Thursday, August 04, 2011

Paying for the revolution

Commentary for Executive magazine

Keeping capital in the  country may well help in  keeping protesters off the streets for many-a-Middle Eastern regime

"Freedom ain't free” is a commonly used idiom in the United States. Somewhat jingoistic and trite it may be — certainly when used to justify a militaristic US foreign policy — there is still much truth to the expression.

The uprisings in the Arab world this year have certainly not come gratis. Many have paid the ultimate price — death — and the economic losses have been staggering. In post-revolutionary countries, economics has become a major focal point and it was arguably lop-sided economic development as much as political repression that sparked the uprisings in the first place, from Tunisia to Egypt and Bahrain, to Yemen and Syria. One of the economic factors that contributed to the uprisings and is a cause of much inequality throughout the developing world is capital flight, and while governments may have, to varying degrees, limited ability to stop legitimate investors from pulling up stakes, an area of enforcement where regional authorities have been lax is in stymieing the illicit flow of capital out of their countries. Between 2000 and 2008, according to Global Financial Integrity (GFI) research published this year, illegal capital outflows from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) grew 24.3 percent, far ahead of any other region on earth.

Illicit capital flight refers to funds derived from corruption, money laundering, commercial tax avoidance and trade mispricing, where deals are made for transactions to end up in offshore havens to avoid being taxed. As a result, cash that could have stayed in the country of origin ends up elsewhere, leaving less capital to finance development. From 1970 to 2008, some $70.5 billion flowed out of Egypt, $25 billion out of Morocco and $25.7 billion out of Algeria. In Egypt, GFI estimates an average of $2.54 billion flowed out of the country each year through illicit trade mis-pricing alone. Tack on corruption and crime, and the figure is a whopping $6.36 billion a year that was not available to the Egyptian financial system and economy. Notably, as Egypt's gross domestic product spiked and the economy grew in the late 2000s, illicit outflows increased by leaps and bounds, meaning real economic growth was essentially two steps forward, one step back. In 2006, illicit outflows reached $13 billion, $13.6 billion in 2007, and as the global financial crisis hit in 2008, $7.4 billion. Ousted President Hosni Mubarak and his family siphoned off billions from the Egyptian economy, but Egyptian financial elites also helped to hobble the country's development through illicit outflows.

Addressing illicit capital flight is a concern for which revolutionaries should fight if the people are to improve their economic future. The problem right now, however, is that with the instability in the MENA, legitimate investors are also pulling their capital out of the region at worrying rates. Jordanian Finance Minister Mohammad Abu Hammour recently said at a meeting of the Union of Arab Bankers that capital flight in the Arab world is estimated at some $500 million a week. Unless such outflows are curbed, the capital needed to invest in post-revolutionary countries will be wanting.

Desperate for cash, these countries will either have to be beholden to donors, or to the conditionalities imposed by global financial institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to stay afloat. In Egypt, with the government's hard currency reserves reportedly plunging from $36 billion in February to $25 billion in May, some analysts warned that the country could be as bankrupt as Greece by the end of the year.

How to tackle this is tricky. Capital is transferred at the click of a button. Some $1 trillion in illicit inflows enters the Western financial system every year — with an estimated 20 percent to the US — and billions go to offshore havens. Tough withdrawal measures by post-revolution countries may help, but this is both heavy-handed and against the principles of free trade. With an estimated 65 percent of illicit outflows in the form of commercial tax avoidance, ensuring greater transparency by companies and elites in paying tax is a more feasible solution.

In tallying the expense of what it has taken for the MENA region to reach this turning point in history, what must not be overlooked is that those who have a responsibility to help cover the costs should be made to do just that. After all, democracy must be paid for.

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