Why a decolonial context to the Pandora Papers is needed

A deep dive into colonial history helps journalists to understand the root of the problem.

It’s five and a half years ago when 11.5 million leaked documents with personal financial information about wealthy individuals and public officials were published in The Panama Papers. A month later, in May 2016, the whistleblower who leaked the documents to a German journalist, gave ‘income inequality’ as the reason for his action. The German journalist reached out to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) because of the amount of data involved, resulting in reporters at hundred news media outlets working in twenty five different languages together. Besides the impressive amount of information revealed, the global collaboration amongst media organizations and journalists is outstanding.

“Low white tax morale”

There are a lot of similarities between what’s been revealed in The Panama Papers and the disclosures of the yesterday published Pandora Papers: billionaires, global political leaders, royals and celebrities who evade taxes through tax paradises, despite the global political turmoil surrounding the topic. The transactions aren’t always against the law, it’s more of an ethical matter. Dutch political columnist Sheila Shitalsingh explained in a  tweet the link between the Afghan translators who worked for the Dutch government and are now at the mercy of the Taliban, and finance minister Wopke Hoekstra whose invested in the British Virgin Islands:

“All tax havens are of the devil, or well, the devil hides his money there, buys weapons from them and gives them to warlords, so that war breaks out somewhere where we then go “help” and then have to leave people behind.” 

It’s exactly these links that should be made in order to change something about the tax evasion of the world’s richest people. We need a holistic approach to reporting where we don’t just communicate the facts but also explain the bigger context and consequences. If topics are approached in isolation, the root causes won’t be excavated.

And in order to change behavior, it’s necessary to go to the root of a problem. The source of a lot of nowadays problems can be found in our colonial history. Dr. Vanessa Ogle of Berkeley University explains how tax havens existed from decolonization:

“During the 1950s and 1960s, when unmistakable signs pointed to the end of white rule in many parts of Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and the Caribbean, some especially wealthier Europeans both in the colonial world and Europe began to panic. After independence, revengeful new leaders could impose restrictions on European business activity, investments, and capital movements, could impose higher taxes, or worse, could nationalize European property without compensation. Well-connected, versed in money and legal matters, European settlers, officials, and businessmen sought out advice from lawyers and bankers. The result was a liquidation of assets and subsequent departure of funds from the colonial world on a massive scale.”

She refers to the term “low white tax morale” to point out the demonstrative rejection of the social contract of taxation by white European settlers and businessmen who feared high taxes on their colonial money.

Three phases towards change

The main reason to make use of a tax haven is to avoid paying taxes. Several NGOs have blamed tax loopholes for widening the gap between rich and poor. We all know tax is needed to provide public services, so you don’t need to be a financial expert to understand that lots of money invested in tax havens could have contributed to tackle inequality. Gerard Rule, director of the ICIJ summarizes it in the same way for The Guardian:

“We’re losing out because some people are gaining. It’s as simple as that. It’s a very simple transaction that’s going on here.”

But if it’s this simple, why hasn’t much changed since the previous uncovering? Because behavior change is one of the most difficult things to achieve. The reasons for changing something shouldn’t only be brought in a rational, intellectual way. Like Raoul Peck, director of the HBO series “Exterminate all the brutes” about colonization, says:

“It’s not knowledge we lack.”

For changes on the root level, according to the theory of Vipassana meditation, next to the rational approach, there are two more phases needed:

1. Listening to the experiences of others; 
2. Experience the consequences for ourselves (lived experience, embodiment).

Regarding the first point, there is a need for stories about the people who suffer from inequality. Even though news organizations report on inequality on a daily basis what is often missing is the holistic context as mentioned before. The people making use of tax havens will read the news, but if inequality is reported on in an isolated way, they won’t raise their eyebrows one inch.
In relation to the second point, it’s obviously even harder to get the people involved to experience the consequences for themselves. But this doesn’t have to be interpreted literally. If we break it down according to the science of yoga, there are three bodies we as human beings work with:
1. the physical body of material substance;
2. the astral body of emotion and desire;
3. the causal body of thought and belief.

Clearly the physical bodies of the wealthy people on this planet have found their way to accountants who arrange the tax loopholes for them. Driven by a desire and emotion from their astral bodies to gain profit from these actions. And apparently their causal bodies haven’t been challenged enough yet. Which makes sense because it’s the most subtle one of the three and often the one journalists find less important. Why talk about someone’s thoughts and beliefs when facts and figures matter most? 

Confronting people with the larger context of how tax havens existed through decolonization and how white privilege is being continued by these centers will touch the root cause of the problem. A direct confrontation with someone’s life values in relationship to tax avoidance and the bigger context of colonial remnants will create personal discomfort around the topic. Which then causes the embodiment needed to finally change something.

Professor of Black Studies Kehinde Andrews explains how whiteness isn’t just for white people but is about the irrational idea that our Western colonial history was primarily a force for good. It’s only in recent years that the so-called ‘dark pages’ of our colonial past have gotten more discussed and reported on. But we’re still very much scratching on the surface.

Those are facts as well, but often left out because journalists themselves need to dive deeper into the underlying causes first.