Meet our trustees: John Githongo

Last summer, OpenCorporates announced the creation of the OpenCorporates Trust, the entity that guarantees OpenCorporates’ public-benefit mission, and ensures we always operate to open up company data for the public good.

One of our trustees is John Githongo, an anti-corruption journalist, activist and consultant. As an award-winning journalist, Mr Githongo investigated corruption in Kenya, writing for publications including EastAfrican and The Economist. He advised the Kenyan government on anti-corruption strategies. He also founded Kenya’s branch of Transparency International, and the advocacy group Inuka Kenya Trust, which connects individuals and grassroots organisations working for positive social change in Kenya.

Hello, tell us a little about who you are?

I am described as an anti-corruption activist. I have worked in anti-corruption for the last 22 years in civil society, in government and as a consultant to government and the private sector. I have also been a journalist and I am now also a publisher of an online Africa-wide publication that started two years ago. The common thread through it all has been the issue of corruption.

What drew you to becoming an OpenCorporates trustee?

I had never heard of OpenCorporates until I got a call from its CEO, Chris Taggart. I could immediately see his extraordinary passion and the great idea. But for me, it was when I went onto the website. There has been a huge debate in anti-corruption circles about what has been described as the failure of current anti-corruption strategies because white collar crime is at unprecedented levels. Nothing brings that home more than the 2008 financial crisis in the west, or the MPs’ expenses crisis, or the Panama Papers. These giant data dumps give us a glimpse into this shadowy world where trillions of dollars are moving about out of the reach of competent authorities.

So it was a very singular innovation to say, “Why don’t we just start putting together a grand database of what is publicly available with regard to ownership of these companies?” That for me was extremely attractive. They say that sunshine is the best weapon against corruption and OpenCorporates exemplifies that for me.

Why do you support OpenCorporates?

The power of OpenCorporates is the simplicity of the data that is sitting there and organised in a way that is accessible to those who are working hard to uncover corruption, crime and all other forms of malfeasance. It is important to know who owns these companies and their holding companies, especially in large procurement contracts in developing countries such as Kenya. OpenCorporates has quietly become the first port of call for somebody with questions about entities that are involved in behaviour that is extremely expensive to poorer people in the world.

When I got involved in anti-corruption we used to say that corruption undermines development and exacerbates poverty, but we’ve refined that with the realisation that the greatest damage done by corruption is deep inequality. There has been a tremendous amount of growth in the world in the last 20 to 30 years, but it’s clear that this is very unequal and we have learned that inequality is far more politically and socially destabilising than poverty per se. Where inequalities are stark and accompanied by conspicuous consumption and corruption, that undermines people’s trust in leaders and institutions of governance.

Especially amongst youth, there is much greater cynicism about leadership than was the case as recently as 20 years ago. Young people are wary about politicians and which big corporate is paying their speaking fees. It should always worry us when young people lose confidence in the system.

What does a future without OpenCorporates look like?

It is darkness because in many countries the line between corporate and public is quite fine, there is not much difference, and you have a very dramatic consolidation in the banking or legal sector where a few corporates become too big to fail and, even worse, too big to be held accountable. This undermines the very basis of democracy not only in developing countries but in developed countries as well.

How is OpenCorporates data useful for journalistic or regulatory investigations?

In July or thereabouts, I was asked to give the keynote address at an anti-corruption training workshop in Abuja, Nigeria. Afterwards I hung around to learn from this really impressive group of 40 investigative journalists from across the African continent who were focused exclusively on corruption and following the money. As their slides went up, I saw that the first port of call for them in following the money was the OpenCorporates website. That was for me a very proud moment, and I took a photo and sent it to the other trustees of OpenCorporates.

How do we ensure access to company data is open for all?

I think there is a big global push right now for the establishment of beneficial ownership registers and I know the Europeans in particular passed regulations this year in that direction. The push for visibility of company ownership used to be the province of organisations like Global Witness, Transparency International, the media and civil society groups, but what has happened is that it has also become the province of ordinary citizens around the world. They are asking questions like who has my data and who knows which shops I go to, and I think as technology continues to develop exponentially, these questions will become more and more urgent.

We are into the era of the whistleblower – in the 1960s and 1970s there were exceptions like Deep Throat but now it is happening all the time, so clearly the system is not fit for purpose if people of conscience can come out like this. So the question is how do we redesign the whole machinery of how leaders are accountable to their citizens.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

I love technology so I consume podcasts at a frantic rate and I enjoy keeping up with what is happening around the world. It is a very exciting time for the world, and sometimes quite alarming, so it is important to stand back and listen and read and write about this cycle. I also enjoy travel and the countryside. Where I live in Kenya we have lots of animals and nature is strong and colourful.

I enjoy stand-up comedy from all over the world – with the streaming services now available I can watch a Palestinian or a Scottish comedian on stage bringing joy to people’s lives by spreading the laughter around. Dave Chappelle is my favourite stand-up comic right now. I also love films.

What is your favourite film?

That is a very difficult one. I have a number of favourite films like Malcolm X by Spike Lee; Pulp Fiction; Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels; and Heat. When I am travelling to an OpenCorporates meeting, my standard procedure is to download at least three films onto my iPad and I will watch them when I can’t sleep or I am not reading board notes.

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