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The Great Rip-off: Unique campaign roots out transnational corruption

Tuesday, August 18, 2015 22:50
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(Before It's News)

By The Sunlight Foundation

A screenshot of The Great Rip-off’s interactive map. (Image credit: The Great Rip-off)

Last year, Global Witness launched a new project to help root out transnational corruption: the Great Rip-off website. A longtime advocate for beneficial ownership data — information on who really owns and controls companies — the investigative organization already has a rich history of exposing links between natural resource exploitation, poverty, corruption and human rights abuses. And last year, co-founder Charmian Gooch won the $1 million 2014 TED prize for launching a campaign to end anonymous companies and create a “new era of openness in business.”

In almost every major case investigated by Global Witness, a common element is that criminals keep their loot in “anonymous companies” — business entities that are easy to set up, and whose real ownership is incredibly difficult to track down. According to them, these companies work like Russian dolls: A new entity can be found hidden inside each and every other entity. Law enforcement agencies often fail to find the real owners behind these companies, and many politicians, money launderers and tax evaders are taking advantage of these opaque structures to open up bank accounts, wire money and purchase assets easily via such companies.

It is also no surprise that setting up anonymous companies in developed economies can be done with eyes shut. Some states in the U.S. require such little data that registering your business can be completed within an hour. These simplified processes, as well as legal loopholes, have been constantly abused by the political and economical elite all over the world. The son of Equatorial Guinea’s president, for instance, siphoned off more than $300 million USD using anonymous companies to buy sports cars and a luxury house in California, while former Ukrainian Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko was given jail time in 2006 for laundering tens of millions of Ukrainian taxpayers’ money. Another, even more famous Ukrainian politician, ex-President Viktor Yanukovych — who was ousted by the Euromaidan revolution in 2014 — also used a UK-based shell company to cover the costs of his extravagant palace.

Ever since the beginning of its advocacy around beneficial ownership, Global Witness has been developing reports, infographics, short films and interactive maps to highlight such stories, and to raise awareness around the importance of corporate ownership transparency.

Through their most recent Great Rip-off project, the organization is now attempting to use straightforward visualizations to explain to a wider public how anonymous companies operate across countries, and what tricks they use for their criminal activities. The interactive map shows both anonymous companies and their victims, and the website also serves as a database for case stories. Anybody is welcome to contribute to the site, and Global Witness verifies each story before publishing. The site was built with the collaborative network analysis tool, and the underlying data is available in open formats to boost further analysis.

Thanks to the hard work of organizations like Global Witness, corporate transparency is increasingly at the forefront of the global transparency agenda, as more and more people, governments and international entities realize its relevance to political accountability. Hopefully, the Great Rip-off campaign will mobilize even more people to take action — and to call on their political and business elite to do the same.

The Sunlight Foundation is a non-profit, nonpartisan organization that uses the power of the Internet to catalyze greater government openness and transparency, and provides new tools and resources for media and citizens, alike.


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