CFP_Taxation, formality and informality in contemporary Africa

Call for Papers

 Taxation, formality and informality in contemporary Africa

 Special issue coordinated by Olly Owen
(Research Fellow, Oxford Department of International Development)

 This call for papers invites submissions from anyone working on taxation in revenue in Africa in ways which deals either directly or indirectly with the duality of formal and informal actors, institutions and practices. In recent years, many African states have redirected their attention to reforming and maximising internal revenue, especially as global natural resource prices and global aid flows become increasingly unpredictable. This move has been followed by increased donor support for such programmes, and a renewal of scholarly attention to the issues these developments bring out.

One such concern is the meeting point between domains, practices and institutional forms which have state- and non-state origins. Tax and fiscal governance systems across the African continent feature a varied array of relationships between the formal and informal. In some places, states engaged in reconstructing formal taxation systems have seen non-state revenue collectors as competitors to be erased and displaced. In other times and places, state actors have found it impossible to operate the formal system except with the assistance of non-state actors (or state actors acting in other roles) as intermediaries (Joshi and Ayee 2008). These negotiated collaborations may in turn be seen, either emically or analytically, as transitory compromises or as initial stages in a more institutionalised arrangement, as in the profile given in recent years to ‘hybrid governance’ arrangements (Meagher, De Herdt and Titeca 2014). In some places, the two modes coexist and compete within the field of everyday governance practices or as Roitman (2005) explored, the state system may be itself thoroughly informalised, its bureaucracy outwardly the same but redirected to a different logic. Even in the most bureaucratic systems, personal nuance and exceptionalism becomes important at the level of implementation, in ways which defy categories such as ‘corruption’ and remind us of the continuing importance of affect in brokering many everyday modes of governance (see Hornberger 2004 for a comparable example), or of the importance of balancing governance with political feasibility (see Moore & Piracha 2016) for an example of the link between taxation, statecraft and statehood from Asia.  And the influence of the ‘informal’ in the form of non-state practices, norms, institutions or agendas may be most heavily present either where governmental systems engage with grassroots mass society and its organisational forms (Gatt & Owen, forthcoming) or the opposite, the elite level where particularist or personal factors influence implementation (Goodfellow 2017).

It also highlights a focus on what engagement with the state means at different scales. Self-levying membership organisations which act on behalf of the state might make relatively small material contributions to it even while appropriating its symbolic power (as has been explored from a governance perspective by Fourchard & Albert 2003).

A second aspect is the effect of changing taxation procedures, and their political and social meaning. Revenue invokes regulation, so within tax reform, bureaucratisation and increasing technologisation reifies forms of knowledge and representation, even in basic fields of social life such as place-naming and street-naming practices, moving from socially embedded usages to registered and standardised labels.  In contexts where state governance has broken down or withdrawn, taxation is one of the state-like functions which non-formal governance actors take on it their attempts to consolidate, institutionalise and gain legitimacy and acceptance, whether this is willingly ‘outsourced’ by governments to private-sector or socially-embedded intermediaries, or usurped by political entrepreneurs, militants or rebels. Or, both state and non-state authorities might creatively play with revenue systems, by turns embracing or distancing from official institutions and policies, making revenue a part of the play with boundaries which frequently characterises other modes of rule such as security provision (Tapscott, 2017).

A third focus might be changing roles of taxation in the formation of a social contract and sense of public legitimacy for particular political orders. In many places, taxation systems and practices draw on long histories, articulating deeply-held social concepts which incorporate both governmental and communal ideas of civic duty and social contract. Taxation also connects directly to moral ideas of citizenship, belonging and entitlement which dictate who gets political voice and who is allocated public goods (Meagher, 2016). And in all these situations, rule and revenue can be either a part of a complex of accountability and service delivery, or more unambiguously extractive. Moreover, close examinations of the everyday working of taxation systems, and the logics behind them, provide powerful grounds to critique the division between formal and non-formal or state and non-state itself, either as being of diminishing analytical meaning, or as being itself a constructed imaginary which is part of techniques of rule, social structuring and governmental control (Mitchell 1999, Roy 2005). However commonplace that observation may be, the really interesting issue is the variety of configurations produced, and therefore what a focus on taxation can tell us about the forms of state-society relations and sovereignty which have been chosen or which have emerged across the African continent.


 Submissions are invited from any single discipline or mixed methodology which incorporates some element of qualitative analysis, including but not limited to anthropology, sociology, history and political economy. The call is particularly interested in the linkages between structure and practice, policy and implementation, emergent trend and changing understandings, so submissions which deal only with abstracted overviews, structural changes or top-down analyses are unlikely to be considered.

 Within that, your paper might engage with any of the following themes:  Policy and institutional form; mediation and brokerage; street-level practices of enforcement and collection; non-state governance; reciprocity, responsibility, legitimacy and social contract; recording and knowledge production; state-building and fiscal practices; taxing people, natural resources, activities or services; state capacity, technocrats, technology and innovation; the political limits of possibility; governmental and public notions of legitimacy; tracing the roots of taxation practices; ‘shadow’ and ‘twilight’ institutions; or any other themes directly relevant to the relationship between the formal and informal within taxation.

Your focus or case might be a country or region, a bureaucracy, a social or economic institution, a value-chain, commodity or trade route, a practice or type of payment, a group of state actors or a particular technology and its uses; above all, this call is interested in your interpretation of what constitutes the object of study.


January 15, 2018: Deadline for submission of proposals (1 page summary) to Olly Owen (

January 29, 2018: Notification of acceptance to the selected authors

April 15, 2018: Deadline for sending draft articles to the editorial board (50,000 characters including spaces and footnotes)

May-August 2018: Evaluation, revision and (where necessary) translation of the texts selected by the editorial board of the journal

The special issue will be published in October 2018. Submissions can be sent in English or French. The final publication will be in French.



 De Herdt, T, Meagher, K. and Titeca K. Unravelling public authority: paths of hybrid governance in Africa IS Academy Research Brief 10, 2014.

Fourchard, L and Albert, I.  Security, crime and segregation in West African cities since the 19th century.  Ibadan: IFRA/Karthala, 2003.

Gatt, L. & Owen, O. (forthcoming) The Impact of Direct Taxation on State-Society Relations in Lagos, Nigeria, Development & Change. 2018.

Goodfellow, T. Taxing property in a neo-developmental state: The Politics of urban land value capture in Rwanda and Ethiopia. African Affairs, 2017.

Hornberger, Julia. “My police — your police”: the informal privatisation of the police in the inner city of Johannesburg , African Studies, 63:2, 2004, 213-230

Joshi, A. and J. Ayee. Associational Taxation: A Pathway into the Informal Sector. In: D. Brautigam, O.-H. Fjeldstad and M. Moore (eds.), Taxation and State-Building in Developing Countries. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Meagher, Kate. Taxing times: taxation, divided societies and the informal economy in Northern Nigeria. Journal of Development Studies, 2016, pp. 1-17

Mitchell, T.  ‘Society, Economy and the State Effect’ in Sharma and Gupta (eds) The Anthropology of the State Oxford: Blackwell. 2006 [1999].

Moore, M. & Mujtaba Piracha. Revenue-Maximising or Revenue-Sacrificing Government? Property Tax in Pakistan, The Journal of Development Studies, 52:12, 2016, 1776-1790.

Roy, Ananya Urban Informality: Toward an Epistemology of Planning, Journal of the American Planning Association, 71:2, 2005, 147-158,

Roitman, Janet. Fiscal disobedience: an anthropology of economic regulation in Central Africa. Princeton, NJ ; Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2005.

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