Dirk Janssen Dirk Janssen

“I have to be able to talk about anything, from football to art”

In Alumni
Written by  Graziella Runchina Tuesday, 07 June 2016 14:12

In August 2015, alum Dirk Janssen was appointed as the Dutch ambassador to Panama. Via Business Economics at Maastricht University (UM), a stint in a consulting firm and a career at the Ministry of Economic Affairs, Janssen ultimately ended up in the international environment to which he most aspired.

 

All Janssen wanted after high school was to get as far away from The Hague as possible. “I wanted to start a new chapter, break free of the city I grew up in. It came down to either Maastricht or Groningen, and ultimately I went with Maastricht, mainly because of the education system. The small-scale character and the philosophy of Problem-Based Learning really appealed to me. And although I was born and raised in The Hague, my family comes from South Limburg, so I knew the area well.”

Enthusiasm
Janssen studied Organisation Sciences at the economics faculty: a combination of economics, psychology and sociology. He revelled in the enthusiasm of his lecturers and the discussions in the tutorials. “I made friends for life there. In my memory it was always summer and we sat drinking Wieckse Witte at the Onze-Lieve-Vrouweplein every day. It was a wonderful phase.”

International issues
After graduating cum laude, Janssen was tossing up between consulting and a diplomatic career. He went with consulting – but it quickly proved to be the wrong choice. “It felt so limiting, working only in the company’s interest”, he explains. “I’ve always been interested in social and international issues, and it hit me that I’d rather work in the public’s interest.” He soon joined the Ministry of Economic Affairs, where he spent 16 years working in various positions. “I feel at home in an international environment, and was keen to go ‘full international’.” He got the chance in 2015. “Every year the Ministry of Foreign Affairs appoints a number of ambassadors from outside the ministry. I applied, and ended up being appointed to Panama.”

Skyscraper
Together with his wife and two sons, aged 11 and 9, Janssen now lives on the 17th floor of the tallest building in Panama City. From there they have a view of the Pacific, and the jungle is just around the corner. “Panama City is a busy place with lots of skyscrapers, but also a beautiful old Spanish colonial district”, he says. “We’re really enjoying living here, although our sons had to get used to English at the international school here.”

Janssen has settled into his new role well. “There’s so much variation in the work of an ambassador. I talk to incredibly many people: politicians, businesspeople, scientists, diplomats, ministers and journalists. Usually in Spanish, which I’m getting better at. I visit Dutch companies and entrepreneurs, but also other people, such as Dutch prisoners. I give speeches, and there are regular delegations visiting from the Netherlands, Curaçao, Aruba and Sint Maarten.”

Generalist
When he’s not on the road Janssen is at the embassy, largely occupied with economic issues. “Every now and then something suddenly comes back to me from my studies. For instance, we recently had a dinner at the residence with a Nobel laureate and some Panamanian professors. The theme was innovation in Panama, and I was able to contribute to the discussion because I specialised in innovation management at UM. But diplomacy is primarily about being a generalist: you have to know a little about a lot of subjects, and be prepared to talk about anything, from football to art.”

Seizing opportunities
The ambassador’s main objective is to help Dutch companies capitalise on the opportunities offered by Panama. “Panama is one of the most prosperous countries in South America and has the fastest growing economy in America”, he explains. “With the Panama Canal and the largest airport in the region, it’s known as the ‘hub of the Americas’ – the gateway to Latin America, just as the Netherlands is the gateway to Europe. That’s a nice parallel to work with. Here they really admire the port of Rotterdam, and the Netherlands is a great example when it comes to water management too. There’s still a lot to be done in that area here. My task is to translate that goodwill into commissions for Dutch companies.”

New Panama Canal
Janssen is looking forward to the opening of the new Panama Canal, which is scheduled for 26 June. “It’s going to be a historic day for Panama. The new canal will have a major impact on global trade flows; it will give passage to ships that can carry three times as many containers than those that fit through the existing canal.” The Panamanian government hopes the canal will become not just a toll way for ships, but also a centre of logistic services. “That will open up all sorts of new opportunities for Dutch businesses, and also for the closer parts of our Kingdom. It’s great having a front seat to all this.”

Postscript
The news about the ‘Panama papers’ broke following the interview. Janssen’s reaction: “It’s had a big impact here. Many Panamanians find it unfair that the entire country should have to pay for the actions of one law firm. The government has introduced a number of changes making it harder to ‘hide’ money from the tax authorities in Panama. The question now is whether the government will take further steps in response to this affair. It’s fascinating to be able to follow it all first-hand.”

Dirk Janssen (1970) studied Business Economics at Maastricht University. He has been the Dutch ambassador to Panama since 2015. Prior to his posting in Panama he spent 16 years working at the Ministry of Economic Affairs, most recently as Director of Policy, Administration and Communication at the Netherlands Authority for Consumers and Markets.

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