Today is the first day in an exciting new chapter for Global Witness. Gillian Caldwell joins us in London for her first day as our new Executive Director, having packed her life in Washington DC into boxes and moved them and her family across the Atlantic.
We have known Gillian for years. At around the same time that our very first campaign helped choke the funding out of the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal military campaign by shutting down the multi-million dollar trade in illegal timber between Cambodia and Thailand, Gillian was launching a global undercover investigation into Russian mafia involvement in the trafficking of women for forced prostitution. Posing as foreign buyers interested in purchasing Russian women from the mafia, she and her team recorded those meetings with undercover cameras. Their resulting film - Bought & Sold – brought to global attention a little-known phenomenon, and helped frame the thinking of the US Clinton administration as it developed its first inter-agency task force on trafficking.
In many ways the trajectory we’ve taken since has been similar. Gillian went on to head up WITNESS, an organisation co-founded by Peter Gabriel that has won multiple awards for its innovative approach to investigating and exposing international human rights abuses in their many guises. Later she led 1Sky, a US campaign that grew into 350.org, which helped kick up a huge stink over how the US was dragging its heels on carbon emissions and ultimately became a major voice in global mobilisation efforts to tackle climate change. Like us, Gillian has worked at the intersection of human rights, environmental issues and organised crime, and has helped draw into sharp relief the dirty globalised trade in goods and people, and the systems and professions that help make it possible.
Gillian joins us at an exciting phase in our growth. Over the last 20 years we have burgeoned from an organisation of just three to one of 95, with staff in London and Washington DC. Last year we won two highly prestigious awards - the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship recognised our work at the helm of the transparency movement, lifting dirty resource deals out of the shadows and into the spotlight. And then came the 2014 TED prize, for exposing how tax evaders, drug cartels and arms traders use anonymous companies to hide criminal activity. This helped bring our work to new audiences, and gave us a major boost to our ability to carry on investigations, reporting, and campaigning that expose the cast of characters and business and political practices that conspire to rob resource-rich yet financially poor countries of their natural wealth.
Gillian is superbly placed to help us continue and strengthen our model of creative storytelling for targeted campaigning. WITNESS, which she helped lift off the ground and steer through a decade of growth, was built on a seemingly simple but remarkably hard-hitting strategy for tackling social injustice - handing cameras to people who were victims or witnesses of abuses, helping them film them, and using that video testimony to amplify individual voices and collectively campaign for systemic change. Whether it was human trafficking, the abuse of disabled people, the recruitment of child soldiers or forced evictions, WITNESS helps put the power of accountability in the hands of human rights defenders around the world, integrating tactical media into policy-focussed campaigns.
It is this same quest for visibility and justice that motivates us at Global Witness. The crimes we investigate are often hidden – be it the killings of environmental activists in remote mining villages or deep within jungles, or the laundering of multi-digit bribes through anonymous companies or secret accounts, we are making the world bear witness to the interplay of the legal and illegal, the seemingly upstanding political and economic systems and the shadow systems that mean that warlords, politicians, businessmen, terrorists or tax evaders can smuggle dirty money across borders and stash it in upmarket neighbourhoods and designer goods, draining poor countries of funds, propping up dictatorships and fuelling conflicts.
And now we are rallying ourselves around our next challenge - the greatest of our time – climate change. Gillian left WITNESS to focus on climate change because she was concerned that its humanitarian dimensions weren’t well recognised or addressed. In recent years we have been documenting the humanitarian crisis that is unfolding on our environmental frontiers – how people on the frontline of climate defence, far from being celebrated as the heroes they are, are being murdered at the hands of industries and governments seeking to grab their land, gut their forests, and hoover up the minerals beneath their homes. Now, more than ever, it is clear that vested interests are still breathing life into a climate debate that should have died out many years ago, and sacrificing our planet in the name of consumption and the pursuit of profit.
As we develop our strategies going forward we will be considering how our existing focus on shadow systems and the management of natural resources can help inform our approach to tackling a bigger problem – a global economic model that dictates the need for infinite economic growth, and infinite consumption, in a finite world, and if left unchecked seems likely to consume humanity and any other species in its path.
Saying this won’t be easy is an understatement, but over the years we have proven ourselves to be versatile, adaptive and tenacious. With Gillian at our helm –regularly described as a force of nature – my co founders Charmian, Simon and I will remain actively engaged both on the Board and as active campaigners and we are thrilled about the next chapter, together.