Interview – Aryeh Neier

George Soros began funding open society initiatives in the then Eastern bloc some 25 years ago, significantly before the fall of the Berlin Wall. What inspired this decision, how have things changed since then, and what do Soros’s various philanthropic enterprises see as their role now that their operations have spread worldwide? Caroline Hartnell talked to Aryeh Neier, Soros Foundation president since 1993, about its origins and the evolution of Soros’s philanthropic activities over a quarter of a century.

When did George Soros’s philanthropic activities start?
His philanthropy started in 1979, initially in South Africa. His first significant grant was to provide bursaries for black students attending the University of Cape Town. In the early 1980s, he began to provide modest support to programmes to provide grants or fellowships for independent thinkers from Eastern Europe to come to the West.

Through these programmes, he met a number of East European intellectuals and I think they helped to persuade him to make his first effort to operate on the ground in that region, in Hungary, which of course is where Soros was born. In 1984 he negotiated with the Hungarian government for the right to establish a foundation there. Once that foundation was up and running, he began to look for opportunities to replicate it elsewhere. The advent of Gorbachev in the Soviet Union and the release of Sakharov from Gorky in 1986 helped persuade him that he might be able to do something similar in the Soviet Union itself. I remember telling him at the time that I thought he was crazy, that he had no chance, but he went off and did it. He also established a foundation in Poland before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

When did your involvement with George Soros start?

In 1978, I was involved in founding the organization now called Human Rights Watch, which I directed. I saw quite a lot of him and helped persuade him to fund a fellowship programme to bring East European scholars to the US.
How did the focus of the work change after 1989?

In the upheavals of 1989, George Soros saw a revolutionary moment that provided an opportunity to try to influence countries to move in the direction of a more open society. He thought it was important to try to establish operations throughout what had been the Soviet Bloc as quickly as possible to provide opportunities for many people to learn about open societies. So scholarship programmes, for example, became a major component of his funding.

How successful do you think all of this has been?

Highly successful in countries where there was fertile soil for democratic and open society ideas to take root, as in a number of Central European countries. Further east, in Russia and Central Asia, there was not the same kind of fertile soil, and those countries continue to have repressive regimes today. There are individuals committed to open society ideas and values but the countries as a whole are not open societies.

Is the Soros Foundation still supporting the promotion of these ideas in these less fertile regions?

Yes. We have cut back funding in Central Europe because we don’t see ourselves as having such an important role there now. We can deal with some of the flaws in such generally flawed open societies, like the discrimination against a minority such as the Roma, but we are not necessarily best placed to deal with the overall development of an open society. The EU and forces within the countries are more effective than we can be. But in Central Asia, with little going on to try to move countries in the direction of open societies, our role has to remain prominent even if it we don’t make much headway on a long, hard and flawed path.

What about Russia?

Russia is the most difficult case in many ways. There is some commitment by some of the population within Russia to a more open society. There are obviously powerful nationalist forces in Russia and repressive forces that cannot be readily overcome. The failure to make more headway there is probably George Soros’s greatest disappointment.
In an article in Alliance in March 2000, Andre Kortunov of New Eurasia Foundation said: ‘OSI has left behind almost two dozen spin-offs … but only a very few of them have any chance of surviving a couple of years from now. The heritage Soros is leaving in Russia is not institutional; rather it is intellectual and cultural. OSI helped shape a whole generation of Russian intellectuals, educators and scholars.’ What’s your view of that?

There’s always a difficult question as to the relative efficacy of building institutions and enhancing individual capacity. I can recall a conversation with the late Polish writer Ryszard Kapuściński in which he said that we have no shortage of individuals who are committed to liberal values, what we lack are institutions to implement those values. Obviously, one needs both.

I’m not quite so pessimistic as Kortunov about the survival of those spin-offs; in fact, a number of them are prospering. For example, our public health programme produced something called the Open Health Institute and it has been one of the principal vehicles through which the Global Fund to fight AIDS, TB and Malaria has provided funding in Russia.

Aryeh Neier and George SorosLooking more widely than the Soros Foundation, has there been a tendency to focus too much on building institutions and find that they still fail to encourage citizen participation?

We’ve tried to do both. We do try to build institutions, but we take very much a bottom-up approach, rather than trying to build institutions through the government. On your point, a big focus of bilateral aid programmes has been judicial reform and my view is that judicial reform globally has been a great failure: very little has been accomplished despite the very large sums invested. That kind of ‘top-down’ assistance has generally proved ineffectual.

On the other hand, providing lawyers for poor people suffering from various kinds of disability has been quite effective. Even incompetent and corrupt judiciaries in many parts of the world have had to respect individual rights when there are effective ‘bottom-up’ efforts on legal issues. So it’s a question of what kind of institution one is talking about: those that provide ‘bottom up’ services or those that operate on a ‘top-down’ basis?

What about the role of think-tanks?

Think-tanks have played a valuable role in a number of places, particularly where they serve as active advocates of public policy. A favourite example of mine – actually from outside the region – is the think-tank or policy institute in Turkey called TESEV, the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation. It is supported by a number of wealthy individuals from that enlightened part of Turkish society seeking the country’s admission to the EU as a way of driving reform on such issues as civilian control of the military, the rights of minority communities such as the Kurds in eastern Turkey, controlling corruption, protecting freedom of expression and so forth. TESEV has played an immensely significant role in promoting open society values in Turkey. Where a think-tank positions itself in that way, develops a strategy, and is really willing to step forward on public policy issues, it can be immensely significant.

How does your expression ‘promoting open society values’ relate to ‘promoting civil societies’ or ‘promoting democracy’?

The concept of an open society certainly implies a commitment to democracy, and to an important role for civil society, but it is broader than that, incorporating a commitment to freedom of expression, the rule of law and a respect for minorities. All of those are implicit in the concept of open societies.

I gather that OSI is now working in all parts of the world except Western Europe.

Even there, we are doing more than in the past and contemplating a larger role. It seems to us crucial that Europe should be a driving force in promoting open society globally. This has two components: the way that Europe acts in the world – its foreign policy – and the way that Europe functions as an open society. The most important issue with respect to the latter is Europe’s treatment of minorities and migrants. We’re also concerned with infringements of civil liberties that may take place in the context of the struggle against terrorism.

Has spreading into so many different countries changed your approach?

Yes. When we were working almost exclusively in the former Soviet Bloc countries, our focus was much narrower and the dollar went a long way at the time, which meant we could try to reform institutions by ourselves. We invested a great deal of money in education and public health. Now the dollar doesn’t go as far and we can’t finance such major programmes alone, and we have to try to find ways of affecting policies without that kind of very large investment. It’s more important to us to devise strategies for promoting public policies, develop funding partnerships with other institutions, and find ways of having more leverage for the funds we expend.

What is OSI doing in Liberia?

There, we’re not just trying to foster policies, we’re directly subsidizing education. As an example, there are almost no textbooks available in the schools in Liberia, so we undertook to publish and deliver textbooks.

But we’re also working as part of a donors’ collaborative and we’ve put money into a pooled fund to help build new primary schools and provide teacher training programmes. One particular difficulty has been that much of the educated population always had one foot in the US and one foot in Liberia. Many of those people have not seen opportunities to return to Liberia and so they are still in the US, which has deprived Liberia of a lot of the human resources required to restart its education systems.

What have been the most important gains over the past three decades?

One I would put at the top of the list is freedom of information. We have played the leading role in promoting the adoption of freedom of information laws in many of the 85 countries that have such laws. We have also played a leading role in promoting transparency for the revenue derived from exploiting natural resources, and from international aid. Our work on enhancing opportunities for people worldwide to gather information about government practices has been immensely successful.

We have also played a leading role in promoting access to justice. We have helped develop legal aid programmes, public interest law programmes, legal clinics and paralegal programmes globally. We’ve played a significant role in establishing and making effective new institutions that provide global governance in important areas of public policy. These include three established in the past decade and exercising significant influence: the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria, the Extractive Industries’ Transparency Initiative and the International Criminal Court.
We have made a significant contribution in particular countries, such as Turkey and a number of the Eastern European states that have joined the European Union. We have also played a valuable role in promoting and consolidating democratic systems in a number of African countries.

And what about setbacks?

Russia has been the most significant setback. We probably put greater resources into Russia than in any other country outside the US. We tried to play a crucial role there and the fact that Russia is today as repressive as it is and that the space for citizens to express their views and to take part in self-governance is so severely restricted makes Russia the great failure for us.

Finally, are you affected by the economic crisis?

No, not directly. The funds managed by George Soros have prospered and we don’t have a large endowment. We get ongoing contributions and the size of our budget continues to grow.

On the other hand, plenty of our grantees have been adversely affected by other donors’ cuts so maybe half the conversations I have these days are with grantees appealing to us to bail them out because other donors have pulled out. One foundation making grants almost exclusively to institutions that were also grantees of ours was the JEHT Foundation, which focused on criminal justice in the US and human rights internationally. The funds of the foundation’s donors were managed by Bernard Madoff, so it simply disappeared overnight. We’ve been working with Atlantic Philanthropies and the Ford Foundation to mitigate the harm suffered by JEHT’s grantees.

Aryeh Neier

Aryeh Neier has been President of the Open Society Institute since 1993. Prior to that, he served for 12 years as executive director of Human Rights Watch, of which he was a founder in 1978. Before that, he worked 15 years at the American Civil Liberties Union, including eight years as national executive director.

George Soros

A global financier and philanthropist, George Soros is the founder and chairman of the Open Society Institute. Born in Budapest, Hungary, he was 13 when Hitler’s Wehrmacht seized Hungary and began deporting the country’s Jews to extermination camps. In 1946, as the Soviet Union was taking control of the country, and helped by his knowledge of Esperanto, Soros attended a conference in the West and defected. He emigrated to the UK in 1947. There he supported himself by working as a railroad porter and a restaurant waiter, graduated in 1952 from the London School of Economics, and obtained an entry-level position with an investment bank.

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