Why I’m helping build an open register of company ownership
When I was leading a scrappy start-up nonprofit in Washington, DC, I never stopped telling people that the world around us can be better. Often, the barriers to that better world are that we think we’re alone in wanting it, or we don’t know how to get there. As an organizer, my job was to link people to each other, creating a broader community of practice, and to provide them with tools to start making the changes they wanted to see.
So that’s what I did, building partnerships to prevent gender-based violence with non-traditional stakeholders such as public transit authorities, rideshare companies, and businesses large and small. And that’s what I’m doing to help build the Global Beneficial Ownership Register today.
The link between gender-based violence and corporate transparency may not be readily apparent, but it is strong. Fundamentally, the very same people who suffer the most from the loss of tax revenue to fund public services, or shoddy infrastructure resulting from procurement processes where the procurers don’t have enough information, are also the ones who experience more severe violence at higher rates. Moreover, as recent research has shown, the inequality that generates these vulnerabilities is deepening.
As one of my teachers at the London School of Economics argues, in order to understand inequality, we have to understand the activities of elites and the processes by which they accumulate capital. This is a complex picture of which beneficial ownership information is only one piece. But it is an important one, shedding light on the processes by which elites move their capital or hide their identities, either for legitimate reasons or more questionable ones.
I’m inspired by arguments that the prerequisite to change is a contextualized understanding of the present condition that can illuminate concrete, if incremental, ways forward. Along with the research agenda this suggests, I interpret it as a call for more, high-quality, and accessible data. With the help of partners in the business community, governments, and civil society, the Global Beneficial Ownership Register will answer the call for information on who controls companies. It is not just researchers and organizers who need this data, but also businesses, who can use it to better vet their partners and supply chains. Governments, too, can require groups bidding on contracts to submit data, and use existing data to chase down tax revenue.
Each time the data is used in these ways, it yields incremental changes that, taken collectively, build a set of new norms. It will help us reevaluate our ideas of what makes a socially responsible corporation, a comprehensive due diligence process, a transparent government. It will help create a closer match between the interests of corporations and those of the people living in the communities where they operate. In other words, it will help us build that better world that we all want to see.
The tasks are many, but I know from my experience that when leaders in business, civil society, and government stand at the forefront of change, they make it happen. If you’re one of those leaders and you want to get involved in building the Global Beneficial Ownership Register, get in touch. We have a lot to work on together.