Andrea Binder is a Freigeist fellow and research group leader at the Otto Suhr Institute of Political Science at Freie Universität Berlin and the author of “Offshore Finance and State Power.” Ricardo Soares de Oliveira is professor of the International Politics of Africa at Oxford University and is currently writing a monograph titled “Africa Offshore.”
Of all the challenges in global governance discussed at the latest BRICS summit in Johannesburg, the role of offshore financial centers should have loomed large. Instead, the issue barely got a noncommittal half paragraph on page eight of the summit’s 26-page declaration.
In an example of breathtaking hypocrisy, BRICS countries rail against the global financial architecture but offer no collective action on offshore banking, and they also continue to be among its major users themselves.
Data leaks such as the Pandora Papers and Panama Papers have shown just how vast amounts of cash end up in jurisdictions that cater to wealthy nonresidents by offering secrecy, asset protection and tax exemption. And according to economist Gabriel Zucman $7.8 trillion — or about 8 percent of global wealth (and 40 percent of corporate profits) — are currently hidden in such tax havens.
What’s interesting is that a considerable share of this originates from BRICS and other developing countries. The U.N. Conference on Trade and Development, for instance, estimates that $88.6 billion leave Africa every year in the form of illicit capital flight, much of it ending up offshore.
The fact that this offshore world is underpinned by the interests of the rich world and also a majorly exacerbates global inequality should fire up BRICS countries.
And certainly, they are quite vocal in denouncing the role of offshore finance: In the 2020 Moscow Summit declaration, for instance, BRICS member countries reiterated their “commitment to combating illicit financial flows, money laundering and financing of terrorism and to closely cooperating within the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) and the FATF-style regional bodies […], as well as other multilateral, regional and bilateral fora.” They have also rightly called out the West for setting up these mechanisms decades ago.
In practice, however, whatever global multilateral action is currently being taken is at the level of the G7 and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development — even if these ambivalent reforms are often protective of the West’s offshore interests. BRICS countries, meanwhile, do almost nothing, despite being the largest global source of capital flight, according to a 2014 report by Global Financial Integrity.
And this lack of multilateral action perfectly aligns with the way individual BRICS countries have engaged with the offshore world thus far.
Brazil currently stands as the world’s second largest borrower from offshore financial markets. India long accepted a double-taxation agreement with Mauritius, which enabled significant foreign direct investment and tax avoidance by the wealthy until 2016. The country also created of an offshore financial center in Gujarat. Meanwhile, Russia’s hydrocarbons are traded through opaque offshore jurisdictions, and its elites have notoriously thrived in such systems. Then, there’s perhaps the most significant — and counterintuitive — stakeholder in the offshore world, which is China. Its state-owned enterprises are major users of jurisdictions like the British Virgin Islands, where they register secretive subsidiaries.
In short, BRICS countries are just as implicated in the offshore world as the Western economies they lambast. The reality is that their governments and political elites both benefit from and need the offshore financial world — and there are four reasons for this:
First, these countries engage in institutional arbitrage by accessing more efficient institutions — and, sometimes, institutions that don’t exist domestically, like credible contracts or a non-political judiciary — offshore.
They also seek access to cheaper and less constrained financing in offshore money markets, where they get access to the U.S. dollar and international investors that are unavailable onshore.
Heavily hit by sanctions — as in the case of Russia since 2022 — the offshore world is also a lifeline for BRICS countries, allowing for the circumvention of punitive measures.
And finally, BRICS elites frequently use such facilities for their own personal purposes, including hiding illicit money and assets.
Thus, closing these discretionary offshore avenues may well have implications for their personal survival — or the survival of their regimes.
This is why multilateral action from BRICS members remains rhetorical at best. And unilaterally, they either do nothing, or selectively implement anti-offshore measures as political tools of regime consolidation and to punish rivals. While continuing to criticize the West, they also voice few qualms regarding the thriving offshore roles of Hong Kong, the United Arab Emirates or Singapore.
The latest summit declaration’s vague language of “international cooperation” and “mutual legal assistance” simply highlighted all this once more, and it even eschewed the previous declaration’s references to the FATF or anything smacking of coordination with the West.
And while de-dollarization was again bandied about, BRICS countries remain keen on access to offshore dollars. Moreover, several of the bloc’s newly admitted states have deeply problematic records when it comes to money laundering and illicit financial flows. This is especially true of the UAE — an aggressively growing offshore financial center with dense layers of secrecy, and which the FATF placed on its “grey list” due to “strategic deficiencies” in its efforts to counter money laundering.
Given all this, what are the chances of BRICS-initiated reform in this area? Realistically, the only reason they would take action is because they care about their own regime stability. Though offshore mechanisms may seem like useful short-term levers, their long-term impact is likely to have troubling consequences for their economies. In time, offshore finance supercharges inequality and begets financial instability, which can lead to the toppling of regimes. Brazil experienced this first-hand in the 1982 financial crisis, which had a significant offshore component.
Of course, Russia’s dependence on offshore financial facilities to circumvent sanctions means it can be written off as reformer. But one would hope that some of the others might belatedly come to see an enlightened self-interest in going beyond their rhetoric.
For now, however, even this seems highly unlikely as, in the immediate future, the availability of offshore services continues to come in handy, while their negative impact on domestic inequality remain largely hidden from public view.
Besides, fighting domestic inequality isn’t really a major concern for many of these governments anyway.
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