Experts in the history of colonial empires and decolonization have claimed that corruption of power and money has been the main story of empire; that abuses of power and resources in the colonial period were not mere incidents; that contemporary corruption problems in ex-colonies are partly rooted in colonialism, and that current corruption rankings perpetuate colonial power dynamics.


But these claims have never been researched systematically. And this is exactly what we at VU, together with historians from UGM Yogyakarta, will be doing in the coming five years in our NWO-funded programme ‘Colonial Normativity – Corruption and difference in colonial and postcolonial histories of empire and nations: and entangled history of the Netherlands and Indonesia 1870s-2010s’. 


The programme compares the role of corruption in Dutch and Indonesian histories of state-formation and economic development. Colonial Normativity investigates the contexts of corruption as a normative framework to create, maintain and challenge exclusive power structures in colonial and postindependent processes of state formation. It does so at intersecting moments of entanglement: around 1900 (late colonial state and norm-setting debates among the colonizers); 1945 (independence and debates on good governance of the anti-colonial nationalists against colonialism); 1970 (authoritarian state and the conditional norms of development aid). The programme then zooms out to post 1990 transnational corruption indices with their imbalance in grading between the North and the South, or former colonizing and former colonized countries. What do these indices show in terms of governance; what is the weight of the past, and which past? A long-term historical perspective is essential in order to not just invoke ‘the colonial past’ for a better understanding of current corruption debates and their consequences.  

To address these issues, the programme is divided into four subprojects:

As such ‘Colonial normativity’ is the first programme with a long-term perspective on and systematic approach to the relationship between corruption and norm-setting in a colonial and postindependence context. It thus responds to the call of scholars who have stressed the urgency for such precise longitudinal historical case-studies, moreover adding a dedicated focus on two intersecting histories of corruption and governance in the Netherlands and Indonesia, thus bringing a crucial colonial/postindependence dimension to the long-term perspective.