OSF comes to Berlin: Interview with Selmin Çalışkan

Selmin Çalışkan is director of Institutional Relations at the recently opened Berlin office of Open Society Foundations (OSF). Charles Keidan talked to her at the Association of German Foundations’ conference in Mannheim about the difficulties of introducing a political dimension to the German foundation sector, and why the spread of illiberal tendencies in European politics demands urgent action.

The political foundation: OSF comes to Berlin

When was this office set up and why?
It happened over the last year because of the deteriorating rule of law and the crisis in Hungary but, of course, also Germany and Berlin have become very important politically in recent years. There was an idea to open up a Berlin office even when the Hungary office was still running.

But the increasing pressure of the Hungarian government led to something more dramatic?
Exactly. Over the last three years, there has been a huge public campaign against our founder, George Soros.

Hungarian anti-George Soros campaign.

There was a public referendum and then an anti-Soros law in which dozens of NGOs were also concerned. It was the copycatting of the foreign agent law in Russia which prevented the funding of liberal civil society work in Hungary.

The other aspect of the problem was that, when there’s a hostility-driven campaign against the founder of the foundation, you cannot guarantee the security of the people working for you. Data protection was not ensured, we could no longer function as a foundation in Hungary under these conditions.

How did the closure affect your staff?
Out of over 100 colleagues in Budapest, 85 decided to move to Berlin. My Hungarian colleagues are thrilled about the possibilities, the freedom, the diversity, the vibrancy of Berlin and they really like living and working there.

Has it led to any soul-searching about how this could happen? If your programmes had been really successful, should there have been more public support for your work? Or is what happened just an acknowledgement of the reality of the forces that you’re dealing with?
I won’t answer that directly, I’ll go to the meta level instead. If you look at what has happened in the European Union in the last decade in terms of policies infringing the rule of law, freedom of the press, freedom of speech, of assembly, I think it’s part of a larger trend that had already started to happen before it affected the Open Society Foundations. If you look at Hungary, there is barely any press or media freedom left, with 500 titles in the hands of business people close to the Orban government, and only a handful of independent media outlets.

It’s what I like about OSF – they’re very close to their grantees but they also keep a distance, being very aware of the power dynamics between the grantmaker and the grantee.

But one of the things your foundation does is promote media freedom. Is this a failure that you haven’t been able to maintain it in Hungary?
Again, you have to look at the meta level. I have seen these kinds of conditions for human rights defenders, for women’s rights, for people who do investigative journalism in countries in the so-called Global South and recently this development has also arrived in Europe. Attacks on the OSF are one symptom of that.

Are you optimistic that OSF can do something about it from your new setting here in Germany?
Of course. As the biggest philanthropic promoter of human rights, democracy and the rule of law, we are very optimistic that we can engage with policy agendas from Berlin into the world and vice versa, because Berlin and Germany are a political power centre. It’s interesting but generally here the foundations don’t see themselves as political actors. OSF will do some agenda setting with some of the progressive, pro-European, liberal-minded allies, in the policy area, and we will do advocacy work. I talk about that at conferences and I see generalist German foundations looking at us and thinking, ‘what do you mean by political?’. Because in Germany, if you say political foundation, they think you are affiliated to a party. We are political, but not a party-affiliated political foundation. We work with every party who shares our values of an open society.

As director of Institutional Relations, will you be an interface between OSF and German civil society, NGOs and foundations, and presumably government policy?
Yes, I did that before in my position of secretary general for the German section of Amnesty International. My sparring partners were all cabinet members on topics like migration and refugees when the chancellor took the decision to open the Balkan route in 2015. In that context we advocated for proper and fair asylum policies. That was one of my main topics along with ethnic and racial profiling and these are coming up again with OSF, so it’s a perfect fit for the work OSF is doing. We have, for instance, a big element of work on racial profiling in the Netherlands. When I say ‘we’ of course it’s our grantees who do the work –  the bulk of our activities is grantmaking.

I have been feeling OSF close to my heart from the time when I got a grant for the evaluation of a programme of rape survivors in Bosnia who testified before the International Criminal Court – I’m not sure any other foundation would have funded that.

On racial profiling, we found a group in the Netherlands who have built up a space for dialogue between the police and concerned marginalised groups, so they can communicate how discriminatory behaviour and procedures by the police can be reduced. In Belgium in the city of Antwerp, we fund a civil society group  called ‘Boss over my own head’. It’s a group of  women activists with and without head-scarfs working on the topic of empowerment and equal opportunities for Muslim women in Belgian society from a feminist perspective.

You have offices in London, Barcelona and Berlin. How do they work together?
It’s difficult logistically because you have different locations. In Germany, since the revocation of ATTAC’s charity status, the whole discussion of the so-called closing space has arrived here. The rise of the AfD[1] is adding to the situation. When they gain power within the municipalities they will withdraw budget titles of  liberal, democratic civil society groups supporting refugees and migrants. The art scene and women’s rights are also under threat, not to the same extent as in other countries, but still the alarm is ringing. There are some initiatives lobbying for reform of the charity law, to take into account that it’s not only political parties who should have the mandate to form opinions and be in the democratic process, but civil society groups, too. At the moment, if you are classed as a charitable organisation, you cannot be political.

Have you found other foundations in Germany to work with on issues like the rule of law and preserving civic freedoms?
Yes, but it’s usually the political foundations which are affiliated to one of the political parties, like the Green Party Foundation – who have been working on these issues for years.

Are there any funders or foundations that are working on similar issues that you talk to?
The Bosch Foundation is the first foundation to establish an advocacy function in their organisation. They will work on peace-building so they would be a natural partner, of course, a foundation that has an understanding of being a political actor.

So do you hope OSF’s presence in Germany will raise the political consciousness of German philanthropy?
I’m not sure that this is one of my specific tasks, but it may emerge. For example, I’m speaking tomorrow on whether philanthropy needs feminism, and it sometimes happens automatically that when you begin to raise an issue, you begin to nurture different groups and debates in the country by expressing a different mindset and giving a vision of how things should ideally be.

OSF is also at the point of starting to really integrate gender standards, diversity standards, inclusion standards, and combining them.

You say there are some foundations that haven’t traditionally been comfortable with being political. But do you see the possibility that, once the idea of political philanthropy is introduced, it might throw up some political stances that are very different from, and maybe even opposed to, OSF’s?
I would say that the foundation scene generally is conservative and not connected to important groups within society, for example the young generation, people of colour and migrants. Even the awareness about gender equality is scarce. The foundation world is new to me, but I come from a Muslim family and, for us, the concept of giving without expecting any return is natural and a factor of social solidarity. And it’s what I like about OSF – they’re very close to their grantees but they also keep a distance, being very aware of the power dynamics between the grantmaker and the grantee. I can also see that OSF’s giving seems to be different from that of other foundations – we are more appreciated as a friend and we are watching out for those who don’t get any help from others. I have been feeling OSF close to my heart from the time when I got a grant for the evaluation of a programme of rape survivors in Bosnia who testified before the International Criminal Court – I’m not sure any other foundation would have funded that.

Along with human rights, will your work be important in opening up conversations about social justice in German foundations?
Social justice in terms of integrating giving regulations on diversity, gender and inclusion. When somebody comes to me with the question, ‘Can we do a group conference together? Can you pay a part of the conference?’, the first thing I ask is, ‘How many women and people of colour are on the panel?’.

Selmin Çalışkan speaking at a ‘Who owns the city?’ event in Berlin organised by OSF. Credit: Gordon Welters/laif/Redux for OSF

You mentioned you’re on a panel at this conference talking about whether philanthropy needs feminism, and whether or not it’s living the values it publicly espouses. What do you think based on this conference?
I will talk about OSF’s own gender audit which we had in 2017, and our gender roadmap for 2018. So OSF is also at the point of starting to really integrate gender standards, diversity standards, inclusion standards, and combining them, because it’s not only that philanthropy needs feminism, philanthropy needs an intersectional approach on social justice. Women are so diverse – trans women, Muslim women, women of colour – so the label ‘feminism’ doesn’t suffice and I know from my colleagues that they are looking more and more at an intersectional approach in whatever they do, be it an environmental protection project in Nigeria, or protection of human rights defenders in the Global South or Europe. The feminist organisations and foundations which we invited to lead us in this process were themselves demanding an intersectional approach. OSF has a long way to go still but at least awareness has begun to grow with a feminist practice workshop. We have five working groups on the topic and we have a women’s rights programme based in New York.

How many people do you expect to be working in the Berlin office?
We might get up to as many as 250 staff working in Berlin and it will be the second biggest Open Society hub office globally after New York. Our hub offices are where we link our different programmes by having representatives of each. For our Human Rights Initiative, for instance, we have ten people sitting in Berlin.

And your spending is around €100 million across Europe a year?
Yes, and €1.2 million in Germany for 45 organisations.

So for me, German philanthropy has a role to look into these recent anti-liberal, anti-democratic developments and position themselves against them.

You talked about shrinking space earlier and some warning signs in Germany. How do you see the situation here?
You know that there was a landslide election change in three of the Lander in eastern Germany and a fourth is also supposed to be AfD. I think that philanthropy and especially foundations in Germany should have a thorough look at how we can be in solidarity with the liberal civil society working in those Lander. Also welfare organisations like Caritas are under attack. It’s very clear that we need new platforms for solidarity and regular strategic exchange.

So civil society groups will be shut down when AfD comes to power in local government?
Exactly. They will likely curtail all funding for liberal civil society. It has started already. So for me, German philanthropy has a role to look into these recent anti-liberal, anti-democratic developments and position themselves against them. At OSF, we are exploring a fund to support democracy, human rights or refugee-related work without funding from the municipalities. At the same time, federal state funding should be increased. And I think it’s really a democratic obligation to look at how we can all do this – we must ensure that people can continue to do their work across the whole of Germany.


Footnotes

  1. ^ Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany), a far-right political party.

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