Low tax revenues are one of the perennial development challenges in many African countries. This is in many ways a data problem, as governments often lack adequate data on citizens’ incomes, places of employment, and addresses to tax them.
Freetown, Sierra Leone is taking an innovative approach to this problem. They’ve introduced a new property tax system which uses satellite data and easily observable visual characteristics of houses, such as the number of windows they have, to estimate the taxable value of property. This has allowed them to expand the number of properties in their database, and appears to be making taxation more equitable as well. Taxes on the top 20% of properties by value have tripled, while taxes on the bottom 20% have dropped by half.
How did this come about?
The new system has been in the works since Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr was elected mayor in 2018 and made improved revenue collection a central component of her Transform Freetown agenda. Like many cities, Sierra Leone’s capital has long been hampered by limited tax revenues. Aki-Sawyerr recognised that in order to expand services, the Freetown City Council (FCC) would need to dramatically increase property tax collection. She convened a working group, which decided to implement a simplified “points based” system [based on observable characteristics of the buildings]…
While it may seem straightforward on the surface, the reformed “points-based” system introduced in Freetown provides crucial advantages over alternative approaches. It is far easier to administer than systems that rely on individual experts to value each property. It is more sustainable than more complex modelling approaches, which require detailed data that is often not available and are dependent on external support. And it is more equitable than systems based on buildings’ surface area, which tend to dramatically under-tax more valuable properties.
Moreover, Freetown’s system is likely to be more acceptable to taxpayers – and more resistant to corruption – because every aspect of the valuation is transparent, readily available, and verifiable. A key objective is to ensure every property is subject to a standardised process that is easily understood and roughly mirrors market values. The goal is to ensure universality and fairness to help build trust with taxpayers.
There’s a long history of government ambivalence towards the privatized systems of buses and motorcycle taxis which most citizens use to get around. Like neighboring Kenya, the state isn’t really in a position to set up a genuine public transit system, and instead ends up adopting various policies to try to control the existing, rather chaotic system at the margins. These include occasional bans on motorcycle taxis in Kampala neighborhoods, and most recently, a directive saying that all motorcycle taxis must sign up to work with a ride-sharing program like SafeBoda. Expect a booming black market in SafeBoda’s trademark orange vests and helmets to appear shortly.
Kampala’s empty streets have provided interesting opportunities for art, however. Check out this strangely lovely drone video from Storyteld.
Men and women don’t benefit equally from social protection schemes:
Cash benefits (via e-payments) are widely recommended; cash can also improve household economic security and emotional well-being, which directly benefit women and can contribute to reducing intimate partner violence. However, the feasibility of safely providing additional in-kind transfers (including food or soap) should be considered as well, as women and children are often the first to reduce food consumption in response to food insecurity, and women may be responsible for daily shopping, exposing them to potential infection… When social distancing restrictions are relaxed, implementers of public works programs should ensure dignified work with fair wages where women can safely participate, with exemptions for lactating and pregnant women.
Naming women as the primary household beneficiaries of social protection programs can improve their intrahousehold negotiating positions, but also comes with risks:
Therefore, in settings where existing analysis shows the feasibility and acceptability of targeting women, we see gains in continuing during the COVID-19 crisis. But in settings where targeting women was previously deemed infeasible, we do not recommend starting during the crisis and explicitly challenging norms during a time when tensions are high.
Digital payments can reduce the risk of crowding at banks or cash transfer agents, but can also disadvantage women:
Because these are complex issues and unintended consequences of programming are possible, more research is needed on intersections of social protection, gender and pandemics, where ethically feasible. At a minimum, monitoring statistics should be sex- and age-disaggregated and, where possible, data should be collected to ensure risks to beneficiaries do not increase.
Coronavirus: Many African countries have limited scientific lab capacity, and had to use it for testing instead of genomic sequencing, which means that any eventual vaccine might not be as effective for viral strains on the continent. There’s some interesting data here about the varied nature of lockdowns across Africa, including the fact that most countries imposed them unusually early, with fewer than 10 domestic cases. Reporting on coronavirus in Africa should do more to highlight the many mutual aid groups supporting their communities.
There are  projects all over the world, with 25 covering Africa, and 18 in Asia. They cover a huge variety of topics — health is naturally in the lead, but there are many studies of Social Protection, Peace and Recovery, and Financial Inclusion. It looks like there’s room for some more studies on education and agriculture…
One other welcome note: almost two thirds of the studies listed have at least one person from (one of) the countries being studied, on the team of named principal investigators.
Also, it’s not just RCTs!
I should add here (with an inevitable bit of bias) that Tom’s a talented researcher and program manager, with a focus on behavioral science. He’s currently open for consulting or full-time work based in London.
That’s the focus of a new research briefing from the Mawazo Institute. The project team surveyed over 500 academics, mostly from East Africa, about whether the pandemic had disrupted their research and teaching. The vast majority said they were experiencing interruptions to their courses and research, while less than 40% said that e-learning was being offered by their institutions. Combine this with concerns about already-low research output across the continent, and it’s going to be a difficult year for the higher education and research sectors.