John Christensen was trained as both an auditor and a development economist and was co-founder and director of the Tax Justice Network International Secretariat, based in London. His current area of expertise is tax havens and their impact on international development. Previously, Mr. Christensen was a company and trust administrator in Jersey and served as economic adviser to the Jersey government.
He obtained an honors degree in applied economics and an M.Phil in economics and law from the University of Reading and completed post-graduate studies at Templeton College, Oxford, and the London School of Economics and Political Sciences.
"Tackling tax avoidance is crucial to the task of freeing developing countries from aid and debt dependence. Tax Inspectors Without Borders is an important and practical programme intended to support the tax administrations of developing countries with building capacity to audit and investigate the complex and secretive tax avoidance schemes used by multinational companies."
Q: You were one of the founders of the TIWB idea. How far do you think the Initiative has come from its inception?
A: The origins of Tax Inspectors Without Borders lie in a series of discussions held between 2009 and 2011. Some of these discussions involved tax officials in Central America and Sub-Saharan Africa, which was where I heard of the pressing need for technical support with tax audits and investigating complex offshore tax structures.
In the early days of the tax justice movement, some people thought the idea of promoting an organisation focussed on capacity building was tangential to TJN’s core mission of advocating for systemic change. However, I see the two tasks as complementary and entirely consistent with our wider goal of working with the governments of aid recipient countries to increase tax receipts and reduce dependence of external debt and aid flows.
What we had in mind from the outset was a programme involving governments and international organisations; civil society would have a role to play, though unlike Médecins sans Frontières, from whom we drew inspiration, this initiative would need to engage with tax authorities at the highest level. In practice the collaboration between OECD and UNDP has proved itself a great success, much of which can be attributed to the enthusiasm and the personalities of the core team, who have put their hearts and souls into realising the dream that is TIWB.
In many respects TIWB is still in its start-up phase, but it has already proved itself as a concept and is delivering tangible results. Now in its fourth year of operations, it is recognised as a successful player able to deliver hundreds of millions of extra tax dollars to contribute towards sustainable development. As importantly, it is changing the tax culture among key players in the corporate community. According to latest estimates, every dollar spent on TIWB is helping to generate over USD 100 of additional domestic resources for developing countries, which is an astonishing success by any measure and an almost unheard rate of return in the development sector.
I’m immensely proud and honoured by having played a part in TIWB’s remarkable journey since its inception, and I’m genuinely excited about the prospects for the coming years. TIWB is poised to make transformational changes which will deliver tangible benefits to the people of many developing countries.
Q: You have been an important international advocate for the role of civil society in the broader international taxation dialogue. What drives your passion for the subject and how do you think TIWB can engage and influence these discussions? Where do you think progress is being made and where do challenges remain?
A: My interest in international taxation goes back to the late 1970s when I was involved in a series of civil society dialogues around poverty alleviation and developing aid exit strategies. I was an early convert to the idea that the best way of spelling aid was T-A-X. As I delved deeper into the complexities of tackling illicit financial flows and aggressive profits shifting it became clearer to me that systemic change at the international level would need to be matched by tax capacity building at national levels.
The international systemic changes are well underway, for example through adoption of country-by-country reporting standards, and enhanced cooperation on information exchange between national tax authorities. The creation of TIWB has put in place the second part of the equation: the crucial knowledge transfer and capacity building steps intended to help developing countries increase their reliance on tax-generated domestic resources.
The rules of international taxation have changed enormously in recent years, and are likely to change radically in the coming decade. Changes that seemed inconceivable even three years ago are now under discussion as governments respond to the challenges of the digital age. I can envisage a situation in which support programmes will be implemented to enable judicial authorities build their capacity to handle complex tax litigation. This need was discussed by tax officials during our dialogues a decade ago, and I think this is another area where the TIWB model can make an important contribution.
Q: What would success look like for TIWB in the future?
A: I feel passionately that TIWB should build on its commitment to South-South cooperation. We have already initiated or completed eleven programmes that fall into this category, and there is clearly scope for expanding South-South cooperation in the foreseeable future. I’d hope this might alleviate any lingering fears, not least within civil society, about conflicts of interest of partner countries. Happily, many tax officials employed in the Global-South have considerable experience of complex tax audits of multinational companies and are well-placed to communicate their knowledge and experience.
I would also like to see more developing countries initiating requests for tax audits, and across an expanded range of industries.
As the rules on international taxation evolve to meet the needs of a changing world, TIWB will need to adapt to handle new requests from developing countries. Our success in delivering on the needs of these countries will play a significant part in delivering on the promises of the SDGs.