Q&A with Patrick Alley, Co-Founder of Global Witness, Winner of the 2007 Commitment to Development Ideas In Action Award

January 15, 2010

Patrick AlleyPatrick Alley, one of three Founding Directors of Global Witness, responded to questions from Christopher Connell, a veteran journalist based in Washington, D.C., about the founding, goals and operations of Global Witness, following the organization's selection as the winner of the CGD/Foreign Policy 2007 Commitment to Development Ideas in Action Award.

Q. What was the genesis of Global Witness?

A: Charmian Gooch, Simon Taylor and I were friends who all worked in various capacities for an environmental organization called the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA). That organization pioneered investigative conservation; they specialized in getting primary information about a subject like the ivory trade. It occurred to us there was something missing, kind of a niche missing in the international market of NGOs, which was this link between exploitation of natural resources and conflict and corruption.

Q. What were your backgrounds? What was your preparation for this life of global witness?

A: Rather diverse. In Charmian's case, she got a degree in history, but her first ever job was with the EIA. Simon got a degree in biology and did varied things, (including) consultancies at Greenpeace and EIA, but Global Witness again was kind of his first permanent thing. I didn't get a degree in anything at all; I came out of 10 years in industry during my 20s. When I was around 30, I thought, “I've had enough of that. I want to do something better, more useful.” I volunteered for the Environmental Investigation Agency and went on to fulltime employment there.

Q. Are you all roughly the same age?

A: I confess to being slightly older, but we're all in various stages of our 40s.

Q. The three of you all were interested in what was happening in Cambodia.

A: That's right. The Paris Peace Accords had been signed in 1991 and the U.N. was brokering elections in Cambodia. It was the most expensive U.N. intervention ever. It was in the news quite a lot. Cambodia had been in a state of war for 30 odd years so it was quite a big news story. We read that timber from areas controlled by the Khmer Rouge was being traded along the border. There was very scant information.

We thought, well, the rain forest is being cut down, which is bad. And the money is being used to fund possibly one of the nastiest rebel organizations ever, and a war. Why doesn't somebody stop that? And we said, “Hell, why don't we?” That really was the inception of it.

Q. When did the phrase 'Global Witness' come into your heads?

A: We had learned various things, both positive and negative, about running an organization. We thought a really critical thing was to get a good name and a good brand from the beginning so you didn't have to change it halfway through. A very good solicitor friend of ours said he would create the organization legally for nothing, and we had an appointment with him at 2 o'clock one afternoon. We sat down in the morning, thinking, what are we going to call ourselves? After a bit of to and fro, one of us came up with 'Global' and someone else came up with 'Witness.'

Q. Had any of you been to Cambodia?

A: Nope.

Q. Had you traveled very far or seen some of the depredations going on in the world?

A: Some, but not in that area and not that kind of problem. Simon had been working mainly on whaling issues at Greenpeace. Charmian did work on the ivory trade and had done investigations in Hong Kong and Africa.

Q. Was it preposterous that you three were going to take this on, or was it all very calculated and mapped out?

A: Yes, I think it was. There's kind of an alchemy around Global Witness that I confess I don't fully understand myself. But I think we had and have a very can-do attitude. We felt the problem (in Cambodia) was in one sense relatively clear cut…. And we felt that we could make a difference by exposing that border, which is what we set out to do. We were alarmingly naïve in many ways; very enthusiastic and not as stupid as we thought we were, perhaps.

Q. Did you think just the three of you were going to shut down this border trade? Did you anticipate that 15 years down the road Global Witness would have a staff of 35 and a £3 million budget?

A: It's a very difficult question. I think we probably did think we would shut it down. We didn't at that time have a strategic plan that would take Global to be any particular size or working on any other issues. We always knew it wouldn't be single issue, but didn't have a clear idea at the beginning what other issues would be. From the moment we decided in '92 to form an organization, it took us two years to raise any sensible amount of money.

What we were literally doing at that time was getting permission from London Underground to shake cans outside tube stations at 5 in the morning to try to get a little bit of money to pay for the international phone calls and the research we did in our spare time to build up a baseline of information to work with. We weren't really thinking much beyond the first investigation, if we could ever get that far. That was the most daunting thing.

Q. You shook cans outside tube stations?

A: Oh, yeah. (laughs)

Q. That brings in nothing.

A: You're quite right; we realized that after a short time. You'd come away with £5 or £10 pounds or something, not surprisingly, because we had no track record. I mean, no one had heard of Global Witness. That's when we thought we needed to start sending funding applications out.

We sent them out to organizations like Oxfam. I remember an early meeting with Oxfam -- who I hasten to add subsequently became funders of our ours – but in those early days we saw the note on the guy's file as he met us, it was a note from the boss of Oxfam saying, 'Can these guys deliver?' They obviously decided we couldn't because they didn't give us any money at that time.

Novib, the Dutch version of Oxfam, in late 1994 did come up with a grant which we thought at the time was massive. It wouldn't keep us going for a week now, but at that time it kept us going for six months. It was £18,000.

Before that, with the money from the Underground stations, plus the support of a few generous friends and our partners, we had accumulated the grand total of £1,000. That allowed us to do basic research, bearing in mind we all had other jobs to do. We decided that to actually succeed, we had to get serious and get an office. So we did, a one-room office in Clerkenwell in London. We had enough money to survive for a month at that time. Luckily, that Novib grant came through and we were away.

Q. What was the time frame for getting the Thai border closed?

A: Simon and I went out in January '95. We got the (Novib) money in October 1994. We made a trip to Washington at the recommendation of a former colleague, Allan Thornton, at EIA, who said, 'Washington is where the action happens. That's where global stuff happens.' We were completely naïve. We didn't know anything about the Hill or anything else. We followed up a few contacts in Washington, and got the names of people who could help us on Cambodia.

We flew to Thailand and Cambodia in January 1995 and over five weeks drove 3,500 kilometers on the Thai side of the border – it's a 700-kilometer long border – basically following every kind of road that went towards the border, bearing in mind the Khmer Rouge were just on the other side of the border. Later we went to Cambodia, but not there, not the Khmer Rouge–occupied territory. We built up a picture of how the trade worked. We pretended that we were buyers of timber thinking that people would talk to us, which they did.

Q. You had cameras?

A: We used what was then quite innovative--it's more common now--secret cameras, as well as straightforward cameras, tape machines, false identities. We were probably slightly over elaborate in hindsight.

Q. Did you make a will before you went?

A: No, we didn't. This is where we were alarmingly naïve. When I think back to some of the stuff that happened then, I think, 'Hmmm, was that a good idea?' It was long hours of boredom, then five minutes of incredible fear and excitement followed by a couple of hours of gratification if we happened to get what we were looking for.

Q. Nobody saw through you?

A: No they didn't. It was amazing, actually. The Thai loggers were amazingly talkative. It was an interesting atmosphere. They didn't seem to think they were doing anything wrong.

What we managed to do was talk to the people in the Thai logging camps along the border who were directly connected by road to the Khmer Rouge operations on the other side. We got hold of documentation and managed build up a picture that showed in the dry season between $10 million and $20 million a month was being generated by the Khmer Rouge sale of timber to Thailand. That was the first time anybody had been able to put a figure on it.

Q. Your figure turned out to be accurate.

A: Yes, it did. One of the things that sometimes gives NGOs a bad name is exaggeration or sensationalizing things. We decided right from the start that we wouldn't do that. We based our figures on the minimum firm information that we knew. Where we got the information from was actual documentation that showed a particular deal. More than anything, we talked to the Thai truck drivers who drove the logs across the border. They knew where they'd been, they knew how much timber they were bringing, and they knew how often they did it. We tried to get every piece of information verified from three independent sources. We wouldn't talk to one truck driver and believe everything he said, but if we talked to three different truck drivers, or two truck drivers and a manager, and the information coincided, then we felt pretty safe to go with what we had.

Q. Your average truck driver on the Thai border doesn't speak the King's English.

A: I know. It's very inconvenient of them. (laughs)

Q. You hired local translators?

A: Again, this is really important, we hired translators who were either journalists or NGO people, not straightforward translators. They were all Thai people. What you needed was not just someone to translate the language, but to give you a sense of how things were. If a situation was going to turn ugly or people were getting suspicious, we wouldn't necessarily know it, like we'd know it with a fellow Brit or an American. So it's quite useful, in fact, crucial, to have a sense of the situation.

Q. They knew what you were doing?

A: Oh, certainly.

Q. You travel there in January 1995, come home and how long is it before you are telling the news to the world?

A: We did two investigations in January and May 1995. We held press conferences both in Phnom Penh and Bangkok May 24th and May 25th, and the border was closed on the 26th of May 1995.

I should add, between those investigations, we took that information to a whole variety of places, including the foreign offices of Britain, of France, various other European countries, and to the State Department.

Q . You saw all these people In London?

A: No, we went to the various capitals concerned.

Q. What was the pitch at the foreign offices?

A: The pitch was the international community was investing a lot of money in post-conflict reconstruction in Cambodia. We said, “Look, you've got this timber trade providing an awful lot of money to one side in the civil war. All of the money you are putting in is being undermined by this. Thailand is in contravention of the Paris Peace Accords.”

The first problem we had was to convince these civil servants to talk to us at all because we were nobody. We had no track record. Who was Global Witness? Why should they believe our information? But we had documented the stuff well, we had photographs, documents, etc.

Various governments told Thailand, “Hey guys, you've got to stop this.” America was particularly important because you've got the Foreign Operations Act with a clause that allowed the U.S. to cut military aid to any country that supported the Khmer Rouge. We picked up on this clause on the advice of a very good friend of ours, Craig Etcheson…and what we were told by the State Department amongst others, was that that actually means military support, so the supply of guns, ammunition, vehicles, whatever, which we didn't have proof of. What we had proof of was supply of financial support. Over a period of time we managed to get the act amended to talk about the timber trade. But before it ever got to that stage, obviously America was not going to cut aid to Thailand; Thailand was too strategic. But what America did do behind the scenes was raise this issue diplomatically. I think Thailand came under a lot of behind-the-scenes pressure.

When the press release broke and went everywhere -- it was really well received -- they closed the border. They didn't announce that they had and we didn't find out for several months. But when we finally got the document, it showed they closed it the day after that news conference.

Q. Has it stayed closed?

A: Things moved on … It didn't stay closed. In 1996 the Cambodian prime ministers, of which there were two at that time, cut a secret deal with the Thai prime minister to illegally export a million cubic meters of timber. This deal would have profited the Khmer Rouge to the tune of $90 million. The two prime ministers would have netted $35 million. We got hold of those documents through a leak and blew that deal open. That caused the IMF to withdraw from Cambodia and the border to close again.

Q. After the release of your latest report on corruption in Cambodia, Prime Minister Hun Sen's brother threatened in July to break the heads of Global Witness staff if they returned to Cambodia.

A: We have not sent anyone back to Cambodia since that, I confess. That kind of highlights the risks we can face in various countries. Now I don't think the prime minister's brother would really break us over the head, but it's possible other people in Cambodia might. They would also very possibly use their judicial system, which is not free and fair, to come after us as well. We've kept out of that country. But we can continue to work from outside.

Q. Did you have other investigations going on while you were investigating the timber trade in Cambodia and Thailand?

A: All of our eggs were in one basket at that time.

Q. Did you come back, sit down and ask yourselves, what do we do for an encore?

A: It wasn't really like that. This again is one of the areas of our naiveté. We went in there thinking, 'OK, the Khmer Rouge are screwing up Cambodia. We'll go and take out the Khmer Rouge, if you like, and the country will be fine.' The Khmer Rouge within 18 months of that border closure did defect to the government side because they had run out of money. We can't claim complete credit for the demise of the Khmer Rouge … but we heard from diplomatic sources that the border closure played a dramatic part in the end of the Khmer Rouge. They simply ran out of money.

But what we also found – and this is something that set the store for us over the years in terms of the work we should be doing – was that the Cambodian government had been illegally allocating the forest, against their own constitution, to various companies. It was the only valuable natural resource Cambodia had at that time. The World Bank knew about forest concession allocations, and we got a secret document that showed there had been around 35 concession allocations comprising around two-thirds of Cambodia's forest. What we realized was that corruption and state looting of the Cambodian government was an equally serious problem to that of the Khmer Rouge in terms of the development of that country. Our work morphed from the Khmer Rouge to the Cambodian government, and we're still working on it. We could talk about why it's taken us 10 years and we haven't won that one yet.

Then in late '96 or '97, a colleague from EIA, Allan Thornton, came to us and talked about the role of diamonds in the civil war in Angola.

Q. Everyone knows about blood diamonds now, but it wasn't common knowledge then.

A: Not at all. We were the organization that [first] publicized the issue of conflict diamonds … Charmian and another employee went to Angola, and Simon and I went off to Portugal to talk to Angolan diaspora to try to get a handle on the role that diamonds were playing in the civil war in Angola.

The message that came out was quite clear: UNITA, the right wing rebel organization, was absolutely funding their war with diamonds, but also the government was funding their side of the war with oil. We decided we had to attack both sides of the issue, otherwise you'd automatically be accused of being partisan.

Q. How long before you went public? When did the stuff hit the fan?

A: We couldn't approach diamonds in same way we could approach the forest in Cambodia, because any old fool can pretend to be a timber buyer but the diamond industry is a very closed industry, they all know each other and you really had to know what you're talking about. The chance of going undercover and finding stuff out that way was not an option. What we had to do was use public sources of information and talk to diamond dealers and get their perceptions about the situation.

But what we could do very easily was look at the annual reports of the world's largest diamond buyers. They'd say that they were buying large quantities of rough diamonds from Angola, and you'd think, 'Hold on. The diamond fields are largely under the control of UNITA. So if they are buying diamonds from Angola, those diamonds are originating from UNITA.' You could say, looking at figures from the UN and others, maybe half a million people died in a given period of the war. So we simply put a few of these figures together.

When that report, A Rough Trade, came out in December 1998, by complete coincidence it coincided with the full-scale outbreak of war again. We were inundated with press and the issue became massive in an extremely short period of time….

Q. That was the trajectory, from the Khmer Rouge timber trade to blood diamonds? Those were your two calling cards?

A: Those were the first two, and oil became the next. The diamond thing is the thing that catapulted Global Witness into the mainstream or the big time, if you like. The term “conflict diamonds” wasn't known then.

Governments, particularly of the U.K. and the U.S., were very sympathetic to the message we had. It is not always the case with things we've worked on, but in that case it was … That led to discussions which led to the creation of the Kimberly process Certification Scheme on conflict diamonds. Kimberly is a town in South Africa where the first meetings happened. It's fair to say those meetings wouldn't have taken place had it not been for the work that Global Witness did. We and another organization, Partnership Africa Canada, who in 1999 came out with some research on the role diamonds played in the war in Sierra Leone …. We were the only two NGOs working on that issue. We are still virtually the only NGOs working in any long term way on the Kimberly Process.

Q. Congressman Tony Hall nominated both of you for the Nobel Peace Prize.

A: Right. Nice to be nominated, better to get it, but never mind.

Q. But you're not shaking tin cans anymore.

A: We stopped that quite early on. (laughs)

Q. Do big foundations now call you with offers of money?

A: It doesn't quite work like that, either. We've always been very prudent with our expenditure against our fund-raising. We've increased our budget from that first check of £18,000 from Novib to a budget which will hopefully approach in the next financial year £3 million. But for what we deliver, that is not very much money. That money is all allocated. We have to spend that money in that year, so there's no spare. We don't have a working reserve or a fighting fund.

This is why this award is really useful, really good for us. I think it will push our name into some other areas and maybe generate not just money, which we need, but also influential support, not that we haven't had that in the past; we've had loads of it. But I think one of the problems for Global Witness is that the ideas we push forward very often are quite new, like the diamond issue and like the whole concept of this crossover between natural resources, conflict and corruption…. When we approach funders they don't quite get it before you've done it. They might get it after you've done it, but that's when you don't necessarily need that much money any more on that particular subject.

Q. Global Witness lists six priorities for its work. Do they change often?

A: I would say they evolve. … right from the beginning, what we didn't want to do was to be an NGO that picks up a campaign for a year. We thought we won't actually stop working on anything until we've either won it or lost it, i.e., if your enemy thinks they have to withstand the pressure for a year and then you're going to go on to something else, that weakens your position. So what we've essentially done is not drop anything unless we've won it or lost it, which means we've dropped very little over time. If you look at the issue of conflict diamonds, the Kimberly Process came in. That's great. There's something to deal with conflicts and diamonds, but there's nothing to deal with gold or timber or any other mineral resource in a conflict zone. Hence the work on conflict resources (continues).

We look at organized crime networks, arms traffickers, that kind of thing. All of these guys use the international banking system. So you've got to work on the international banking system to clamp down there. Corrupt governments also use the banking system. In the areas we work on, not many people are held accountable for stuff that they do. A corrupt dictator, for example, who loots his state, like President Obiang of Equatorial Guinea, is he persona non grata in the U.S.? Far from it. He's the president of an oil-rich country. He's welcomed by Condoleezza Rice at the airport. Or arms-traffickers. We managed to provide information to help put a Dutch timber baron who supported Charles Taylor in Liberia inside [in jail] in Holland.

Q. Two forest activists recently were murdered in Honduras. How dangerous is this work? Have you ever lost anyone.

A: No, thank God, we've never lost anyone. We've learned a few things over the years. We've tried to work with local people in various countries. We had offices at different times in Cameroon and Cambodia. We had to close our Cambodia office because of safety reasons for our local staff more than our international staff. We've had international staff arrested in various countries. One of our people was arrested in Angola for espionage this year. Luckily, she got out. She was actually talking to NGOs about transparency and corruption issues in Angola and was arrested on trumped up charges. She's still charged, but she's out of the country on bail. I've been arrested on a couple of occasions myself.

You're putting yourself at the mercy of judicial systems in countries where judicial systems are really not good. We obviously have received death threats, not least from the Cambodian prime minister's brother. But we're not gung-ho. We don't court danger. We take a lot of care when people travel anywhere in going through various security checks. We have hostile environment training and we make decisions not to go to various places, as we do currently with Cambodia. We wouldn't send anyone to Cambodia right now.

Q. Are diamonds your biggest priority?

A: The priorities vary according to what's happening in the world at the time. Diamonds are not the biggest priority in the sense the Kimberly Process has been created. As it happens, wars fueled by diamonds are less common, thank God, than they were. The wars in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Angola are currently all over. The only diamonds that fall under the definition of conflict diamonds right now are in Ivory Coast. That doesn't mean the issue is not important or not important as it was, because who knows when these wars can break out again? But the campaign's in a different phase. It's much more about making sure the Kimberly Process is as good as it can be, because it's not perfect.

Q. It seems like you work more through the establishment than a Greenpeace. You have Gordon Brown singing your praises; some of your budget comes from government agencies.

A: In various areas, if we think we can get funding for a particular piece of work from a government, then we will do that. We're not a funding-led organization. If someone is prepared to fund work we already want to do, then we'll do that.

Q. You're not a guerilla organization.

A: Again, this is one of these things that makes up this weird alchemy of Global Witness. We've always made a point of talking to all sides in any issue, even if we know someone is totally corrupt, because you need to get the best information you can get and you also need to try to change everybody's mind, perhaps, whether they are the good guys or the bad guys. And also we're very conscious that if you really want to change policy in this world, you have to talk to policy makers, and therefore you have to be credible enough to do that. Yes, we talk regularly to governments, to the World Bank, to the IMF, whoever it might be. Similarly, we also work closely with many NGOs, including Greenpeace amongst others, because we are one and that's where our home is.

Q. But you play the inside game?

A: It's a little bit of both. We will not hesitate to expose the uncomfortable truths, whoever happens to be at the end of that. If the World Bank has messed up in Democratic Republic of Congo or Cambodia, which they have done, we wouldn't hesitate in saying that. But we would say that in a way we hope would be constructive. It might be extremely tough. We don't pull our punches in what we say. But we would say something in order to achieve change, rather than in order just to annoy somebody. If we annoy someone, we don't necessarily mind, either. I think you'll find if you talk to people in the World Bank or IMF or various governments, that we are a credible interlocutor with them, but that we are true to our beliefs or our roots. We also have political nous [Liverpudlian slang for street sense], political awareness that if we want to achieve change, we have to achieve change in a way that pushes and challenges policy makers, for sure. We don't want to talk the language of compromise, but there's no point in alienating the people you talk to.

Q. Global Witness seems very media savvy. The reports have clever titles and a certain panache.

A: I think that we never really take ourselves too seriously. That's one thing. Again, we make a point of trying to learn lessons from other people. A lot of NGO reports can be very dense and quite hard to get through. Information in our reports can be dense and hard to get through. So on one level you need to make it slightly easier to get through. On another level – how should I put this? – we like to rattle people's bars. Like with the report on Turkmenistan, It's a Gas, or another one where we had President Nazarbayev [of Kazakhstan] in his swimming trunks on the beach. It serves a campaign's purpose to actually personally annoy people. You could talk in very highfalutin terms on the policy shortcomings of a given government. But if, without making anything up, you can actually annoy the boss, annoy the corrupt dictator, that actually gets governments tripping up on themselves and doing stuff they might not do if they had the best PR advice. We need to make our reports attractive for people to read. If it's got a funny title and the odd pun, but the information is still good, then so much the better.

Q. How does an organization like Global Witness keep its edge?

A: We constantly worry about it and we constantly question ourselves on it. All we are is an organization of our people. Most of what we have is intellectual capital, combined with a real anger about some of the injustices in the world. If we felt we had lost that edge, we would probably stop. I continue to be surprised by the fact that we continue to have great successes. Every years seems to be better than the last.

The volunteers used to be harder to come by but now we're more out there in the news and we get approached by quite a few people... Very often they are young people, maybe students at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London or places like that or economists or whatever who have maybe three months, and it's quite exciting work. You're getting involved in the stuff of novels, I guess, in terms of the research we're doing.

Q. What do you tell a 19 year old who wants to expose corruption in the world?

A: There was a great quote on the back of the pamphlet for the memorial service for Anita Roddick [Body Shop founder and philanthropist]. It said, 'If you think you're too small to annoy anyone, try to go to bed with a mosquito.' One of the first things you can do is volunteer for an organization like ours. We all began in this sector as volunteers – Simon, Charmian and myself. We essentially volunteered when we began Global Witness, because there wasn't any money. So it's a good way to get in. Go volunteer for an organization that does this kind of stuff.

Q. You knew Anita Roddick?

A: Yes, the Body Shop Foundation was our second funder. After we moved from that one-room in Clerkenwell, they gave us a suite of offices rent-free for three years. Anita Roddick was an inspiration.