A Clarion Call

Simon Taylor is the Founding Director of Global Witness, UK, Europe.  Simon’s areas of expertise include environmental sustainability, peace and human rights, and responsible supply chains.  Simon is increasingly focusing on climate change, with a particular interest in the way in which the fossil fuel industry has corrupted and co-opted global politics to such an extent that it has been able to prevent appropriate action to address the climate crisis.

Charmian Gooch is the Director and Co-Founder of Global Witness.  Charmian developed and launched Global Witness’s ground-breaking campaign to combat ‘blood diamonds’; Global Witness was nominated for the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize as a result of this work.  In 2014 Charmian was awarded the TED Prize, given to an ‘extraordinary individual with a creative and bold vision to spark global change’. In 2014, Charmian along with Global Witness co-founders Patrick Alley and Simon Taylor, received the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship, awarded to ‘transformative leaders who are disrupting the status quo’.

Leif Wenar quotes Einstein “The specific problems we face, cannot be solved using the same patterns of thought that were used to create them.” He has embraced this quote with gusto and worked out, in a fascinating and detailed way, many of the ramifications of a complete shift in the way in which resources are traded.

We must be clear that Leif Wenar in Blood Oil, writes very positively, and at length about Global Witness, the organisation that we co-founded with Patrick Alley about 25 years ago. This included interviews – see Chapter 17 – and so readers of this blog might be forgiven for thinking we are perhaps biased towards his arguments. We have tried hard not to be and tried instead to distance our reading selves from both Leif Wenar and Blood Oil.

His Clean Trade Policy is a thought provoking way into a very complex problem. He is essentially arguing that the entire way that oil, and other resources are traded is morally untenable and must be changed to a more equitable approach to trade. He makes fascinating comparisons with the ending of the repugnant slave trade and points out that “many of the great movements for moral progress in the past three centuries have been morally simple. All humans should be free: the hard work was ending slavery.”

Anything which helps frame a path towards tackling the resource curse and associated corruption, conflict, grinding poverty, human rights and environmental abuses is to be welcomed. After the targets agreed at the UNFCC 2015 Paris Climate Agreement 2016 this is also a welcome conversation about how to get off fossil fuels as fast as is practical.

Leif Wenar’s focus on oil as the most valuable commodity traded across borders makes a lot of sense. Oil is so utterly ubiquitous – look around you and virtually everything within a 10 foot radius of where you are sitting has been produced from oil, made using oil or transported using it  –  so it can be very hard to imagine a future where the trading of it might look very different. Blood Oil frames a very different way of thinking about trade, the current inherent power relationships and how to change it. He has very detailed and well thought through suggestions for how to achieve that change.

Could it be considered a bit Panglossian? Well, yes in some ways but that is the easy way not to engage with an important argument. We could nit-pick and point out, for example, that USA oil independence has come at very high environmental cost. But Leif Wenar has anticipated many of the questions that the reader might raise and worked with other experts to address them. Global Witness has experienced that same sense of incredulity at an idea:  in 1999 it launched the call for oil companies to publish the revenues that they pay in the countries that they pay them as a simple mechanism to drive transparency and undermine the many facets of the resource curse. At the outset of this campaign people laughed at the naivety of this seemingly simple question. It has since gone on to become a global movement and an unstoppable wave of change despite industry fightbacks. It has also become very mainstream thinking.

The broad sweep of his argument is very compelling and his detailed recommendations are a really useful way to look at and understand the trade in oil and other extractives and their often appalling consequences at so many levels. It is a comprehensive clarion call for global change.