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Tackling corruption the soft way

Tackling corruption the soft way

Photographer:Fotograaf: Loraine Bodewes

Dissertation prize 2018

Hortense Jongen hopped on an airplane in Gothenburg last Thursday to pay an ultra-short visit to her hometown Maastricht. And with good reason: to accept the dissertation prize during the university’s founding day ceremony. Jongen researched how one could combat corruption on an international level using ‘soft governance’. The topic, the interdisciplinary perspective, and her pleasant style of writing were decisive for the jury.

Yes is ja, no is nej and good day is god dag. Those words are easy, but having a conversation in Swedish at a reasonable level? That is a bit too much to ask, Hortense Jongen (28) laughs. “I’m ashamed, I still find it difficult.” She has been working as a postdoc at the School of Global Studies at Gothenburg University since May last year. She has completed two language courses. Grinning: “Just wait and see, I will finally speak proper Swedish when my postdoc project has been completed.”
Jongen is a product of Maastricht, for a large part anyway. She did the bachelor’s of European Studies here, then left to do a master’s in Amsterdam, after which she returned to the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences to do a PhD in dealing with corruption.
Bribing foreign civil servants was considered to be an “accepted part” of international trade until the nineteen-nineties, she wrote in her thesis. Partly because of the Cold War ending and the “ensuing waves of democracy” people now see corruption more and more as something that is unacceptable. Countries sign treaties in an attempt to curb corruption, but what does signing such a treaty mean if they subsequently don’t adhere to it? There is no Court against Corruption or similar body to enforce countries’ actions.
That is where soft governance comes into play, says Jongen. In the form of peer reviews, a system whereby countries assess each other on the extent to which they observe their signed treaties. This does not concern individual countries, but collaborative organisations such as the United Nations, the Council of Europe, and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). They can put pressure on countries and publically tell them off, “naming and shaming”. Moreover they stimulate exchange of experiences to learn from each other.

Jongen mentions the British defence concern BAE Systems, which was investigated by the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) for years. BAE Systems allegedly paid bribes in the case of a large weapons order from Saudi Arabia. But at the end of December 2006, the highest British prosecutor ruled that SFO’s corruption investigation was to be suspended. Because of national security, it was said. This evoked fierce criticism from an OECD working group. Some media jumped on the bandwagon. The Financial Times, for example, interviewed the then chairman of the OECD working group. “He threatened to put British export companies on a black list in reaction to the continuous non-compliance with recommendations by the reviewers,” says Jongen. Eventually the Bribery Act was passed in England, one of the strictest laws in the world against bribery.

Still, we are talking about England here, a country with Western values. What about countries such as Russia, Mexico, Somalia, or Armenia? “Look, if a country refuses to do anything about corruption, there is very little one can do. But there are also many that want to, but just don’t have the funds or the knowledge or have more important issues to deal with. The UN can then offer to send in experts to support changes in legislation.”
Last question. Jongen interviewed diplomats and civil servants, and sat in on UN meetings. Would she not rather have been a diplomat herself? “I did think about it, but the academic world suits me much better. I prefer to observe and analyse people, rather than to take this stand myself.”

Combating corruption the soft way: The authority of peer reviews in the global fight against graft, defended on 15 September 2017.
Hortense Jongen received € 3,500 and a work of art (sponsored by the Hooglerarenfonds).

The dissertation prize is awarded in turn to Randwyck and the city centre. This year the city centre faculties (FASoS, Law, FSE and SBE) provided the theses. Five were nominated (two from SBE). The jury was chaired by professor Nanne de Vries.



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