Interview – Aryeh Neier

“I’m not a great admirer of metrics and other efforts to quantify impact. My view is that the best way to measure impact is to periodically seek independent judgements from people who are immensely knowledgeable about a particular field or region or activity.”

At the end of June Aryeh Neier will relinquish his role as president and CEO of the Open Society Institute (OSI) after 19 years. Caroline Hartnell talked to him about the spread and development of OSI’s initiatives, what lies in store for the countries of the Middle East and North Africa following last year’s uprisings, what he sees as his greatest achievement and biggest regret, and the challenges that will face his successor.

Since the creation of the first foundation in Hungary in 1984, OSI has created a plethora of entities and initiatives and you now work in over 70 countries. Does this amount to a single, coherent strategy for creating open and free societies, or is that missing the point about a decentralized approach?

I don’t think you can create an open society in different parts of the world by pursuing a single strategy. Our approach is to delegate a larger amount of responsibility to people on the ground in different parts of the world than is characteristic of other donor institutions. Take Central Asia, for example. I don’t think we see any prospect in the near term of being able to create or help create open societies in the countries of that region, so it’s important to adopt a very long-term strategy there and an aspect of that strategy is providing substantial support for higher education. Among other things, we are a major supporter of the American University of Central Asia, which is located in Kyrgyzstan. We believe that if the region is going to create open societies, it will be because there are well-educated people there who are exposed to different points of view and who will take the lead in creating open societies.

In some other regions we are focused on dealing with particular obstacles to the development of open societies such as media laws which restrict information, and we pursue much more of a short-term strategy. In Burma, where we’ve been working for the last 18 years, what seemed for a long time to be a strategy that was getting nowhere now seems to be working. The Burmese government had deliberately spent as little as possible on education and helped transform a country which was once considered the leader in Asia in terms of education into one of the most backward, so again we focused on higher education and providing scholarships because we wanted to be sure that if there ever was a political transformation in the country there would be an educated leadership available to lead it.

We also led efforts to put external pressure on Burma to change its ways. Now Burma is opening up, Aung San Suu Kyi has been elected to the Burmese Parliament, and many of those who were the beneficiaries of our scholarships are able to play a role. But if you were trying to promote an open society say in the US or in various European countries, one would not pursue the same approaches.

Considering the Middle East and North Africa, are you consciously doing things differently because of what you learned from your experience in Central and Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union over the last 20 plus years?

We learned from Central and Eastern Europe that the best we could do was to identify the people in the different countries who were trying to promote more open societies and empower them by providing them with resources, and it really is the same approach in the Middle East and North Africa. I’m not optimistic that there are going to be open societies in most Middle East and North African countries – with the possible exception of Tunisia – any time soon. In Central and Eastern Europe, the general approach of identifying those who will take the lead in promoting more open societies has had varying results. Some, like Poland, have done relatively well. At the other extreme is Belarus. The key thing is who is available to take the lead in promoting more open societies and how much support they can get within those countries. Our role of providing them with resources is really a secondary one.

What is OSI doing to create an ecosystem of giving to support open and free societies? If you are the only funder in the space, how do you make choices?

I don’t think we’re the only funder. The Ford Foundation was involved in supporting human rights work in many countries in the 1970s, before OSI, and now they have a new initiative that focuses on significant support for human rights organizations based in the Global South. In Europe, the Oak Foundation and the Sigrid Rausing Trust play a significant role in this area. In certain parts of the world such as Russia the MacArthur Foundation plays an important role. There aren’t necessarily other funders in all the places that we are in – I don’t think anyone else was involved in Burma, for example – but in a lot of areas we’re not the only source of funding.

What do you see as the key challenges facing your successor?

One is the changed role of the US in the world. I think the US exercises a lot less influence on a number of issues and on a number of regions than it has historically. The US traditionally exercised a very strong influence over Latin America, for example, but today a number of the populist governments in Latin America are very antagonistic to the US.

Another challenge is that Europe is so preoccupied with its internal problems that it has difficulty playing a global role, and often within Europe there are populist tendencies antagonistic to open society values. Again, the enormous economic success of China seems to signal that authoritarianism and economic prosperity can go hand in hand, which is at odds with the view that prevailed after the fall of the Berlin Wall. So the global situation is not necessarily the most hospitable for open societies and I think the challenges for my successor will be enormous.

What future role do you envisage playing at OSI?

I’m discussing that at the moment with my successor. One of the things that he and I have talked about is the role I might play in developing a network of civil liberties organizations – by which I mean organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union in the US and Liberty in the UK, which are much more engaged in litigation and activity within the political process in their own countries, rather than human rights organizations which work more in terms of trying to mobilize international opinion as a way of promoting rights. I’ve helped to support a nascent coalition of these groups and I’d like to take these efforts further, including establishing such organizations in countries where they do not yet exist.

What do you see as your biggest achievement at OSI? And what is your biggest regret?

I think the biggest achievement is that we have been able to extend the work of OSI globally. When I came here the foundation had been exclusively engaged in the former Soviet bloc. Developing several efforts in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and parts of Asia as well as within the US has helped to make the struggle more effective on a global basis.

My regret is that in certain parts of the world we have been on the losing end. We made a great investment in Russia, for example. There are some consequences of that still to be seen but on the whole I think the forces that are antagonistic to the values that we’ve tried to promote have been more successful.

One of the biggest preoccupations of the philanthropy world now is measuring impact. Is there too much emphasis on this?

I don’t think so, but I’m distrustful of a lot of the ways in which one measures impact. I’m not a great admirer of metrics and other efforts to quantify impact. My view is that the best way to measure impact is to periodically seek independent judgements from people who are immensely knowledgeable about a particular field or region or activity. Quantitative measurement is often misleading because you can’t usually isolate what a foundation does from everything else that is happening. I don’t think there’s any quantitative substitute for expertise and judgement.

Should such important work as creating open and free societies be dependent on private philanthropy?

I think it’s very important that private philanthropy plays a significant role. The alternative is governmental or intergovernmental bodies, which always have their own agendas, whereas private philanthropists are unfettered by such agendas.

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