The political legacy of George Soros, the financier who has devoted as much as a billion dollars a year to the promotion of democracy and civil liberties since he began his campaign for open societies in 1993, was the subject of a public forum at the Munk School of Global Affairs on Thursday and Friday. In this article Aryeh Neier, the president of Mr. Soros’s global charity the Open Society Network, surveys the organization’s accomplishments.
As indicated by our name, the Open Society Foundations, the philanthropic enterprise established and funded by financier George Soros, have a mission: the development of more open societies. The components of that mission include making it possible for all to believe as they wish and to express their views peaceably and freely; promoting equality before the law and fair legal procedures; defending personal dignity and autonomy; promoting economic opportunities for all, including the most disadvantaged; opposing the use of corrupt means to gain economic or political advantages; enhancing access to information about the activities of governments; and assuring that all may take part equitably in the choice of those who govern them and in influencing their policies and practices.
Starting nearly thirty years ago with a focus on what were then the communist countries of Eastern and Central Europe, the Open Society Foundations now operate in all parts of the world, though not in every country. Currently, we spend more than 800 million dollars a year on a range of programs. Some of our expenditures are in the form of grants to non-governmental organizations that address the issues that concern us. We also play a more direct activist role in dealing with these issues.
It is impossible to say that our efforts are responsible for any broad geopolitical developments or that we have had a dispositive role in developing an open society in a particular place. Such matters are subject to too many factors to warrant such a claim. Even so, I think that our accomplishments have been substantial.
We have led the way internationally in promoting access to information, as reflected in the adoption of freedom of information laws in more than ninety countries, the great majority during the past two decades. Also, the Open Society Foundations play a leading role in the implementation of those laws. We are in the forefront of efforts to require the extractive industries to disclose their payments to governments. Payments that are kept secret fuel corruption, and often play a part in human rights abuses and even in armed conflict.
Among disadvantaged minorities, we have been particularly concerned with the Roma in Europe, not only in the former communist countries but also in France and Italy where they suffer substantial discrimination. We have led the way in providing the Roma with greater educational opportunities and in defending their rights. Among many other minorities we have assisted are the physically and mentally disabled.
We have embraced the concept of legal empowerment of the poor and have supported programs for legal representation without cost in both civil and criminal matters in countries as varied as Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, China, Ukraine and Nepal. We are the largest source of support for the international human rights movement. Our support has contributed to the movement's focus in recent years on holding accountable officials responsible for atrocities and on reducing the harm to civilians in armed conflict.
We do not contribute financially to such bodies as the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative or the International Criminal Court. Yet we support the global civil society movements that work closely with these bodies and that enhance the effectiveness of their efforts.
Though we have made headway on these issues and others to which we devote significant resources, we recognize that attempts to promote open societies suffer important setbacks from time to time. In previous eras, it was necessary to overcome the ideologies of fascism and communism. Today, some of the challenges we must surmount are attributable to both terrorism and some measures by governments to combat terrorism; to the pervasiveness of corruption; and to the rising tide of racism and xenophobia.
We could cite many other obstacles to the development of open societies. They make clear that we have our work cut out for us for a long time to come. The development of open societies is global, ongoing and frequently marked by reverses.
I believe George Soros can take pride in the accomplishments of the Open Society Foundations, but he would be the first to agree that he cannot rest on the legacy of his efforts up to now. There will always be much more to be done.
Aryeh Neier, a former executive director of Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union, is the president of the Open Society Network