For a team of researchers gathering information on the property tax in Africa, it's been a mix of democracy in action with a touch of Indiana Jones. In 2007, the Lincoln Institute and the African Tax Institute (ATI) of the University of Pretoria, under the direction of professor Riël Franzsen, established a joint venture to research and analyze property tax systems throughout Africa, in order to help improve tax policy there. If local governments were able to collect property tax revenue on a stable basis, the thinking goes, the stronger and more stable local government would be, providing basic services and responding to various needs.
Finding out how systems are working now has turned out to be quite a project, says Joan Youngman, senior fellow and chair of the Department of Taxation and Valuation at the Lincoln Institute. The research covers over 35 countries, and include regional overviews of Anglophone, Francophone, and Lusophone (that is, Portuguese-speaking) nations. Reports have been prepared by 13 research fellows from 11 African nations, who have faced the difficulties inherent in data-gathering there. Travel can be arduous and slow, and even dangerous. Site visits are necessary to learn how the tax is applied, and not just how it is legislated. Tensions between countries can impede progress. On a site visit to Chad, one researcher was caught in a coup attempt that resulted in evacuation of the capital, and he filed his research report from a refugee camp in Cameroon.
The fellows form the nucleus of a new network of tax researchers, and the joint venture has helped support a new degree program in taxation at the University of Pretoria, as well as a summer course for African tax officials. All of these efforts aim to assist capacity building through education, Youngman says.
This month, a Lincoln Institute delegation traveled to South Africa, and attended an expert workshop outside Cape Town to review the project’s findings, consider how best to disseminate the results, and enhance their policy impact. The group included Youngman and tax department colleagues Semida Munteanu and Sally Powers, Lincoln Institute president Gregory K. Ingram, China program director Joyce Man, and Lincoln Institute board members Kenneth Pang, Alberto Harth, and Roy Bahl.
"What we see is a wide variety of experience and practice," says Youngman. "Successful systems don’t necessarily arise in the higher income countries." The next steps, she said, will be further analyzing all the case reports, updating them and probing for lessons and common themes. In the meantime, two working papers are available that relate to the project -- Property Taxation in Two Francophone Countries in Central and West Africa and Property Taxation in Anglophone West Africa.