Why better tax research is crucial to Nigeria’s development
There is an international consensus that taxation is a critical means for financing sustainable development. It is estimated that a minimum tax to GDP ratio of 15% is required in order for countries to provide basic public goods and services such as infrastructure, healthcare, education, and security. However, despite Nigeria being the largest economy in Africa, it has struggled to raise adequate revenue. Its tax to GDP ratio of 5.3% is significantly lower than the Sub-Saharan African average (of 16%) and the regional ECOWAS average (of 17%). This has restricted Nigeria’s ability to achieve its developmental goals, reflected in its poor Human Development Index score (0.532) and global rank (157th out of 189 countries). Therefore, there is an urgent need for Nigeria to improve the equity and efficiency of its tax system in order to reach the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
A key challenge to improving tax systems in Nigeria is the lack of quality evidence about how the existing tax system is performing and what could be done to improve it. Researchers in Nigeria are currently faced with many challenges, ranging from inadequate funding, poor access to data, lack of access to relevant journals, inadequate libraries, and weak research capacity. Donors and revenue authorities have made considerable efforts to alleviate these challenges, but there is still a long way to go.
There is also a weak link between research and tax policy-making in Nigeria. Quality research can provide policymakers with the evidence they need to make good decisions about how to reform tax policy and practice in ways that are suited to the Nigerian context, and avoid decisions that may be ineffective or even detrimental to the country’s development.
Development of tax research in Nigeria
Previously, most tax research in Nigeria has remained confined to university shelves across the country, or has been published in journals abroad with little or no visibility at home. However, tax research has been gaining more attention recently, with increased participation from academia, civil society and revenue authorities that links tax with wider debates about national development.
One initiative that has already contributed to the development of tax research in Nigeria is the Nigerian Tax Research Network (NTRN), established by the ICTD in 2017 with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The NTRN is a fundamental part of the Memorandum of Understanding between the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS) and the ICTD on tax research and capacity building. The NTRN provides a platform for tax researchers, tax authority officials, students, academics and civil society actors to exchange knowledge and debate issues of tax policy and administration in Nigeria. The NTRN has achieved a few things thus far, including:
- Funding tax research: The NTRN has funded four research projects that have been completed so far. The results from these were presented at the NTRN conference in Abuja in October 2018. One project carried out in Jigawa State revealed that micro-entrepreneurs in the northern part of Nigeria are willing to use an e-filing system to file their returns and pay their taxes. This type of research can help improve the work of tax administrators by providing them with useful information about what taxpayers expect and how best to design administrative policies or legislative amendments.
- The NTRN conference: Over the past two years, the NTRN has organised an annual tax conference in Abuja, which has contributed to relationship-building between relevant stakeholders. The 2018 conference saw an increased number of applicants from diverse backgrounds, demonstrating growing interest in the field. The conference also provides training on research methods for early career researchers and the staff of revenue authorities.
- NTRN Library: the NTRN created a new online library, which provides free access to a collection of literature on taxation in Nigeria. Organised into a list of nine themes, the library is meant to be of use to both practitioners and researchers.
- Taxpayer perceptions dataset: the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funded a nationwide taxpayer perceptions survey to discover more about the attitudes and perceptions of Nigerians towards tax compliance and fuel subsidies. The NESG dataset is a rich source of information, with survey responses from 16,000 individuals and 8,000 small firms from six states, as well as focus group discussions and in-depth interviews. All the data is freely available to download via the ICTD website here.
Another valuable platform for engagement is the African Tax Research Network (ATRN), which hosts an annual congress. Nigerian researchers and FIRS staff have participated in this conference in the last four years, which represents an opportunity to broaden knowledge and learn from researchers and revenue officials from other countries.
The way forward
Current initiatives have helped to improve tax research in Nigeria, but there is still much left to accomplish. In particular, there is a need for stronger linkages between tax research and tax policy-making. From the perspective of the NTRN, it will be important to involve the revenue authorities, the ministries of finance, and the legislature, both at the state and federal level for the greatest policy impact. Involving these stakeholders could take the form of roundtable discussions, study visits, and sharing reports and research findings to help improve policy and practice. Partnerships could subsequently be deepened through joint evaluations, and through further discussions at the NTRN conference or similar gatherings. All of these initiatives should improve collaboration between the NTRN and taxation stakeholders by creating a positive atmosphere for sharing experiences and exchanging lessons learned.
Nigeria has an ongoing need for capacity building on tax research, both among academics and tax administrators. This capacity building can be achieved through workshops or seminars organised by the NTRN, through online training, and by sharing relevant learning materials with tax administration officials. Collaborative research projects between academics and government agencies also offers a promising way to build capacity and improve the uptake of quality evidence in the policy-making process. This kind of collaboration is fruitful as it combines the rigour of academia with the practical experience of tax officials to produce quality research with pragmatic and appropriate recommendations.
Finally, tax researchers and civil society organisations could also coordinate more in order to amplify critical research findings and stimulate debate on the critical issues that arise from such research and how they influence the country’s development. With greater and more continuous engagement between all these stakeholders in producing and utilising evidence, much can be achieved in raising revenue in a more equitable and efficient manner to sustainably finance Nigeria’s development.