Vanessa van den Boogaard is probably the youngest ICTD researcher, yet she is brilliant and very passionate about her area of research: taxation.
She is currently a Ph.D. student in Political Science at the University of Toronto, specializing in Comparative Politics and Development Studies.
Her dissertation research explores the role of informal and non-state taxation in governance and development, in areas of weak state authority, and the ways in which state and non-state taxation relate to the formation of political order in conflict-affected countries. Her supervisor is Dr. Wilson Prichard, who, along with being a Research Director at the ICTD, is an Assistant Professor at the University Toronto.
Prior to starting her doctoral studies in 2014, she worked at the ICTD as a Research Officer, collaborating on research with Wilson and Samuel Jibao, and conducting field research in Ghana and Sierra Leone. Additionally, She has worked with the Conflict-Affected and Fragile Countries operational group of the World Bank in Washington, Kenya, Sudan, and South Sudan, and held various other research and teaching assistantships.
Why are you interested in taxation as an issue?
Taxation is a central issue for development as it affects livelihoods, good governance, representation, accountability, and power relations domestically and globally. It’s also a central lens through which we can better understand governance and state-society relations. Indeed, a major goal of my dissertation research is to understand the ways in which taxation can shape the formation of political order and state building, through its relationship to power and authority, territorial control, sovereignty, and representation. In my opinion, this makes it a worthy, if often overlooked, area of study.
What are your research areas of interest to which you are most dedicated and why? Why are you particularly interested in these issues?
I am particularly interested in informal taxation – that is, tax-like payments that are levied on citizens by both state and non-state actors and that are not sanctioned by statute. Some of the recent research that I’ve worked on with Wilson Prichard and Samuel Jibao in Sierra Leone suggests that focusing research only on formal tax systems risks overlooking very extensive and important systems of informal taxation that have significant impacts on citizens and communities. Attention to these systems of informal taxation is important not only because of the immediate implications of informal taxation for the livelihoods of taxpayers, but also because it can fundamentally reorient our understanding of fiscal decentralization and the ways in which taxation may contribute to local state building and accountability.
More generally, I am interested in how taxation relates to state-society relations, particularly through the exploration of taxpayer perceptions and tax morale. Of relevance to the broader question of state-society relations are inter-state relations, including how different levels of government (and/or Chieftaincies) interact, and how taxing authority is distributed formally and in practice. These areas of interest lead me to focus particularly on local government taxation and fiscal decentralization programs.
Photo credit: Vanessa van den Boogaard
You’ve published and are currently working on a number of research focusing on Africa and (specifically Sierra Leone and Ghana). In 300 words or less, can you say what are some of the research findings you’ve come up with that are most surprising to policymakers?
With my research partners in Sierra Leone, I conducted a large-scale taxpayer survey in late 2013, aimed at capturing all of the taxes – formal and informal – that households pay, as well as the ways in which taxpayers perceive different types of taxes. This data was complemented by other efforts to understand empirical realities, including via focus groups and key stakeholder interviews. The first of its kind, this study does not provide us with conclusive answers, though provides some initial insights that are particularly interesting to researchers, development practitioners, and policymakers.
We find, first, that informal taxes are extensive, making up a significant proportion of the taxes people pay, while both formal and informal taxes tend to be highly regressive in their incidence. Second, we find that taxpayers have significantly greater trust in informal taxes than in formal taxes, across a range of measures. For instance, taxpayers believe that informal non-state and Chiefdoms taxes are more likely than formal or informal state taxes to be used to benefit the community some or most of the time. We find a similar division in perceptions of formal and informal taxes across a range of indicators, including the fairness and transparency of rate setting, the fairness of collection, and the likelihood of taxing actors misusing tax revenues or revenues intended for a development project.
This is quite surprising, though aligns with evidence of low levels of confidence and trust in formal local government, as well as evidence, such as that from my research of market taxation in northern Ghana conducted with Wilson Prichard, that the process of local tax collection is often shaped by social norms, leading it to deviate from “formal” collection processes. Findings like this help us to explore the complexity of state-society relations at the local level by providing an empirical base that will be important in guiding future research in this area.
Photo credit: Vanessa van den Boogaard
What do you think is the most neglected policy issue in taxation?
In post-conflict societies, taxation is often not a priority, given the range of competing needs that demand immediate policy and humanitarian attention. However, I believe that taxation should be a critical component of a long-term post-conflict development strategy in order to support sustainable and inclusive development.
For both national and global tax and development practitioners and policymakers, a critical point to confront is the reality that during conflict, alternative, informal forms of taxation, service delivery, and governance often emerge or are strengthened; these informal institutions and authorities cannot simply be wished away.
Understanding the informal forms of tax and governance that operate locally is an important first step in thinking about how to design formal tax policies that, in certain cases, work “with the grain” of the systems and practices that already exist and, in others, seek to address the inequities or negative impacts of unregulated forms of taxation. These are difficult policy questions to which there currently aren’t clear answers, though this is an area to which I hope my research will contribute.
How can ICTD research be made more relevant and accessible to practitioners and policymakers?
The importance of research dissemination to advocacy and policymaking networks within the places where the ICTD conducts research cannot be understated. When appropriate, ICTD researchers should make a serious effort to incorporate a research dissemination strategy within their research design and proposal. This can include dissemination workshops with local stakeholders, as well as engagement with civil society organizations throughout the research process.
Making research more consultative with stakeholders and communities at all stages of research (design, implementation, and dissemination) is a worthy goal that can help to make research more relevant to those affected and more impactful to practitioners, policymakers, and taxpayers alike.
What do you find most interesting about your work with the ICTD?
I really appreciate the ICTD’s commitment to working with Southern researchers and to encouraging collaborative efforts amongst researchers and research organizations. These partnerships are invaluable in terms of research output, data quality, and ensuring the relevance of research to local societies.
For instance, my partnership with Samuel Jibao and the Centre for Economic Research and Capacity Building (CERCB) in Sierra Leone, has had an immeasurable impact on the design, framing, and implementation of my research.
In addition to positively impacting research output, this collaboration has been crucial to the development of my capacity as a researcher, as I’ve been given the opportunity to learn from experienced researchers in the field, while also gaining a much deeper understanding of the local context and the relationship between taxation and society in Sierra Leone.
In addition to a fruitful research partnership, this collaborative element has also been the source of great friendships, the value of which should not be overshadowed by tax data.
To what extent has doing research for the ICTD helped you grow as a researcher?
Working with the ICTD has been an absolutely formative experience in my development as a researcher. I began working with the ICTD in 2011 and was deeply inspired by the researchers I first met at the inaugural Annual Centre Meeting at IDS in Brighton.
This exposure to research in the field of tax and development was central to my decision to engage in this area of research following my Master’s degree. My subsequent work with the ICTD and its research partners helped me to hone my research skills and shaped my path towards a doctoral dissertation that builds directly on the research that I have done with the Centre and my ICTD research partners.
Clearly, the ICTD has been an influential force in my life and for that, I am very grateful.
In your opinion, what role does/can the ICTD research play in the development polices/discussions in Africa and other developing countries?
The ICTD has grown to have considerable influence on policy discussions through its reputation for producing rigorous research. I see its greatest source of influence in its support to researchers across the African continent and elsewhere in the global South, its provision of a forum for the sharing of research outputs and findings, and its commitment to capacity building amongst researchers and practitioners.