An academic dissertation based on serious corruption research

Civis Mundi Digitaal #62

door Michel van Hulten

Review of: Willeke Slingerland, Network Corruption: When Social Capital Becomes Corrupted. Its meaning and significance in corruption and network theory and the consequences for (EU) policy and law. Academisch proefschrift, Vrije Universiteit (VU) Amsterdam, 20 juni 2018.

Review of: Willeke Slingerland, Network Corruption: When Social Capital Becomes Corrupted. Its meaning and significance in corruption and network theory and the consequences for (EU) policy and law. Academisch proefschrift, Vrije Universiteit (VU) Amsterdam, 20 juni 2018.


Promotors: prof. Dr. L.W.J.C. Huberts en prof. Dr. J.F.D.B. Wempe
‘Promotiecommissie’ of the School of Business and Economics, Free University

Reading committee:
Prof. Dr. F. Anechiarico (Hamilton College New York)
Prof. Dr. P.M. Heywood (Nottingham University)
Prof. Dr. E.W. Kolthoff (Open University and Avans University of Applied Sciences)
Dr. A.O. Makinwa (The Hague University of Applied Sciences)
Prof. Dr. W. Stam (VU University Amsterdam)
Prof. Dr. P.E.W.M. Tops (Tilburg University)


This book is about friends. ‘Friends’: live and let live! That is allowed? It is essential for friendship, isn’t it? From offering a cup of coffee to paying the dinner at a meeting, to hosting a friend for a night’s stay in your summer cottage, to favouring him or her in contracting his company to construct a building or delivering a service. You trust your friends more than others, so there is also good reason to favour them for contracting business you need, that serves your need as a private person or as a public servant, and which will also let him live well.

All this and more can be socially and morally acceptable, correct, legal, profitable for both sides, economically justifiable, embedded also in long-term visions about your future, the future of your relationship, and the longterm perspectives of your life and work.

But, (inevitable ‘but’) the coffee, the dinner, the cottage, can also be the early steps in behaviour that in the end is not allowed but criminal, not any longer friendliness, although the appearance of the gifts makes that impression. Two is enough people to share friendship, it is also enough to form a criminal gang of people who trust each other in earning income and wealth with criminal behaviour. Virtue and vice are close neighbours.

To look at criminal gangs that began as friendship-circles is more or less the essence of this book. The deterioration of formal relationships as in a global organisation like the FIFA, a national organisation as the News of the World in the UK, and the local association of ‘burghers’ as in a rather small-sized provincial town in the South of the Netherlands into criminal behaviour, all three resulting from mutual favouring where it did not belong and serving more the gangmembers as the general public.

Only a few lines below the title ‘Network Corruption’ we read the words Members of Parliament (of the Netherlands) and General Motors. This is intriguing.
The more so as this is a study-report, an academic dissertation based on serious corruption research. Not a pamflet written by a political activist.
Moreover, this beginning is followed by the assertion that ‘the House of Parliament and the multinational are closely monitored’ as ‘political parties and multinationals are believed to be actors vulnerable to corruption’.

When you see this all packed in the first six lines of a book, you can be assured that something interesting is to follow in this publication of 244 pages, contents pages and literature list (pages 224-244) included.
Most literature titles in this list are from British and/or American, some from Dutch, authors: 152 books, chapters of books and articles, 84 newspapers and web-documents, 25 legal sources, and 13 items under the heading ‘Jurisprudence’. One author, named A. Herxheimer (p. 228) seems to be so well known that he is mentioned without the title of his article.

The promovenda follows her university and the Dutch academic community in general, in using the English language to express her thoughts, conclusions and recommendations. This certainly helps in multiplying her readership and audience to a wider global public than only those that would understand her findings also in Dutch.

I regret that she also follows another recent tendency in Dutch academic work, i.e. to limit her sources to those known from the anglo-saxon world. As if in the rest of the world, first of all among our neighbors in Europe (the Nordic countries, France, Germany, Poland, Romania, Italy, Spain, and others) and also in other parts of the world (think of Latin America in particular Brazil, China, Russia, India and Japan) not very interesting work is done related to her subject of network corruption.

She is quite well aware that important work is done globally. Already on page 5 in her dissertation she refers to ‘Michael Johnston’s book (Symptoms of Corruption)’ [the correct title is not ‘symptoms’ as I copy and quote, but ‘syndromes’ as is correctly mentioned in her paragraph on these syndromes (pp. 41-42) and in the literature list on p. 229, where its publication date is given as ‘2006’, or on page 41 given as ‘2009’, while correctly it should have been given as 2005].

She refers to the approach as developed by Johnston in his book as crucial for her own development. When reading his thoughts she realised that ‘corruption is an intangible crime but nevertheless the root cause of bad governance, poverty, inequality, pollution’ (p. 5). And she refers (p. 41-42) to Johnston’s clustering of 98 countries in ‘four major corruption syndromes’: 18 Influence markets, 21 Elite cartels, 30 Oligarchs and Clans, and 29 Official Moguls. All four syndromes reflect a  clustering of people according to common characteristics. This comes close to the ‘networks’ used by the promovenda as her research subject.

As one of her results she mentions in the ‘general case analysis’ (p. 152): ‘Foremost these networks are homogenous in the sense that they consist of individuals who are very much alike’.
This conclusion returns under her ‘Policy implications’ (p. 172), where she writes: ‘When (homogenous) individuals bond in a social network, there is a risk that the norm of reciprocity will become dominant and steer the individual behaviour in the direction of corruption’ (homogenous – all of the same or similar kind or nature, alike).

I wonder that in her dissertation she does not use more the Johnston-approach of the origins of corruption as shown in four distinctive rather homogeneous groups (influencers, elite, oligarchs, moguls) that also could be understood as social networks deteriorating into corruption networks, while his work helped her so much to find her approach of this concept.

As one Dutch political party, the - VVD - People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, the Dutch conservative liberal party, is often mentioned on the pages of her dissertation (and mostly these mentions are not meant to be a compliment), the author should have confirmed among her past work-related functions (p. 5) that she herself worked not only for ‘two MPs’, as she mentioned, but also that these two represented in those years D66, the progressive liberal party. Transparency about this partylink would have helped to prevent a suspicion of a political bias.

Three cases
The dissertation reports about her effort to relate ‘theory on corruption networks’, (which is newly developed by her) with observations of real life in extensively described ‘case studies’ (which I would rather have called fact sheets) of (1) ‘the FIFA case’ (12 pages), (2) the ‘News of the World international phone-hacking scandal’ (14 pages), and (3) the case of ‘the Dutch city of Roermond’, better known as the case of Jos van Rey, a well-known politician in Roermond - and now also well-known in the Netherlands - because of his political, economic and social activities in the city of Roermond as main actor in this case.
Van Rey
This politician (with his three closest allies named as Piet van Pol, Tilman Schreurs and Ricardo Offermanns) fits well In the main line of thinking developed in her study. He has become a dominant figure in this provincial, urban environment as frequently chosen Council member of the city, former Provincial Councillor and Senator, in all three for the already mentioned VVD. Without any doubt he was and is the central figure in a network dominating decision-making in the city of Roermond.

This dominance escaped some years earlier (2012, see the report written by the Frissen/Sorgdrager municipal commission investigating the Van Rey governance style) the attention of these researchers as something criminal, portraying as they did this phenomenon as only having a ‘semblance of corruption’. Quoted from the present study, based on the Frissen/Sorgdrager findings (as said before dated 2012) ‘The Commission was clear in its verdict that factual conflict of interests between Van Rey and Van Pol were not found’ (p. 127). Only a few years later the verdict in court  contradicts this finding.
The importance of Van Rey to his social environment is such that after the scandals in which he was involved and for which he was tried in court and penalized, he could start his own local political party and won again a seat with his local political friends, no longer VVD, forming the largest political group in the City Council. ‘Van Rey is backed by one third of the local voters’ (p. 130).

A similar central figure was Sepp Blatter as a five-term president of FIFA beginning in 1998 also surrounded by an inner circle of ‘friends’, defined by the indictment in 2015 as ‘nine high officials from FIFA, four sports marketing executives and one intermediary’ (p. 100).

Note the longevity of the tenure of both men. Note also that at the end of the careers of both men, they still could have continued in their functions as both got re-elected.

The News of the World network is a bit different as the network was larger, many journalists having been involved with some participants in the network at high functions from the paper’s hierarchy but without one clear single dominant leader.

All three
To all three cases can be applied the observation given (p. 112) for the News of the World case: ‘through these connections, power and influence were exchanged in the interests of the key figures involved, thereby sacrificing the rights of ordinary citizens’.

In my view the choice of the cases is also interesting from yet another viewpoint, as all of them have their roots in ‘developed democracies’ (p. 28) and again ‘developed western democracies’ (p. 138). In doing so, the promovenda acts contrary to generally accepted perceptions that corruption is mainly an experience or characteristic of underdevelopment, with as a consequence that it is often linked with poverty, mostly situated in what was called the third world. Or, and also often, is characteristic for ‘failed states’, with a past as remnants of the former Soviet empire and its political friends in other parts of the world, and Yugoslavia.

This choice of cases situated in the rich world, helps our understanding of her main subject which is the network structures which she observes in cases of corruption. If we recognize that the bulk of global corruption originates from wealthy sources and not from the poor half of the world, we understand better that there is a link between power and corruption. Power which is based on wealth, education (coming from the same or similar elite schools), age, gender, race, religion, etcetera. Johnston recognized this link also in giving his study of ‘Syndromes of Corruption’ the subtitle ‘Wealth, Power, and Democracy’.

All three of the factual descriptions of cases are followed in the next chapter by an analysis of each case (each between 4 and 6 pages) and an all encompassing ‘general case analysis’ with sub-conclusions.

Central question
In her opening chapter ‘Introduction’ the promovenda presents as the ‘central question’ of her study: ‘In what way and to what extent is corruption linked to the functioning of social networks, and what does this entail for our knowledge of corruption and networks and the policies to eradicate corruption?’ (p. 19, and also p. 190 in chapter 10, Conclusions).

After the chapter ‘Introduction’ and the theoretical chapters on’’Methodology’, ‘Corruption definitions’, ‘Social Networks’, ‘The link between networks and corruption’; and also after her practical approach offering facts about the three cases as related above, she shortens the ‘central question’ to ‘in what way and to what extent is corruption linked to social networks?’ (p. 152).

I will not comment more on chapters 1 through 6 in this dissertation. They are indispensable in her line of thinking in this research. Much more interesting is to folllow her in what is the core of her work i.e. the ‘social networks’ she describes, and ‘the links between these networks and corruption’ as exemplified in the three cases which have already been mentioned.

Nature of network corruption
Most interesting I found her summary of the nature of network corruption (p. 152) as reported in all three cases  with similar features of network deterioration resulting in corruption although ‘these cases were clearly varied in terms of size, type of organisations involved and geographical areas’.

The results in terms of political and economic successes, but also in terms of network corruption, could only be achieved because in all three cases individuals operated as a collective, with an appropriate level of informal organisation and with each individual taking on a different role. The case studies presented a global, national and local network. Despite their great differences, they also share important characteristics. Foremost these networks are homogenous in the sense that they consist of individuals who are very much alike. The network members are key figures from the public and private sectors, most of whom combined several professional positions and many were members or affiliates of a political party or supported politicians. As such they all held key positions within the global, national or local community. The key figures bonded together in closed networks and through as well as within the entity of the network they could use and abuse their power, resulting in corruption. These social networks formed strong informal circles in which the real decisions were made. Although formal institutions were present, in reality democracy and competition were set aside. From the case studies it has become apparent that although there were examples of corrupt behaviour in these networks, the real corruption was caused by the social network.’

‘Trading in influence’ not recognised as ‘corruption’
It is remarkable that an early observation which she makes in the introduction to the second half of her dissertation is not very much stressed by the author. It is her thesis (that I like to support and underline): ’current anti-corruption laws do not recognise trading in influence, let alone networks’ (p. 100). It is the prelude to what she studies as ‘social networks’ and ‘social capital‘ and ‘deterioration of social capital’ and the differences between ‘corruption in networks’ and ‘corruption by networks’.

Her thesis is so important because it touches on her view to treat corruption as a social disease in stead of diagnosing it (as is done in our courts) as individual wrongdoings, missing the social environment in which these wrongdoings are happening.
If more attention had already earlier been given to the circumstances surrounding corrupt cases could it earlier have been explained why it does not help much to ‘clean’ corrupt organisations from ‘corrupt apples’?
The replacement of ‘corrupt’ people by ‘honest’ people does not automatically result in more honest behavior in and round the network formed by these people, as the newly appointed persons adapt rather quickly to the corrupt environment in which they are landed if this corrupt environment is left untouched.

I repeat here her observation that ‘a lot of time and capacity has been or will be spent on the criminal investigations and (future) court proceedings, but it is to be seen if and how the network is addressed’. The law will have to change to allow dealing with trading in influence.

The promovenda defines (p. 159) the purposes that social networks serve as (1) to help one another, (2) to influence decision-making, and (3) to treat one another in a preferential way. ‘Networks bring about positive things’. ‘Individuals have a need to belong and to be part of a community’. However, ‘If favouring becomes the norm within the network, leading to decision-makers (agents) deciding in favour of the network, or the norm becomes to treat each other in a preferential way, the social capital will start to deteriorate’ (p. 162).

Sure, she does not forget a paragraph about ‘lobbying’: ‘lobbying is generally accepted and trading in influence is not, but capturing their differences is considered burdensome’ (p. 163). How burdensome everyone will understand who get to know her definition of ‘network corruption’ (too modest given with the restriction ‘for the purposes of this study’, p. 164)):
‘Informal collective cooperation in which professional roles are misused for network interests to such an extent that the dominant norm is that of generalised reciprocity, leading to the exclusion of others, while the members’ awareness of their network is reflected in their common attitude’.

A wish for those who do not belong
Among the subjects which she could have included in her recommendations for follow-up studies I would have liked to see future research looking at those in our society who do not belong to any one of the networks which are important for all decision-making. Are these our co-citizens who are dissatisfied with their position in our society? Those who know about their rights but who experience or see, that others seem to have more rights and snatch up the profits?

Among them ‘whistleblowers’ gained recently some prominence but they still are not sure that if they report a criminal offence (or report what happens to get qualified as a ‘semblance of corruption’) or other wrongdoing, related to someone embedded in higher layers of our (also their!) society, or related to someone placed above them in formal or informal hierarchies (networks!) that no one seems to take them serious and/or to listen to their complaints. In the Dutch police-force alone, some 60.000 men and women, it is assumed that some 3.000 have been early retired or are on long-term sick-leave as they are considered ‘not to belong’ any more. The best what happened to these 3.000 is that at least they receive some income. For our society the worst is that they have to keep their mouth shut and keep secret what they experienced.

Two final remarks

  1. Those who want to know and understand all the finesse of the concepts ‘corruption network’ and ‘network corruption’ is advised to read this dissertation.
  2. Index
    Finally, what I miss in this academic study is an ‘index’ or at least a ‘register of names of persons and institutions’. In my view an index is indispensable in all academic book-publications.