Semi-Autonomous Revenue Authorities (SARAs) have been implemented in 23 sub-Saharan African countries, most recently in Namibia in 2021. Yet despite continuous diffusion, we lack knowledge about the importance of SARAs’ autonomy, how it differs between countries and what impact it has. This dissertation sets out to explore whether the autonomy of SARAs matters and if so, when and how. This is pursued through quantitative cross-country comparisons and a case study of the Zambia Revenue Authority (ZRA). The dissertation finds that, on average, implementing SARAs has a positive effect on direct tax though not on total tax. However, SARAs are not indistinguishable but have been delegated different levels and forms of autonomy, which the dissertation explores through the creation of an original dataset. The dataset highlights important variations in the formal autonomy delegated to SARAs, which, however, cannot explain performance. This points to the need for further knowledge of SARAs’ actual autonomy, which is pursued through a case study. The dissertation finds that the ZRA’s actual autonomy matters for direct performance measures, indirect organisational effects and broader perceptions of the agency, although not always positively. A key takeaway is that the autonomy of SARAs matters, but perhaps not as straightforwardly positive as previously suggested. This should not be taken as a discouragement to countries considering reform or that already have a SARA. Rather, it points to the importance of how a SARA is implemented and the autonomy it possesses – something decision-makers can consider and change if need be.
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