Argentina, Brazil, Colombia · 8 February, 2018

EUROsociAL+ encourages tax education in regions of Colombia hit by armed conflict

Experts from Colombia, Argentina and Brazil met in Florencia, capital of Caquetá department, to share experiences and design strategies that promote civic-tax cul-ture in post-conflict areas in Colombia

Being a tax collector in Colombia’s Caquetá department, one of the most affected by armed conflict, is a real challenge. Hernando Vásquez is only too aware of this after rising up through almost all of the ranks of the country’s Directorate of National Taxes and Customs (DIAN, per its Spanish acronym) to become its Sectional Director. “In this region there has been strong resistance to paying taxes. I used to travel around conducting censuses and on one occasion I almost had to run out of there because they absolutely did not accept our presence. At times I feared for my life.

The recent final agreement to end the conflict and build stable and long-lasting peace has opened a new context for improving the relationship between the tax authorities and citizens in Caquetá and other areas known as the Areas Most Affected by the Armed Conflict (ZOMAC per its Spanish acronym).

These regions face shared challenges like informality, high levels of tax fraud, lack of knowledge on taxes and a need by the State to offer better public services and promote development.

In addition to combating tax evasion and creating tax incentives to increase formalisation and attract investment, the DIAN is looking to improve communication with the public and provide tax education, explaining how the State works and the importance of taxes and public spending for public welfare.

The democratic governance area of EUROsociAL+ has joined in the effort to combat this challenge faced by Colombian institutions and citizens. EUROsociAL+, along with the DIAN and the University of Amazonia, held an international workshop in Florencia, Caquetá, with the goal of designing strategies that promote a Civic Tax Culture in areas affected by armed conflict.

The workshop was participated in by DIAN representatives responsible for encouraging a taxpaying culture in Colombia’s cities, representatives from higher education institutions in the departments of Caquetá, Cauca, Antioquia, Meta, Arauca, Huila, Tolima, Bolívar and Norte de Santander; and experts from Brazil and Argentina, who all shared knowledge and experiences in tax education.

The ‘Taxation, State and Citizens in areas affected by the post-conflict’ forum was held on the first day of the workshop, with speakers including academics belonging to the University of Amazonia in Florencia and the University Foundation of Popayán in Cauca department. There was also a national government presence, represented by the National Department for Planning – National Citizen Services Programme (DNP-PNSC per its Spanish acronym), the Taxpayer and Customs User Protection Authority and the DIAN Sectional Directors of Medellín, Antioquia and Florencia, Caquetá.

There was an additional local government presence by the Governorate of Caquetá, the Mayor’s Office and Secretariat of Education of Florencia, along with the Chamber of Commerce of Florencia.

Another session at the workshop aimed to promote the consolidation of the Accounting and Tax Support Centres (NAF per their Spanish acronym). The Federal Revenue Service of Brazil coordinated an activity in which it presented the main lessons from its more than 300 NAFs, in aspects like training students, work with vulnerable groups and strategies to share and communicate the services provided. The participants visited the NAF at the University of Amazonia and spoke with students, who have dealt with around 2,000 members of the public since last April.

During the week-long workshop, the participants also attended the inauguration of two other NAFs in two municipalities in Caquetá, one of them in San Vicente de Caguán, where failed peace talks took place 15 years ago.

The strategies for collaboration with universities were completed by the presentation of the University of Sao Paulo’s experience called ‘Ciudad Constitucional’ [Constitutional City], an undergraduate programme consisting of week-long study visits in which professors and students interact with public officials from different State institutions.

In this sense, the DIAN is committed to improving citizen services and the understanding of the tax system with social responsibility initiatives like the Accounting and Tax Support Centres (NAFs), university information points where students offer free accounting and tax advice to micro entrepreneurs and people with low incomes. 20 NAFs have now been created in post-conflict areas with the support of EUROsociAL, with 50 throughout Colombia.

This initiative is enormously useful for the public, but is also useful for students of Accounting, Business Administration and Law, trained by the DIAN, giving them knowledge and experience. One of these university students is Natalia: “It’s really rewarding to help someone in need, someone who doesn’t know how to read or write, let alone use a computer, and for them to go away happy with their new knowledge”.

Another strategic axis covered in the workshop was the pursuit of alliances with the Education Sector to teach tax education in schools. Participants from the tax education area of the Argentinian Federal Public Revenue Administration (AFIP per its Spanish acronym) met with teachers and principals from schools in Caquetá and shared their experiences in this field.

The AFIP also presented the role of ‘tax assistant’ with which the tax administration aims to establish a direct communication channel with the public in non-conventional environments like schools, neighbourhood organisations, professional training centres and day centres for the elderly.

For its part, the DIAN presented the best practices of its NAFs and other initiatives in alliance with the educational system, such as meetings with children and young people in Caquetá.

To close this international meeting, a road map was defined with three essential components: 1) Consolidating NAFs, 2) Including tax education in the educational system (teacher training and drawing up educational materials for primary and secondary schools), 3) Initiatives to reassess the role of DIAN officials as public servants in the area of tax education.

Hernando Vásquez is optimistic about this new scenario: “I now travel through 80% of municipalities and, unlike in the past, I am seeing receptiveness; for the first time, the public are asking for a greater institutional presence”. These are the first steps for these regions, which have lived on the fringes of the State for so long, to rebuild trust in the Administration.

Borja Díaz, técnico senior de Gobernanza Democrática / Senior Officer of Democratic Governance. EUROsociAL+

Country: Argentina, Brazil, Colombia
SDG: Reduced inequalities, Peace, justice and strong institutions
Policy area: Democratic governance policies