A pandora’s box was opened earlier this week when the financial affairs of some of the most powerful political and business leaders in the world began leaking. After more than 18 months of investigations by over 600 journalists, part of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), it has been revealed that the super-rich are not short of creative ways to hide their finances.
The ICIJ investigations involve 11.9 million leaked files and implicate 35 current and former heads of state and government, over 330 politicians and public officials in 91 countries and territories and more than 100 billionaires. In what is the latest major financial data leak, the ICIJ revelations, dubbed the “pandora papers,” uncover a financial world which allows the wealthy to shield their assets from regulatory oversight and taxes.
Those implicated in the pandora papers are alleged to use companies or trusts incorporated in offshore jurisdictions to hide their assets and avoid paying taxes in their home countries. One Middle Eastern leader is said to have amassed a $100 million global property empire hidden through offshore companies. A Western European Prime Minister is reported to have had his leadership campaign funded by a donor who facilitated a £162 million bribe for the daughter of another European leader.
To be clear, using offshore companies is not illegal, and it does not constitute evidence of wrongdoing on its own. However, such activities could nonetheless provide a permissive environment for wrongdoing. The web of secrecy behind many of the dealings also raises a reasonable question about why someone will shun transparency if they have nothing nefarious to hide.
According to a 2020 study by the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), at least $11.3 trillion in wealth is held offshore. For comparison, this is roughly the combined economic output of Japan, Germany and India.
However, to focus simply on the revelations in the pandora papers would cause us to miss two fundamental points. One is moral failure and the other is double standards of global proportions.
Moral failure refers to disqualifying behaviour in a leader’s life. When a leader, political or business, suffers moral failure, he or she has failed to live up to the expected principles and integrity of a leader and no longer has the moral authority and credibility to lead. That the leader of a country or major corporate entity could find it fitting to stash large sums of money or other assets offshore, away from the prying eyes of domestic regulators, raises a fundamental moral question. Does that individual pass the litmus test of integrity-based leadership?
The second lesson from the pandora revelations is that we live in a world of double standards. For many years, so-called tax havens in the Caribbean and in other small states have come under enormous scrutiny from the OECD and other global actors. These jurisdictions have been no strangers to financial blacklisting which causes reputational harm and loss of income. The pandora papers have implicated places like Switzerland, Dubai, South Dakota in the United States and London in the United Kingdom. For example, the pandora papers allege that South Dakota is sheltering billions of dollars in wealth, even for individuals and companies accused of financial crimes or serious wrongdoing.
It would be interesting to see whether “tax havens” in the developed world receive greater scrutiny or end up on a blacklist. Such an outcome is highly unlikely and failure on that front would suggest that Caribbean countries and many other small states, do have a strong argument when they claim that the scrutiny and blacklisting which they endure are arbitrary and unfair. When donkey says that the world is not level, we should believe.