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Sir Bob Geldof is keen for Western governments to give aid to Africa. The world discovered this week, however, that he’s less keen on paying taxes to those African governments himself.
The musician and anti-poverty activist’s African investment fund was among hundreds of companies named in the Mauritius Leaks, a trove of 200,000 files leaked from a law firm in the Indian Ocean tax haven to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, and shared with Quartz and others.
The documents have one overarching theme: Big Western multinationals reaping as much profit as possible from India and Africa, then depriving their governments of tax revenue through extraordinary accounting contortions.
The sums involved are colossal. In 2013, America’s biggest venture capital firm, Sequoia Capital, boasted it had routed $1.2 billion into Indian startups via the island, which offers an effective 3% tax rate for foreign multinationals. It’s unclear how much tax Sequoia avoided, but the files show it taking “pretty aggressive”—and head-spinningly complex—measures stretching all the way to Singapore.
Such machinations deprive poorer countries of up to $100 billion per year—or around 6% of sub-Saharan Africa’s GDP. In Uganda, where the average person lives on $2 per day and fragile tax systems rely heavily on corporate tax, losing that revenue can be crippling. “One little wad of cash can be the difference between a poor country building big infrastructure or not,” a Ugandan tax official told ICIJ. For many, this equates to Mauritius selling out the rest of Africa, with other African governments and businesspeople often complicit.
The scandal highlights efforts led by India to change global tax rules and force multinationals to pay tax where economic activity is actually happening. The problem has long seemed intractable, as the US nixed any attempts at substantive change. But with New Delhi and others threatening to cause headaches for giant companies by passing their own unilateral tax laws, the powers that be are genuinely considering systems that would dent the profit-shifting status quo. Whether they can find a deal that 100-plus countries can agree on, however, is no sure thing. —Max de Haldevang
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Steeped in suspicion. At the height of the bitcoin bubble in 2017, beverage company Long Island Iced Tea Corp. decided to change its name to Long Blockchain and apparently cash in on the hype. It worked: The company’s stock shot up 300%. Then things went downhill. A search warrant shows that the FBI is digging into what it thinks was a Wolf of Wall Street-style pump-and-dump scheme, as John Detrixhe and Justin Rohrlich report.
A time for hardhats. Recently in Hong Kong, protesters have taken to the streets en masse, first to oppose an extradition bill that would have allowed the city to send suspects to China to face charges, more recently to call for greater democracy and investigations into police brutality. As Mary Hui writes, hardhats have come to symbolize their movement, and are being worn by everyone from cashiers to commuters to medical students.
Parental leave is great. Why can’t everyone have it? Progressive employers who trumpet the value of inclusivity often offer generous leave for new parents but pay less attention to other equally valid reasons employees may need time away. There is an easier, more elegant solution, writes Lila MacLellan: Apply the rules of universal design and create a reason-blind paid leave option for all. Parents, she discovered, would only benefit from being removed from the spotlight.
Meet the people saving the early web. In 1999, the online community GeoCities was the third most-popular website in the world. “Netizens” adorned home pages with flashing GIFs, guestbooks, and Comic Sans. Ten years ago, Yahoo shut the site down. That’s when a handful of people stepped in to preserve millions of pages—and uncover lessons that may make today’s internet a better place, as Meghan McDonough and Marcie LaCerte explain in a Quartz video.
The new CEO of Barnes & Noble wants to make it more like an indie. As founder of London’s much-beloved Daunt Books, James Daunt devoted much of his career to championing independent bookstores. Now he’s been tasked with saving the very mega-chain that once threatened their existence. In a profile by Sarah Todd, Daunt explains his plan to bring Barnes & Noble back from the brink of collapse by giving the chain a soul.
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Merchants of slime. Around the world, algae blooms, which are often smelly, toxic, and just generally gross, mar beautiful lakes and coastlines. But the unpleasant stuff can be put to good use. As Kelly Bastone writes for Outside Magazine, companies are now incorporating algae into everything from sneakers to yoga mats to stand-up paddleboards. In the process, they’re reducing their use of petrochemicals and helping to clean up waterways.
Destination driveways. Many motorists are led astray by their navigation apps, ending up in fields or even on airport runways. They’re not the only ones flummoxed by GPS gone awry. Often homeowners are, too, as confused drivers flock to their front lawns—or plow over their mailboxes—in search of some place completely different, as Katherine Bindley reports in the Wall Street Journal. Oh, and good luck getting Google or Apple to fix their maps.
The professor and the paternity trap. For years, Harvard law professor Bruce Hay taught students about judgment and the elements of human nature that allow people to delude themselves and make bad decisions. He was not immune from deception himself. For New York Magazine, Kera Bolonik writes that Hay was manipulated by a woman who confronted him with a paternity claim—and who, it turned out, had targeted other men in similar fashion.
A convenient image. Few things have shaped our world like oil, a point photographer Edward Burtynsky drove home with his 2009 book Oil. In internet memes, one highly shared photo from that work, showing gas-station and fast-food chains in Breezewood, Pennsylvania, has come to symbolize much more, including cultural homogeneity and globalization’s relentless march. For CityLab, Amanda Kolson Hurley tells the real story of the picture—and of the place.
The band in your pocket. The problem with traditional synthesizers is their complexity: You can make just about any sound you want with them, but it might take hours given the voluminous instructions and endless menus. Enter the Swedish firm Teenage Engineering, which four years ago launched a revolutionary product: a simple, handheld synth. For the New York Times Magazine, Ryan Bradley contemplates the wild success of the $60 Pocket Operator—and how machines and humans interact.
Our best wishes for a relaxing but thought-filled weekend. Please send any news, comments, telling images, and flashing GIFs to email@example.com. Join the next chapter of Quartz by downloading our app and becoming a member. Today’s Weekend Brief was edited by Steve Mollman and John Mancini.