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book review

George Soros has become famous, and infamous, for his ability to infuriate the right and the left.Michel Euler/The Associated Press

In an age of billionaire do-gooders who make a public show of pledging to donate half of their fortunes to charity, George Soros stands apart.

The American financier has been giving away much of his wealth since 1985, to the tune of more than $12-billion (U.S.) and climbing. And while others tend to dole out money for particular causes, Soros has aimed higher; seeking nothing less than to change the world.

His Open Society Foundations have projects in roughly 100 countries, run out of a New York office that has more than 400 employees. Along the way Soros has become famous, and infamous, for his ideas on human behaviour, his connections with those in power and his ability to infuriate the right and the left. He is a walking contradiction at times – calling for more regulation of capital markets while making billions of dollars by profiting from deregulation – and he never shies away from controversial causes, such as calling for an end to the war on drugs and waging a high-profile, and unsuccessful, financial bid to prevent the re-election of George W. Bush.

But as he reaches the age of 84 and steps down from managing his spectacularly successful Quantum Fund, which he set up in 1971, the time has come to ask whether it has all been worth it. Has Soros fulfilled his mission of building "vibrant and tolerant societies whose governments are accountable and open to the participation of all people?"

That's a question Anna Porter attempts to answer in her new book, Buying a Better World: George Soros and Billionaire Philanthropy. What will be his legacy?, she asks in the introduction.

Unfortunately Porter doesn't give us a full answer. Instead, the book is largely devoted to offering a dossier of Soros's many projects. There are few new revelations from the man himself or his closest confidantes, including the foundations' new president Christopher Stone. Porter clearly has a fondness for Soros and while she offers some criticism of Open Society's efforts, in particular its complete failure in Russia, she pulls her punches too often and rarely delves into a deep analysis of just what Soros has been trying to accomplish.

And there is much to analyze. Take Eastern Europe, where Soros has devoted most of his time and money. Given his background as a Hungarian-born Jew who managed to escape the Holocaust thanks to the cleverness of his father, it's not surprising that Soros has had an abiding interest in Eastern Europe. After the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, Soros was among many who rushed in, hoping to sew the seeds of democracy, free markets and open government. Now some 30 years later it's hard to see much progress on those fronts. If anything, many countries have reverted to their old ways of corruption, censorship and virtual dictatorship. Reports from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, a Western-funded agency dedicated to transforming Eastern Europe, have painted a bleak picture of a region moving backward, not forward. That's something Soros himself lamented at a press conference I attended in London in 2013. "What had started off as a process of integration and transformation," he said, "has actually now been reversed. It is a process now of disintegration, and instead of convergence of living standards, it is now divergence."

So what of Soros's many projects and billions of dollars? There is no doubt that his work touched countless individuals profoundly and changed lives. But on a macro level, it's hard to see much impact.

And what of the many other billionaires who have made donating their riches almost trendy these days? There's no doubt many of them truly believe in the causes they support, and that should be applauded. But a cynic might question the motivations of people who amass giant fortunes by exploiting a system that puts them in the top 1 per cent, only to offer some of that profit back – in tax-free vehicles – to those who have been exploited. Sadly, despite the subtitle, this debate isn't explored in Porter's book.

Porter does take aim at Soros's attempts to improve the lives of the Roma in Europe, a people living on the margins of nearly every society and subject to widespread prejudice. Open Society took up the Roma cause a few years ago, spending $200-million on educational programs alone. "Yet, despite that," Porter writes, "they have failed to make a significant difference."

Perhaps it's unfair to lay the problems of Eastern Europe and rising extremism across parts of Europe at the feet of Soros. He can hardly be blamed for the economic meltdown that has strained the European Union, or Russia's response to the popular upheaval in Ukraine that has left that country in tatters. At least, one can argue, he has tried. And not just in Europe. Soros has broadened the foundations' work into Africa, across the United States and on new causes such as protecting the environment. While his ideas and commentaries may not resonate as loudly as they did in the 1990s, he still has important things to say about our world, such as suggesting that the only way to pull Ukraine away from Russia is by backing the Ukrainian economy and not sending weapons. He also remains unfailingly upbeat. During that London press conference I attended, he told reporters that he remained optimistic about Eastern Europe. "I'm rather hopeful because the situation is so bad that it's liable to improve," he said with a smile.

And in many small ways his work still matters. I spent several weeks in Ukraine last year as the popular revolt brought down the pro-Russian government after a bloody conflict on the streets of Kiev. One day a media centre popped up in a downtown hotel, offering a platform for government ministers to update the media on the many changes under way. When I asked who funded the small centre, the response came back: Soros.

Maybe it's that kind of small, local support in thousands of places that will be George Soros's true legacy and not some sweeping, global transformation. If so, perhaps Porter can revisit her subject again one day and give us a proper perspective on how Soros did manage to change at least some of the world, in much smaller increments.

Paul Waldie is the editor of Report on Business.

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