different civic organizations, from business associations to peasants’ groups, and shaping public debate on the need for reforms to the SAT.
The decisive, more political phase of the campaign began in January 2016, after the newly elected government had been inaugurated. ICEFI was able to secure a public commitment from both congressional committees and the finance minister to “mutual collaboration” with ICEFI on fiscal policy issues. This agreement helped ICEFI influence some of the key actors in the reform process. During these discussions, ICEFI had the advantage of being the only actor with a comprehensive proposal—which had gained considerable public support. Additionally, ICEFI benefited from personal connections, including the close relationship between its senior economist and a key champion of the reform who sat on the relevant congressional committee.
In February 2016, ICEFI presented an updated version of its roadmap, and again requested the convening of a roundtable to discuss its recommendations. At this roundtable, ICEFI’s recommendations were presented alongside a shorter proposal from the finance ministry; differences were reconciled during the following months’ negotiations, and the final version of the Decree was approved by Congress in July 2016.
The promulgation of Decree 37-2016 represented the successful culmination of an ICEFI effort that began with a press release, and quickly developed into a significant public campaign to structurally reform the SAT. ICEFI’s efforts—done in partnership with other civil society organizations—helped highlight the urgent need to reform SAT and provided a clear template for reform. This effort also involved making alliances with grassroots organizations, a tour of several cities in the country to explain the need to promote changes to SAT and sophisticated political negotiations with key stakeholders. All of this was accompanied by press conferences and media appearances by ICEFI researchers, to keep the urgency for reform alive in the social imagination. Although the reforms did not deliver on all their promises in subsequent years, the case shows how technical and political acumen can lead to successful civil society advocacy for tax administration reforms.
This successful reform process can be conceptualized as occurring through two distinct phases, involving different actors and different modalities of action. The first stage was focused on building a broad reform coalition, spurred by public demonstrations which helped highlight the need for changes in the SAT and broader issues of corruption and lack of transparency. Once the public agenda had been set, the process advanced to the more technical second stage. This is the stage during which potential reforms to the SAT were proposed, debated and negotiated, both in public as well as through private lobbying. In contrast to the initial stage, this phase was mainly a dialogue between elites; as such, ICEFI’s technical expertise and close relationships with powerful actors were particularly important. The media had a central role during both stages, since both the public presentations and the technical and political negotiation process received coverage in the press. ICEFI’s previous efforts to cultivate media contacts proved tremendously useful in disseminating their analyses and opinions to a wider audience.
In developing and pushing for these tax administration reforms, ICEFI drew on its decade-long experience and recognized credibility and expertise in fiscal policy. These attributes allowed the organization to immediately engage in discussions on the need to reform the SAT once the La Línea scandal broke. They also allowed it to establish productive working relationships with a broad range of actors. This combination of technical expertise, political capital, and first-hand experience regarding public finance management provided the organization with the legitimacy and weight needed to make its proposals count in public debates.
At least three lessons can be drawn from the success of ICEFI’s campaign. First, ICEFI’s success in keeping the issue of tax administration reform on the public agenda was driven by its capacity to effectively engage the media in disseminating its analyses and proposals. This media engagement approach relied on a long-term strategy of building contacts and credibility. Second, ICEFI adjusted its advocacy approach based on its reading of a quickly changing political context, shifting strategies from building broad coalitions to elite negotiations, and from seeking the support of diverse actors to exploiting its political connections. This capacity to adapt strategies to changing circumstances is likely to be very important in most tax advocacy efforts. Third, ICEFI was ready and able to exploit the political opportunity provided by the La Línea corruption scandal because of its accumulated knowledge and experience, again highlighting the long-term and opportunistic nature of civil society tax advocacy.
That said, it is worth noting that this successful reform was prompted by events well beyond ICEFI’s control, such as the presence of an international anti-corruption actor in Guatemala who decided to prosecute corruption involving powerful politicians and senior officials, and the mass mobilizations that ensued and continued for months. This created a climate in which government actors were forced to consider structural reforms that may otherwise have been difficult to secure.
This summary is derived from Gustavo Berganza’s case study paper: “Reforming Tax Administration in Guatemala: A Civil Society Success Story,” July 2020.
The Southern and Eastern Africa Trade Information and Negotiations Institute in Uganda (SEATINI Uganda) is a leading pan-African civil society organization (CSO) championing an array of trade, fiscal and development related issues. It currently hosts and coordinates the Tax Justice Alliance Uganda (TJA-U), a coalition of 43 Ugandan CSOs working together to advocate for a fair, just and accountable tax system. The goals of the coalition include mobilizing the public for tax fairness, at both the national and subnational level; building capacity among member organizations for tax policy work; and publishing tax research. In 2018, the coalition worked to oppose two controversial and regressive new taxes, one on mobile money transactions and the other on the use of social media. Their campaign was mobilized very quickly to respond to the government’s proposed new taxes before their enactment and included public awareness campaigns including radio programs in rural areas, press conferences, social media activity, petitions to legislators and court cases.
Compared to many countries, the Ugandan tax system relies disproportionately on excise taxes, imposed on broad categories of consumption goods, which represented around 8% of total revenues in 2018. Tax collections are undermined by widespread evasion, lax enforcement, and a large informal sector (valued at as much as half of the country’s economy). Among a population of 42 million, the tax authority has registered fewer than two million taxpayers; high-wealth individuals, in particular, have been known to evade their tax obligations. According to the OECD, Uganda collected 11.8% of GDP in taxes in 2018, below the 16.5% average for African nations.
In April 2018, legislation was introduced in the Ugandan parliament to impose a 1% tax on the value of mobile money transfers. This manner of money transfer is extremely popular in the country—with 24 million subscribers in 2018— and is used particularly by breadwinners who migrate to urban areas in search of employment to remit extra earnings to their families in rural areas. The proposal received immediate, widespread public condemnation. The finance ministry argued that it was necessary as a way of expanding the tax base. Around the same time, a leaked letter from the Ugandan president to his finance minister raised the idea of taxing the use of social media—so-called “over the top” (OTT) streaming media services like Facebook, WhatsApp, and Twitter. The letter suggested that the tax could help reduce insults and gossip that are shared over such platforms; its revenue, he suggested, would be used to “cope with the consequences” of such speech. In response to the outcry, alternative rationales were offered to justify the tax: it would encourage the use of local apps and create tax equity between users of conventional means of communication that were subject to taxation (like phone calls and texting). The government also claimed that the revenues could be used to bring broadband infrastructure to rural communities.
Both proposed taxes were regressive in nature and widely perceived to be unfair, as they disproportionately affected people in lower income groups. But in May 2018, the Ugandan Parliament passed both the mobile money tax (a 1% tax on the value of remittances sent using mobile phones) and the OTT services tax (a fixed levy to access services including social media sites and mobile communication applications). Despite the controversy surrounding the new taxes, the President assented to the Excise Duty Act and the taxes came into force in July 2018. Shortly after the tax was passed, and possibly on account of the widespread protests that followed, the finance minister “disowned” the enacted mobile money tax, declaring that the cabinet had agreed on a 0.5% rate, instead of 1%. Several months later, the parliament voted to reduce the rate to 0.5% (though it rejected calls to eliminate the tax altogether). The social media tax was not changed and remains in place today.
Although CSOs in Uganda have been active in general policy reforms since the 1990s, they have become engaged in tax policy only in recent years. They have developed working relationships with government agencies—including through an annual process where they analyze the draft tax bills when they are presented to Parliament and formally submit alternative tax proposals to the finance ministry—and, on occasion, file petitions in the legislature or with the courts. Drawing on this experience, civil society groups mobilized immediately after the two taxes were proposed and mounted various efforts including public protests, legislative petitions, awareness campaigns and court processes. The various groups generally acted in concert, primarily through the TJA-U—collaborating, for example, to release a single position paper on both taxes, avoiding conflicting arguments and pooling scarce resources.
As soon as the taxes were announced, TJA-U organized a two-day strategy retreat for its members and invited other stakeholders, including mobile money vendors and human rights activists. During the retreat CSOs developed a position paper to discuss the regressive impact of the two taxes. Media engagements were organized to spread awareness among the public; radio interviews were found to be particularly effective at reaching residents in the rural communities who were most affected by the mobile transfer levy. These campaigns—which some radio stations refused to host—encouraged listeners to lodge complaints with their members of parliament. The coalition also worked to partner with local cultural leaders to host public events around the country, although some leaders refused to participate, as many earn their income from the government. In partnership with a mobile money vendors’ organization, the coalition also hosted two major press conferences; these events featured testimony from affected groups and generated wide press coverage. Finally, the coalition organized campaigns against the tax on social media use on social media; this was cost effective and well-targeted to affected groups.
Petitions against the two taxes were also organized by the coalition. Instead of following the normal approach of getting signatures from the public, they worked to get signatures of support from members of parliament; they received 116 signatures (short of their 320 target), but additional members refused to sign once the petition became public. During parliamentary debate, the groups presented position papers arguing against the taxes.
After their passage, a policy research organization published a study on the taxes’ impact, focusing on how the social media tax limited access to government information and how mobile money taxes made it harder to pay for services. The TJA-U and partner business groups petitioned the opposition leader to support full repeal of the mobile money tax, highlighting the impact on youth employment; they also partnered with an organization representing deaf Ugandans to highlight the welfare harms imposed on this group by the social media tax. Street protests were organized by business groups, opposition politicians and others; several resulted in arrests.
Two court cases against the tax were initiated, though only one had support from civil society groups. Litigation, however, was not a major strategy for TJA-U, because they had neither a qualified lawyer on staff nor the funds to hire one; they also were reluctant to attempt an approach with which they were unfamiliar. The court case they assisted with was initiated independently by a young human rights lawyer who argued against the social media tax on free expression grounds; TJA-U helped draw attention to this challenge by hosting a series of online “tax chats” about it. The case is still pending.
The advocacy campaign organized by TJA-U was a partial success. It resulted in the reduction of the mobile money tax from 1 to 0.5%. But this change fell short of the coalition’s goal of full repeal, and the social media tax remains in place. The mixed results stem largely from three factors. First, from the beginning, the government was strongly committed to retaining these taxes. The mobile money transfer tax was considered a necessary revenue raising measure to capture informal sector income, while the OTT service tax was largely driven by the president’s desire to curb “gossip” on social media. Second, the campaign became associated with the political opposition—which may have had the effect of strengthening governmental support for the tax. And, finally, the groups were hindered by a lack of technical capacity and funding.
The groups’ partial success on the mobile money transfer tax was attributable to several features of their campaign. Their quick mobilization and public education effort helped build political pressure against the tax, such that the proposal was quickly seen as a political liability by the government. The combination of public protests and organized calls to the members of parliament signaled widespread disapproval. Indeed, this quick response was likely the catalyst for the finance minister’s decision to distance the government from the proposal just days after its passage. Use of radio and seminars to raise awareness of mobile money tax, while using social media and press conferences to discuss social media tax, allowed the coalition to target messaging to those who were most affected by each proposal. And the coalition also benefited from its partnership with private sector interests who were adversely affected by the tax.
In a country where the ruling party holds an overwhelming majority in Parliament, the coalition’s efforts may have been hindered by the extent to which it aligned with the political opposition. The petition for the repeal was submitted by the opposition party’s leader, for example, and one of the major protests was led by a rising star in opposition politics who had clashed with the government on a number of previous occasions.
Additionally, they struggled with funding shortfalls and lack of technical expertise: the position papers they released were based on limited empirical data and made its case mostly on the basis of emotive arguments and assumptions. They failed to predict, for example, that the social media tax would raise considerably less than what government projections produced by the government (which turned out to be the case, as people reduced their use of these apps and found technological workarounds to paying). That argument may have been more persuasive to the government than the moral arguments that were deployed. But it was not only the lack of technical expertise that prevented this: there is a dearth of public economic data available in Uganda and collecting private data would be an expensive endeavor.
Civil society organizations advocating for tax fairness face an uphill battle in environments like Uganda, due to structural problems like limited financial resources and technical capacity, as well as a challenging political environment. Several lessons emerge from SEATINI Uganda and TJA-U’s campaign. Organizations benefit from acting in concert, as that allows them to mobilize quickly and pursue multiple strategies, and from including various stakeholders like influential community leaders and the private sector. Media efforts should target the information outlets most accessed by those directly affected by proposed tax reforms. And organizations should be strategic in forming alliances: not every supporter of the desired tax reform needs to be a public ally. The alliance between CSOs and the opposition party helped raise public awareness, but also turned the campaign into a difficult contest between the ruling party and the political opposition.
This summary is derived from Solomon Rukundo’s case study paper: “Civil Society Organisations and tax policy reform: examining the case of mobile money tax and social media tax in Uganda.”