A new book explores one NGO’s fight against money laundering, corruption and exploitation in the Global South.
Very Bad People begins with cocaine, prostitutes and illegal missile systems, all belonging to a very bad person. It ends with some very good people: the environmental activists assassinated for defending their homes, at a rate of one every week for the last decade. In between, there are car chases, bungled sting operations and ropey helicopter rides.
Its author, Patrick Alley promises the kind of 4D, immersive experience you’d find in an Alton Towers queue. ‘You’ll sit in boardrooms of multinational companies,’ he writes. ‘You’ll travel with our sometimes quirky, sometimes maverick investigators … you’ll see what it’s like to tread the corridors of power.’ He also promises explanations for the ‘biggest crimes ever pulled off’ and analysis of the systemic corruption which enabled their perpetrators. He promises a lot.
The book is a collection of case studies – seven main investigations and a handful of more fleeting reports from recent years – all conducted by Global Witness. Alley founded Global Witness with two friends in 1993, inspired by a year of backpacking and spurred by an early-onset midlife crisis. The trio pitched themselves into the uninvestigated space between environmental degradation (think Greenpeace, or Friends of the Earth) and human rights abuse (Amnesty International, or Human Rights Watch).
If you haven’t heard of Alley, or of Global Witness, you may have heard of ‘blood diamonds’ and the 2006 film set in war-torn Sierra Leone. That movie finishes with a conference to stem the flow of diamonds from conflict zones. It’s based on a real meeting in Kimberley, South Africa in 2000 and Global Witness were there. They also exploded a system of wilfully blind border checks, caught De Beers (the company then controlling 80% of diamond trade) in a white lie and coined the term ‘blood diamond’ itself – all in their second-ever investigation.
Of all the things Alley promises in Very Bad People, he delivers a kind of textbook for international investigative work: from spy shops in Kilburn to printing out counterfeit business cards and smuggling cash across borders. In an honour roll of testimonials from the enemies they’ve made along the way – including recognition as ‘an enemy of the state’ of Uganda and ‘worse than the Khmer Rouge’ according to the Prime Minister of Cambodia – billionaire mining executive Dan Gertler calls Alley’s team: ‘amateurish to the point of bogus.’
You can see where Gertler gets the idea from. Before their first investigation in Cambodia, the trio of Londoners collected donations for Global Witness from tube stations before their day jobs, nabbed a discarded logo from Médecins Sans Frontières and found a working laptop in a skip (‘sophistication beyond our dreams,’ Alley remembers).
The development of Global Witness as an organisation is one of three narratives that unfold in parallel through each case study. Otherwise, there’s a kind of town and country analogue between their fieldwork (in jungles, borderlands and villages) and political proselytising in the ivory corridors and press rooms of power (often in Washington, or else a series of diplomatic summits).
Between these two, perhaps the most remarkable revelation is how much harder the latter comes across. Bravery and financial means aside, Alley simply walks into a Thai logging mill and staff openly discuss Khmer Rouge’s operation. Later, their hotelier will give them hard copies of Khmer Rouge issued permits, practically as a welcome gift. Not every investigation comes with such a spoonful of sugar, but it’s clear that a more protracted, urbane battle to get their case across waits at the end of every expedition.
Between the excitement of fieldwork and relentless advocacy back home, stories of Global Witness’ growing cohort are the most entertaining. While their investigations take them around the Global South, their offices track across London through a series of shouty landlords, faulty heating and favourite pubs.
It’s in a pub that Global Witness all began, Alley remembers, with ‘a shared interest in faraway Cambodia’. Darkest Peru will come to feature, but first this shared interest ‘led me and two friends to ponder how to bring it [decades of intractable, guerrilla bloodshed] to an end.’ It’s cavalier – if not outright entitled – and certainly indicative of some blind spots. The rags to riches element of Global Witness’ story isn’t unimpressive, but the tenacity with which Alley returns to it (particularly in early chapters) speaks to an unwillingness to acknowledge the kind of shadow system that Global Witness itself participates in.
Very Bad People is a testament to – both in the 90s and today – the need for a white harbinger to extoll the suffering and corruption of developing countries to other white people in Washington to catalyse change. Alley may just be portraying the reality of the current state of international justice. But in a book concerned with exploding systemic power systems, it feels both saccharine and misguided to land, smiling on the takeaway: ‘I hope what you will glean is that the only limits to achieving change are self-imposed.’
That needn’t bother you if you come to Very Bad People by way of Ian Fleming, because Alley powers his investigative textbook with a knack for sure-fire story-telling. Comparisons to thrillers like The Night Manager are well earnt from a cast of investigators and storytellers. Amongst them, Isabella Tree (innocuous enough as a conservation writer) hits the nail on the head: the book ‘would be a hugely enjoyable thriller if it wasn’t all true.’
Alley says as much himself in an introduction, adamant that each chapter contains ‘not stories’ but ‘real-life case studies.’ The line is thin, especially when words like ‘exciting’ and ‘cool’ start to crop up more regularly with ‘dangerous’ – when Alley soaks up the ‘electric atmosphere’ of conflict zones and finds ‘the best bar in the world’ in the wake of a civil war.
The fact that Alley’s writing is compelling and, at times, infectiously fun rubs up against depictions of suffering which are often either brief or at some remove. That discomfort isn’t something that Alley addresses in Very Bad People, but it makes it more relevant than ever. While the first war to stream on TikTok unfolds in Ukraine, Very Bad People is both a timely investigation of Russian influence in the West and another discomforting night for the unlikely bedfellows of entertainment and suffering.
Patrick Alley, Very Bad People (Octopus Publishing Group), pp. 336, 18,99£.
Daniel Shailer is a freelance journalist based in London. His writing covers culture, climate and everything in between. He is currently a critic with English National Opera’s mentorship scheme.