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  • Simone Haysom

A Conversation with Simone Haysom

Q: Hi Simone! Can you tell us your Gates Cambridge year, your current title/role, and where you’re located in the world?

Simone: I was a Gates Cambridge Scholar in 2009. I work as the Thematic Lead on Environmental Crime at the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC). These days, my home is a flat in Geneva with my husband, Kim, and my puppy, Paco.

Q: How would you describe your current job?

Simone: I conduct and manage complex research projects which map flows of illicit environmental goods, trying to understand who is involved, and why. I, then, try to channel this research into better responses to illicit economies - such as proposing policies, piloting new methodologies, or collaborating with organisations who run direct programmes. My organisation has a nose-to-tail approach to democratic participation – we’re supporting activists at the most local level, and also advocating for better policies at the multilateral level such as with processes linked to the UNTOC (United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime) or CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) treaties. I also take responsibility for representing our best understanding of environmental crime at all these levels.

Q: Can you recall how you came to apply for and join the Gates Cambridge community? How has membership impacted your research and your career?

Simone: I had a strong urge to study abroad and I applied for any funding that was available to a South African. I hadn’t heard of the Gates scholarship before, and I couldn’t really believe my luck when it came through. Soon after I arrived at Cambridge, it was also clear to me that, in addition to the funding that made my degree possible, the scholarship offered a community of its own, an alternative to college life. This became a major element of my experience, and the people I met profoundly shifted my horizons, and my sense of possibility.

Q: How has your academic career lent itself to your desire to give back to communities?

Simone: My history training gave me a reading of global history that did not center the West, and that has been invaluable in not just understanding why poverty and political dysfunction are persistent problems, but in imagining a world where they aren’t. My human geography training taught me how to put my feet on the street and find out how people really live. That’s a crucial foundation for producing development policy research that isn’t part of the problem.

Q: In the last 12 years as a researcher, you have encountered the concept of “place” in many nuanced ways. How has your work influenced your understanding of “place” in relation to “the Body,” “Home,” “Community,” or “Physical Space”? Can you provide an example or two?

Simone: My first proper job out of university was working for the Overseas Development Institute as a policy researcher, producing analysis for the humanitarian aid world. At the time, aid agencies were struggling to adapt to having to cater to displaced people’s needs where they were - in towns and cities, instead of in remote camps, where aid agencies had a pathetic sort of sovereignty over basic service provision. I worked on a series of case studies of Middle-East and East African cities, about how people displaced by conflict, often from rural areas, assimilated into urban life in exile. I travelled to war zones and countries adjacent to war zones, and met people who had been forced to leave home behind, sometimes many times, and then lived in situations of indefinite insecurity. I came to understand the, often surprising, political incentives - rather than resource constraints - for keeping people’s residence temporary and their livelihoods precarious. These lessons were starkly legible in the lives of refugees, but they were also there in the situations of the native urban poor.

My understanding of the fraught nature of place-making grew when I wrote The Last Word of Rowan du Preez, a narrative non-fiction book, which told a crime story that was inextricable from questions of place. Here, profound political questions about the origins of insecurity and responsibility for the rule of law, in the midst of deep spatial inequality, had broken out into bitter legal disputes between poor neighbourhoods and the state in South Africa. In the case of the central figures in the book, these questions could even be said to have erupted into a murder, conspiracy and corruption. Through observing the aftermath at close quarters, I developed an enduring fascination with the role of criminal law in defining the nature of communities.

Since beginning work with GI-TOC five years ago, these issues have cropped up in work on heroin markets, gangs, and even the illicit charcoal trade. Recently, I’ve stepped back from urban questions, and now concentrate on environmental crime, tracing illegal commodity flows which tend to start in remote protected areas, and may end up for sale in virtual worlds. There is currently a fairly dynamic policy discussion about how to stop wildlife trafficking, illegal logging, waste smuggling etc., full of both awful and brilliant ideas about the role of law in enforcing limits on damage. But a lot of this conversation seems to lack any urgency - as if said damage is occurring on some separate, disposable planet, and not to our one and only home.

Q: What is “transnational environmental crime” and why does it matter?

Simone: Quite simply, it is any flow of environmental goods, like timber, fish, and wildlife, which is trafficked over borders. Depending on your definition, it also includes minerals, sand, and waste.

Crime and corruption are a facet of almost every single one of the major causes of environmental damage, as defined by IPBES (the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services). They may not be the major driver, but they present a crucial obstacle, either in prevention or response.

Then, for reasons intimately linked to the history of global poverty and inequality, these goods are usually produced in poor countries and trafficked to places with higher levels of economic growth, and so, demand (or the opposite, when it comes to waste). And because of this geography, the harms of these illegal flows are highly unequally distributed, to the detriment of the world’s poorest - these include risks like zoonotic disease outbreak, corruption of government institutions, lethal threats to environmental defenders, or the loss of subsistence livelihoods.

This shadow economy, in other words, is a spoiler for any sincere attempt to solve both development and environmental problems.

Q: In your current role as Thematic Lead on Environmental Crime for the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, what has been your favorite project and why?

Simone: My favourite project is always my current one. For the last three weeks, my colleagues and I have been in the Philippines, trying to understand what drove a surge in pangolin poaching before Covid, and how to stop the trade returning when movement restrictions relax. And, when I get back, I’m really excited about starting a new collaboration where our Market Monitoring and Friction Unit, which uses machine-learning technology and OSINT (open source intelligence) approaches, will be conducting a big data study on the sale of endangered birds and reptiles on the internet in Europe.

Q: How have you navigated transitioning research areas (from urban development, displacement, and crime to transnational environmental crime)? Why did you make this shift?

Simone: My work on all these topics has been empirical, and it is my fieldwork and analytical skills, particularly an attention to political economy, which has bridged these different areas. As to ‘why’ - I’ve mostly just travelled along the nerve of my greatest curiosity.

Q: Your published writing, while always grounded in extensive research, ranges from detailed academic reports to third-person narrative forms. How do you decide which stories to tell and how?

Simone: The difference betweens these forms - outside of style - is almost exclusively one of scale. They either tell the story at the level of one human, one community, or a whole society. The detailed empirical research is my job, and it takes its form from its audience - mostly policy makers, who are making society-level decisions, and want information that guides them at that level.

The narrative writing has always been driven by wanting to reach people in a different way, and it has to be character-driven with the detail reduced down to the essentials. I wish I could say I saunter between these forms at will, but a lot is determined by limits on my time and opportunity.

Q: Outside of your work as a researcher, what do you enjoy doing? How have these other engagements shaped you and your career?

Simone: In Geneva the food is mediocre and expensive, and there isn’t much to do except swim and ski. So I cook, I swim, and I’m learning to ski. And, thankfully, they don’t do anything for my career except be so absorbing I don’t think about it.

Q: If you could share one insight with Gates Cambridge Scholars or anyone seeking a career in creating impact through research, what would that be?

Simone: In my twenties, I was often beset by insecurity that what I was working on wasn’t ‘right’ for me. At a certain point I got very bored of my own (always inconclusive) internal monologue, and I decided that the most important criteria for any job would be, “Am I still learning? Are my intellectual skills still growing?”

I thought this would be a good touchstone for my youth, something I’d grow out of. But in truth, I’m still using it and I think it’s gold dust.


Simone Haysom [2009] is the Thematic Lead on Environmental Crime at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime, based in Geneva.

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