Tax Treaties and Developing Countries

41 Pages Posted: 12 Sep 2018 Last revised: 22 Apr 2021

See all articles by Eric M. Zolt

Eric M. Zolt

University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) - School of Law


Academics and others over the last 50 years have called for developing countries to hesitate or refrain from entering into bilateral tax treaties with developed countries. Tax treaties seek to facilitate cross-border transactions and investments by reducing tax barriers and providing greater certainty to foreign investors. But treaty provisions invariably result in countries yielding taxing rights. Since at least the 1920s, treaties have arguably provided greater taxing rights to the country where the investors reside (generally, capital-exporting developed countries) rather than the country where the economic activity takes place (often, capital-importing developing countries). Where capital flows are roughly equal between countries, rules that skew taxing rights towards residence-based taxation away from source-based taxation result in little or no revenue shifting. But where capital flows are less even, the tax revenue consequences may be substantial.

Critics of tax treaties between developed and developing countries con-tend that developing countries give up tax revenue and receive little in return. But this common position rests on a questionable narrative. It assumes that tax treaties result in a transfer of revenue from developing to developed countries. For several reasons, tax revenue yielded by developing countries likely results in relatively little revenue gains by developed countries. In the current economic environment, tax treaties are less about distributive rules between countries and more about developed countries assisting their multinational entities in reducing their foreign tax liability and developing countries using tax treaties to at-tract foreign investment.

Framed this way, tax treaties share much in common with traditional tax incentives (such as tax holidays and favorable depreciation provisions). Viewing tax treaties as tax incentives changes the focus from whether the treaty provisions are fair to developing countries to whether this type of incentive generates economic benefits that justify the revenue costs.

For some, perhaps many, developing countries, tax treaties with developed countries make little economic sense. But for many other developing countries, this decision is more complex. It requires making country-specific and treaty-specific determinations of the revenue costs and economic benefits from entering into tax treaties with developed countries.

Keywords: tax treaties, developing countries, tax incentives, allocation of taxing rights

Suggested Citation

Zolt, Eric M., Tax Treaties and Developing Countries. 72 Tax Law Review 111 (2018), UCLA School of Law, Law-Econ Research Paper No. 18-10, Available at SSRN:

Eric M. Zolt (Contact Author)

University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) - School of Law ( email )

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