Q&A TED Prize

“It’s like climbing a mountain—you take one step at a time”: TED Prize winner Charmian Gooch talks campaigning to end anonymous companies

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Charmain Gooch made a bold wish at TED2014—that we end the practice of anonymous companies. Here, she talks about the campaign three months in and responds to criticisms of it. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Charmian Gooch made a bold wish at TED2014—that we end the practice of anonymous companies. Here, she talks about the campaign three months in and responds to criticisms of it. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Earlier this month, the Queen announced legislation to clamp down on corporate secrecy in her speech at the opening of Parliament in the United Kingdom. This may be news to the rest of the world, but it was a hard-won victory for the campaigners at Global Witness, an international non-governmental organization known for hard-hitting field investigations that unearth murky, controversial and unjust dealings, particularly ones that exploit natural resources.

The London-based organization has spent five years making a case to end anonymous companies—structures which shield information about who ultimately owns and benefits from a company, thus creating the perfect breeding ground for corruption. While most people have been sympathetic to Global Witness’ cause, in terms of real change, their calls have fallen largely on deaf ears. In 2013, however, things changed. The British government—previously resistant to dealing with the problem—made the issue a central plank of its G8 presidency, and has subsequently committed to publishing information on the owners of British companies in a publicly-accessible register.

At this pivotal moment in the organization’s history, we thought we would check in with one of Global Witness’s founding directors, 2014 TED Prize winner and anti-corruption activist Charmian Gooch. Below, an edited transcript of our conversation.

First of all, congratulations on winning the TED Prize. How does it feel three months on?

It’s been amazing. The pace is speeding up, not slowing down. The TED wish launch in March was a sort of “take off” moment for us. The issue is out there. In the UK, we have this lovely medieval tradition where the Queen gives a speech once a year, during which she lays out the upcoming laws that her Government is planning to introduce. Establishing a public register of company ownership is one of them. There’s also a lot of movement too in the EU Parliament, which voted in favor of public registries just before the March TED conference, and we’ve also had some really exciting, stimulating conversations around this in the US, where it’s a bit more nascent.

Global Witness is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Are there any big lessons you’d like to share with us after campaigning for so long?

I can’t believe it’s been 20 years. It’s cliché to say that it’s flown by, but it really has. I feel honored to have spent the last 20 years doing something that I really believe in, seeing real impact and change happen, being able to work with so many incredible people—and having a lot of fun, despite the grimness of some of the issues we deal with. What I’ve learned is that with really big problems, the important thing is to start tackling them, and then it becomes like climbing a big mountain: you do it one step at a time. You have a vision for where you’re going to get to and you just go for it. I think that people can get discouraged; some global problems seem so complicated that the idea that you can make a difference seems impossible, but I think it takes a relatively small amount of people to make change happen. I remind myself of what Nelson Mandela once said: “A good head and good heart are always a formidable combination.”

Global Witness is staffed by people working on a wide range of issues. Why focus on anonymous companies at this point in time?

Because so many of the investigations we were doing across all of our different campaigns revealed that anonymous companies were the vehicle being used to facilitate corruption. They were a key part of the problem, and we began to realize that the culture of “it’s fine for companies to be anonymous”—coupled with the fact that banks are simply not implementing the laws they’re supposed to around knowing who their customer is—has made a climate where it’s entirely possible to loot out an entire country. It’s shocking, and it simply has to change. So for us, it’s quite clear that the problem of anonymous companies needs to be addressed. They have a huge detrimental impact on the day-to-day reality for people on the ground in many countries around the world. The OECD has said that almost any financial crime involves some shell company somewhere hiding someone’s identity. The World Bank studied 200 cases of grand corruption over the last 20 years. Seventy percent of them involved anonymous countries. This is a pervasive problem. While almost all of our investigations come across them, it’s hard to put a fixed number on it because, by its very nature, this stuff is illicit and therefore below the radar.

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A lot of people at TED had a hard time digesting your wish. I’d like to share a few of their comments and get your response. For example, some people have suggested that the call to end all anonymous companies is unrealistic. Can you speak to that?

Part and parcel of campaigning is hearing peoples’ concerns and looking at ways to address them. These are big, complicated issues so inevitably when we start to campaign on them, there are people who just say, “Oh it’s too big, it’s too complicated, how can you achieve this?” And that’s pretty much what’s been said about previous campaigns we’ve done. Take blood diamonds for example. People said, “Well, that’s just how it is; you can’t change that, that’s how the business works.” But by showing that it was a massive problem—that the diamond industry was funding war through the buying up of unofficial goods—it helped shift what people thought about the issue. So I think a lot of this is about shifting how people understand the problem and showing that there are solutions to it, even if it looks difficult. Ultimately, there are hundreds of millions of people globally who are affected by corruption, which is partially made possible by the use of anonymous companies. They are vehicles for storing, stashing and moving illicit funds.

You argue that corporate secrecy and political unrest are connected—and that ending anonymous companies is a step towards global stability. Can you break it down for us?

I see anonymous companies as being like the getaway car in the crime of corruption, the kind of corruption that involves looting vital resources from countries rife with poverty and conflict. Take the Democratic Republic of the Congo, one of the poorest countries in the world, but a nation with an immense wealth of natural resources, which of course makes it a target for all kinds of predators. The Kofi Annan led-Africa Progress Panel revealed last year that a minerals deal involving just five mines and several offshore companies which led to the looting of some $1.3 billion from the people of Congo; that’s twice the country’s annual health and education budget. This has a direct impact on millions of people who are trying to recover from an incredibly brutal civil war.

The Ukraine is a really good example as well. What’s come to light is that the 340-acre compound of the President of the Ukraine was actually owned by anonymous companies in the UK and Austria. Information like this was hard to come by before the uprising this year. Much of the information about the previous regime’s wealth was only discovered after it had fallen; after documents that had been dumped in a lake were recovered, thanks to the journalists who had divers go in and search for them. They were literally drying the papers with hairdryers, trying to piece together what assets the regime owned. They found evidence of massive corruption. The public anger over concerns about corruption helped to bring people out onto the streets, alongside other issues. This is why we’re calling for an end to anonymous companies.

Some people are concerned that the eradication of anonymous companies could endanger their privacy. What do you say to these fears?

People in the U.K. have made some comments about privacy, but the strength of feeling is nowhere near the same as it is in the U.S. People do have a right to personal anonymity, but when someone chooses to use companies to hold their personal assets, they get a lot of advantages for doing that—such as limited liability. This needs to come with some degree of transparency and accountability. This isn’t about trying to dive into people’s personal details, not at all. In fact, I think that people are over-concerned about that. There is a certain misapprehension it seems. We’re talking about a bounded set of information—not all your personal information, but crucial information about the company and who controls it. As a society, we need to make decisions about a balance between personal rights and what we need to do for the collective good. We think this is the right line to draw.

Instead of seeking to abolish anonymous companies outright, why not just go after those people who use them for unethical means?

Because of a lack of public registers, it is impossible to know who they are. This is about trying to change the way that society thinks globally about the problem of corruption—going after individuals and trying to spend huge amounts of police time to “guesstimate” who’s trying to loot out estates or traffic drugs or weapons, doesn’t change the paradigm itself. And we’re trying to change the paradigm of how corruption is currently facilitated and made possible. The ease with which resources and wealth are looted out of countries that should be rich, but are in fact very, very poor, is astounding. It’s part of a currently accepted way of doing business and it’s that way of doing business that we’re challenging. We need to completely re-think the system. We need to look at the problems that are being caused by anonymous companies, which are the root of so much corruption and have a huge impact on hundreds of millions of people globally. I think that people are just beginning to realize this. And I think that’s part of what the UK government recognized when it said it’s getting behind these laws.

What keeps you going with a campaign as big as this?

The fact that change is possible. If it was super easy to make change happen, than it would have already happened. Also, working with an incredible group of people who are fiercely brave keeps me going—it’s inspiring. It’s about not feeling daunted when things look far too difficult and complicated to change. I think that the TED Wish is a part of that. This is a big, audacious change that needs to happen. Now’s the time to make it happen. Personally, I feel like we’re all on this planet for a relatively short period of time—might as well do something useful with it.

Watch Charmian Gooch’s TED Prize wish »

Learn more about Global Witness »

Read more about TED Prize wishes in general »

Watch our playlist of talks, “The Depths of Corruption” »