The death of a white elephant in The Hague

06 April 2018 by Irene van der Linde and Tjitske Lingsma

In 2011 a new prestigious institution - The Hague Institute for Global Justice - was set up with huge ambitions and 20 million euros of Dutch government funding. But after only a few years, the institute is broke and Dutch politicians are asking questions in parliament. How did such a high-profile think-tank end up as a white elephant?

A painter spruces up the former premises of the The Hague Institute for Global Justice to ready it for a new tenant after the demise of the institute (Photo: Janet Anderson)
Image caption: 
A painter spruces up the former premises of the The Hague Institute for Global Justice to ready it for a new tenant after the demise of the institute (Photo: Janet Anderson)

For people interested in justice, peace and security it was a great place to visit. Not only because The Hague Institute for Global Justice constantly scheduled events featuring interesting speakers covering important subjects or organisations launching crucial reports. These conferences, roundtables and panels were sometimes inspiring or sometimes hot air. But the ambiance was more than pleasant. The Institute was housed in a monumental villa in a street lined with chestnut trees in a posh area of The Hague. Often the programme was followed by drinks with lovely wine and excellent snacks which allowed an international community of professionals, diplomats, judges of international tribunals and courts, lawyers and researchers to meet in an informal manner. But behind that façade something else was going on, we discovered, while investigating the institute for the Dutch weekly De Groene Amsterdammer.

For many years, The Hague had been working on a – very successful – strategy [IJT155] to profile the city as the international centre for peace and justice. After a commission in 2009 advised on how to bolster the city’s image, the municipality went full steam ahead with creating an institute. The then mayor of The Hague, Jozias van Aartsen, would become totally committed. The institute is seen as his ‘baby.’ On 19 February 2010 the Dutch cabinet agreed to a subsidy of 17.45 million Euro from a fund created with some of the profits from the exploitation of gas fields in the northern province of Groningen (which is now suffering earthquakes due to that gas production). There was, however, one important condition: in five years’ time the institute had to be financially independent from government subsidies. The municipality would contribute a total of 2.5 million Euro to the Institute as well.

The idea was to set up an top research institute or international think tank, on a global scale, on peace, justice and development. The ambitions were sky-high as the institute had to resemble the well-known Washington-based Brookings Institute. Mayor Van Aartsen had managed to get former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright involved as chair of the advisory board. The two knew each other from their time they both were ministers of foreign affairs.

While searching for a proper international dean, Albright proposes a good friend who had been working at UN headquarters: Abiodun – ‘Abi’ – Williams. He is interested in the job but demands the title ‘dean’ is changed into ‘president.’ So it will be. His salary conditions are more problematic as these go beyond the norms for public positions in The Netherlands. But the matter will be settled. Williams agrees to a salary of 223,497 Euro per year. ‘Exorbitant,’ sources tell us, for a dean of an institute that will never employ more than 35 persons at a time. In January 2013 he starts as president of The Hague Institute for Global Justice. That’s when the real problems will start.

Reporting to ‘the politburo’

‘I was young. The job seemed to offer good possibilities,’ says a senior researcher, who only wants to talk to us if he can stay anonymous. That’s one of the apparent contradictions: someone working in the justice-sector, which advocates rights and freedoms, but that person doesn’t feel able to speak freely because of fears for his position and future job possibilities. He’s not the only former staff member whom we contact that demands anonymity. ‘The international justice world is small’, he explains during an interview. Speaking negatively about a former employer is not done.

His first meeting with Abi Williams goes well. ‘He is an excellent communicator. It seemed great to work with him,’ says the senior researcher. But the work relationship soon deteriorates. ‘You would never say it when you see him. He is smooth and well mannered. But he turned out to be extremely narcissistic and yelled at people. There were so many conflicts between Abi and the other staff.’

Williams distances himself from his staff, withdraws in his office and communicates only through his personal assistant, secretary and his own advisor. ‘As if it was below his prestige to directly talk to me,’ the senior researcher says. ‘It was also a culture clash. We academics are very egalitarian. But he was much focussed on hierarchy and felt quickly criticized.’

He witnesses how the institute changes into ‘a toxic workplace’ where people feel afraid to show real initiative or critique its strategic direction. ‘By the time I left, staff meetings became each employee just saying everything was wonderful and that every project was going great. One of my colleagues called these meetings ‘reporting to the politburo’.’

Others, even people outside the institute, confirm the intimidation and bullying. This is what happens during those anger fits. Williams, always impeccably dressed in a suit, starts looking furious, gets very close and starts yelling.

White linen and lobster bisque

Staff sees how the institute meanders and apparently lacks a clear focus. Anja Mihr, who worked at the institute as head Rule of Law and is now program director of the Humboldt-Viadrina Governance Platform in Berlin, says that choosing a president who had worked at the UN and doesn’t have much connection with The Netherlands or European Union, was wrong from the start. She thinks a Dutch president would have been better – a former diplomat, for instance. But Van Aartsen and his circle wanted an international top figure, and the choice for Williams may have increased the institute’s likelihood of failure because he lacked the kind of direct connection with European power structures that would have led to well-paid research assignments.

Another issue was a supposed network model together with nine Dutch research institutions already well established in The Hague, which are described as the founders of the institute together with the municipality of The Hague. When Van Aartsen is informing the local council about the plans he says they will contribute 13 of the institute’s staff members. Others mention some agreement to 10 million Euro contribution in kind. But this construction fails from the beginning - Williams is not to blame - because of tensions, competition and jealousy that this new institute had already been given some 20 million Euro in government funding. In a way, things developed the other way round. The institution became seen as a ‘cash-cow’ as universities and institutes sent in proposals for research. Though this situation also suited the institute. ‘Administratively it seemed we were involved and busy. But often we were basically only paying,’ the anonymous senior researcher analyses.

The research he was supposed to do himself hardly happens. ‘Except for some policy papers.’ The focus is on events, he says. ‘Often with many big shots.’ The senior researcher has 13 projects to handle and organises about 26 events per year. ‘I had become more of a manager than a researcher. There wasn’t time for anything else.’ Other people we interviewed for our article confirm his assessment.

These events were popular with visitors as the institute had great catering. For bigger events the institute would even order a chef to come and cook. Guests were being served at tables with white linen. The institute developed a luxurious style, which, however, didn’t match well with the more sober and no-nonsense attitude of the hosting low countries.

Opaque financial culture

Early 2014 there is a big change in governing structure of the organisation. Mayor Jozias van Aartsen, who had been chair of the interim-board, steps down. From now on the supervisory board will be legally responsible for the oversight and the functioning of the institute and it will be chaired by Dick Benschop, president-director of Shell Netherlands (and per 1 May 2018 president-director of Schiphol). Right when he starts there is an alarming report by the PwC accountancy firm on his desk about the fact that the institute is mainly running on subsidies, and is not raising enough external income from assignments. In other words, Williams is failing as fundraiser. The chance that the institute will be able to function independently from government funds within five years, is getting bleaker. The report also warns about the exorbitant expenditures by president Williams.

After our publication in De Groene, we received copies of bills showing that in 2013, when mayor van Aartsen was still supervisor, Williams declared 10,205.50 Euro for taxi rides, including a short trip of less than a kilometer from his home to the Hall of Knights, part of the parliament and government buildings in The Hague, which amounted to 321 Euro. On 29 October he also took a cab to Groningen costing 722.25 Euro.

The good news is that at the same time - early 2014 - a financial director is appointed, who functions on the same power level as Williams. Also, three programme heads are hired which increases the intellectual force of the institute. However, soon the financial director is experiencing the same problems as the staff. He clashes with the president. But the supervisory board will back Williams, despite a damning memo about the problems: the president’s attitude intimidating and bullying people in and outside the institute, declaring five-star hotel costs made during private leave, private taxi’s, unnecessary expensive taxi trips and harmed relationships with other organisations.

The staff members remember well how every day a colleague goes to the supermarket to buy bread for the free lunch they were offered, which they eat together in one of the office spaces. ‘Abi never joined. He found himself superior. He ordered his lunch at the Carlton Hotel on the corner,’ recalls a former top researcher. Every day around noon a waiter would come walking along the Sophialaan with its majestic chestnut trees, with a silver-coloured platter on which a special lunch – with the usual lobster bisque - is served for Williams, which he enjoys sitting alone in his office. ‘He was like the prince on the castle who wanted his own land,’ this top researcher says.

Not only does the supervisory board decide to back Williams. Worse, the supervisors combine the two posts of president and financial director into one position, which will be given to: Williams. ‘We didn’t want to continue with the idea of two captains on the same ship,’ Benschop reacts in an exclusive interview with De Groene.

Some staff though believe that Benschop actually wanted to get rid of the president, but that Williams contacted Madeleine Albright, who calls mayor Van Aartsen, who then calls Benschop. The former mayor always defends Williams. Probably to not endanger his relations with VIPs such as Albright. Besides, there is one thing Williams is really good at. The president manages to impress the board with his international contacts whom he invites to the institute. These VIP’s are of a level pretty rare for institutions in The Netherlands – ranging from top UN officials to foreign ministers and political leaders. Exactly what mayor Van Aartsen needed for profiling The Hague and The Netherlands on the international stage.

Meanwhile the problems with staff continue. One of them points out to us that there are no annual reports or financial reports on the website of the institute. It symbolises a culture that a former researcher summarizes with one word: opaque. After we published our article in De Groene Amsterdammer, a legal expert contacts us to inform us about a project his organisation was going to do with the institute for which he had already transferred thousands of euros. However, the project was stopped by the institute, which then refused to pay the money back and declined to show a decent financial report of how it was spent. So much for accountability.

What struck us during interviews with former staff is the huge gap between the people working at the institute and the supervisory board. One of them says: ‘The board did not want to resort to micromanagement. They weren’t interested in the problems. Benschop never asked any senior staff what the problems were even though he undoubtedly knew there were many, serious problems. It was the worst kept secret in all of The Hague.’ He thinks the board let itself be taken in. ‘Abi was a smooth talker,’ this researcher says, adding that Dick Benschop ‘never challenged the lies of the president. It was cynical. It was morally corrupt.’ This top researcher resigned and joined the exodus of disillusioned colleagues who had left earlier.

When after four years the contract of Williams ends, the supervisory board even thinks of prolonging his appointment by a year. A source tells us Benschop already had a new contract for Williams in his briefcase. At the last moment the accountant blocks the deal. When Madeleine Albright hears the contract of her protégé is not prolonged, she is so furious that she immediately quits from her position as chair of the VIP-stacked advisory board.

In the meantime, the institute has been making losses, despite the fact that it’s still on the subsidy drip. In 2016 the deficit is: 593,000 euros. That is formally the last year of government funding. The president didn’t manage to tap sufficient external income sources for the institute to stand on its own feet. Since its start in 2011, via paid assignments, a total of 8 to 9 million euros has been earned. In reality, however, half of that amount was brought in by the Dutch interim-dean Willem van Genugten in the years 2011-2012. In other words: during the pre-Williams era.

When it becomes clear to the supervisors, who are ultimately responsible for the functioning of the organisation but failed in their oversight task, that the institution won’t make it, they start discussing possibilities such as partnerships or mergers with other organisations. The plan for a restart collapses when the municipality of The Hague refuse a small grant of 125,000 euro.

‘Wasted’ millions

In our interview with Dick Benschop he defends his decisions. The supervisor describes Williams and his management style as: ‘rather an authoritarian man than a foreman.’ Benschop says he had discussed this matter with him, but wants to stress Williams didn’t commit financial malpractices. ‘I have always checked his credit card expenditures. We always looked at the costs. Though at one point we said cuts had to be made.’ The chair of the supervisory board does acknowledge, however, there were also matters that didn’t go so well. He is disappointed in Williams’ lack of fundraising qualities. On the other hand he praises the events and the high end guests which gave the institute standing and esteem.

The problem is that the choice for allure, glory and the international top-network did cost a lot of money (VIPs had to be flown in, lodged in fine hotels), while not enough was coming in via research contracts.

The reason Benschop stuck with this choice for prestige probably also has to do with his strategic reasoning. In the interview the supervisor explains that think tanks – especially when they remain independent - can be part of soft-power supporting Dutch policies and interests abroad. He also says that the many research institutions dealing with matters of peace and justice in The Hague and The Netherlands results in a fragmented landscape, lots of competition on a thin market, hampering their ability to reach a top international level. The institute was meant to reshape that landscape. Apart from all the problems the institute was facing, this idea created tensions between the newcomer and the established institutions. Benschop thinks that the debate about the role and position of Dutch think tanks and research institutions will continue. ‘But we are no longer the answer to that question. Alas. It’s frustrating when you don’t succeed in your plans,’ Benschop says.

The researchers and staff we spoke to also expressed regrets, pain and frustrations, although in a different way. One of them says he feels sorry when he thinks about the ‘wasted’ millions of euros. ‘Imagine what you could have done in the field of global justice with this huge amount of money. You could have strengthened The Netherlands’ standing in global justice by producing good research and spreading the rule of law message around the world, while showing The Hague to be a genuine exemplar of the rule of law and good governance, helping many people, instead of demonstrating all the follies of self-interest, egocentric behaviour, secretive management and practices bordering on corruption, all in the name of ‘global justice’.

The Institute is broke and formally closed its doors on 4 April 2018. That same day, immediately after the publications in De Groene Amsterdammer and the daily newspaper De Volkskrant,  political parties of the local council expressed their ‘shock’ about the waste of taxpayer’s money and put together a list with tough questions to the municipality of The Hague and political parties in parliament asked the government to explain what has happened to the millions of government funding.

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