Live from TEDGlobal 2013

Uncovering corruption: Charmian Gooch at TEDGlobal 2013

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Photo: James Duncan Davidson

When we talk about corruption, certain types of individuals come to mind, says Charmian Gooch, co-founder of watchdog NGO Global Witness. She gives some familiar examples of the type. There’s the (former) Soviet megalomaniac — such as Saparmurat Niyazov, the all-powerful leader of Turkmenistan, whose indulgences included erecting a 40-foot-high gold-plated statue of himself that rotated to follow the sun. There’s the African minister, dictator or official, such as Teodorin Obiang, son of the president of oil-rich Equatorial Guinea, where many live in dire poverty despite per capita income comparable to Portugal. Obiang junior owns an 18 million Euro art collection, million-dollar sports cars, a Gulfstream jet, and a $30 million Malibu mansion. Until recently, he was officially earning less than $7,000 a month. Then there’s the former Nigerian oil minister Dan Etete – a convicted money launderer.

It’s easy to think of corruption as something that happens “over there,” carried out by shady characters in countries we think don’t affect the rest of us. But is this true? Gooch argues that these leaders of resource-rich countries don’t act alone. She knows, because she investigates them. In 1993, she co-founded Global Witness to investigate and run campaigns against corruption, exploitation and environmental and human-rights abuses in timber and other natural-resource-rich industries, such as logging, blood diamonds and oil money. Over the years, she has seen that what makes corruption on a global, massive scale possible isn’t just greed or misuse of power or weak governance: “Corruption is made possible by the actions of global facilitators.”

Obiang, for example, did business with global banks in order to finance his expensive art, and, she says, he used shell companies to buy and maintain his mansion. And, says Gooch, Dan Etete awarded an oil block now worth more than 1 billion to a company he was the hidden owner of. “On the surface, the deal appeared straightforward. Subsidiaries of [oil companies] Shell and Eni paid the Nigerian government for the block. The Nigerian government transferred precisely the same amount, to the very dollar, to an account earmarked for a shell company whose hidden owner was Etete.” Global Witness found evidence that Shell and Eni had known that the funds would be transferred to that shell company, and, she says, “frankly, it’s hard to believe that they didn’t know who they would be dealing with there.”

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Photo: James Duncan Davidson

“The reality is that the engine of corruption is driven by our international banking system, the problem of anonymous shell companies, and the secrecy we afford to big oil, gas and mining operations.” she says. She also points to the failure of our politicians to tackle the problem systemically.

Start with banks. No surprise that banks accept dirty money, but prioritize profits in destructive ways. As an example, only 5% of Sarawak, Malaysia’s rainforests are still intact, because corrupt elites and facilitators have been making millions of dollars supporting industrial-scale logging, says Gooch. It appears that HSBC has bankrolled companies responsible for the destruction in Sarawak, violating its own sustainability policies, but earning around $130 million. One of Global Witness’s undercover investigators filmed members of the ruling elite and showed how the state’s Chief Minister uses his control over land and forest licenses to enrich himself and his family – though they deny allegations of corruption.

Then there’s the problem of anonymous shell companies, which block knowledge of who is really behind business dealings. These have appeared in every case of corruption investigated – a 2011 World Bank study reviewed 200 cases of corruption and found more than 70% of the cases had used anonymous shell companies, including in the US and UK. “So it’s not just an offshore problem, it’s an onshore one too,” says Gooch.

What’s not always obvious is that shell companies are used to steal huge amounts of money — “transformational amounts of money,” says Gooch — from poor countries. In one striking example, the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo sold off valuable state-owned mining assets to shell companies in the British Virgin islands. Global Witness found that shells flipped the assets very quickly on to major international mining companies in London, with huge profits. The Africa Progress Panel led by Kofi Annan has estimated that the DRC has lost around $1.3 billion as a result, almost twice its annual health and education budget combined.

It’s this flow of money away from the citizens of resource-rich countries that makes corruption so high-stakes. Gooch presents a slide showing how in 2011, natural resource exports outweighed aid flows by nearly 19-to-1 in Africa, Asia and Latin America. That’s a lot of potential hospitals, schools, universities and business start-ups that will never materialize, she says. “That money has simply been stolen away.”

Some say that it’s naive to focus on corruption, says Gooch – that it is unavoidable, and too complex and difficult to change. But as a campaigner and investigator, Gooch is not ready to accept corruption as an inevitability. In fact, she’s seen progress: In 1999, when Global Witness proposed the idea that company books should be transparent, they were laughed at — but hundreds of civil society groups came together to fight for transparency, and now it is fast becoming the norm and law: two-thirds of the value of oil and mining companies are now covered by transparency law. This is change happening, says Gooch.

But we’re not there yet, she cautions. There’s a long way to go — and it’s a problem that, far from being “over there,” touches all of our lives. As she says, “In a globalized world, corruption is truly a globalized business, and needs global solutions pushed by us citizens, right here.”

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Photo: James Duncan Davidson

After Gooch’s talk, which received a standing ovation, Chris Anderson asked a few follow-up questions before she left the stage.

Rumor has it that there are large moves happening as we speak.
“Yes,” says Gooch. “The European Parliament met on a final vote, 98% in favor of transparency laws. But also there’s a court in America setting up right now, and American oil and mining companies are fighting against the transparency laws. They haven’t got that the world has changed.”

Your work is causing extreme problems for very powerful people. Has this exposed you to threats and danger?
Gooch answers yes, but reminds us that those at most physical risk are campaigners and civil society in the countries themselves. “Two environmental activists a week are being killed around the world. For us, a lot of the danger is defamation and libel.”

Given the extent of pressures making corruption end, how can we be optimistic?
“There’s been a seismic shift in how people think about this. It’s a long fight, but transparency laws change the ways people think about how companies should act,” she says. Referring to Michael Porter’s earlier talk about corporate-driven social change, Gooch says she worries about big companies being looked to as the solution, because being international and transborder, they are “very hard to control.”

Might companies, just as individuals, be uncomfortable about invasion of privacy?
Most leaders of big companies have been fighting transparency laws in every way possible, says Gooch, instead of acknowledging that the world is moving on, resources are scarcer and we need a level playing field. Some can see the benefits, but quite a few don’t.

What can people do?
“Tell any companies they’re doing business with that they want transparency. Go home and tell your governments that you want them to sign up to this stuff and support it.”

Charmian Gooch’s talk is now available for viewing. Watch it on TED.com »