The Political Economy of Tax Reform in Bangladesh: Political Settlements, Informal Institutions and the Negotiation of Reform
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This paper explores the political economy of tax reform in Bangladesh over several decades, shedding light on the complex factors that account for unusually effective and sustained resistance to significant reform. We contend that it is necessary to understand both deep-seated formal and informal institutions and the micro-level incentives that shape the negotiation of short-term reform in order to comprehend tax outcomes. We describe a tax system that is highly informal, largely manual and characterised by high levels of discretion and corruption. However, despite appearing highly dysfunctional on the surface, this system serves the core interests of powerful political, economic and administrative actors. Underpinned by robust informal institutions, the current system delivers low and predictable tax rates to businesses, provides extensive discretion and opportunities for corruption to the tax administration, and acts as an important vehicle for political elites to raise funds and distribute patronage and economic rents. While the tax system has not been without reform, individual reform efforts have been constrained by the parameters of this broader settlement, leaving competing interest groups to pursue strategic gains at the margins while seeking to satisfy external reform demands. This tax bargain reflects Bangladesh’s broader political economy, which is characterised by entrenched informal institutions underpinning the combination of generally weak governance and high levels of economic growth – the so-called ‘paradox of Bangladesh’.