THE BLOG

Helping From Outside: Interview With Aryeh Neier

In the wake of the changes of 1989, many outside organizations rushed to East-Central Europe to see how they could be involved. I was hired, for instance, by the American Friends Service Committee to travel through the region and conduct interviews with leading activists and NGO representatives to see how AFSC could help. During my travels, I met with many other outsiders eager to pitch in. In the waiting rooms of Solidarity, Civic Forum, and the like, I met people representing the AFL-CIO, the Adam Smith Institute, various Green parties, even an acolyte of Henry George promoting a single tax on land.

But there was one organization that didn't have to rush to East-Central Europe because it was already there, and had been there for some time. The Open Society Institute (OSI), also known as the Soros Foundation, had been working on the ground in the region wherever it was possible. Financier George Soros had survived the Nazi occupation of Hungary and emigrated to England after the war at the age of 17. As a philanthropist, he was very involved in nurturing movements in East-Central Europe that were working on human rights issues. Often the Soros Foundation money went to very practical things, such as copiers for small organizations to distribute their materials more widely.

Another key element of assistance was investing in key individuals and giving them a chance to study in Western Europe or the United States. Aryeh Neier served as the president of OSI from 1993 to 2012. In an interview in New York in April, he talked about the role played by his colleague Annette Laborey, the facilitator of these exchanges.

"Between 1974 and 1989, she brought about 3,000 independent intellectuals from Eastern European countries to be visiting scholars at Western universities, mostly universities in Europe," Neier said. "She had gotten in touch with me relatively early in this effort to help her place some of these people at American universities. A lot of the people who later played a role as intellectuals in the transformation in Eastern Europe had their first exposure to the West through the arrangements she made."

It is sometimes assumed that foundations with considerable sums of money at their disposal -- Open Society, the Gates Foundation -- are able to transform realities on the ground in their target areas. Neier is more realistic. "I think that we overestimated our capacity to play a transformative role in that region," he said. "We thought we could remake the education system in different countries, and we really couldn't. We could do a few valuable things, like try to make sure that the Roma weren't excluded from the education system, but we couldn't play a transformative role. There was a degree of hubris about some of the activities."

Outsiders, in the end, can have only limited impact, a lesson that all foundations, governments, and armies eventually learn. "Basically an outside donor doesn't make a revolution," Neier concluded. "The most you can do is assist a certain number of people who have their own projects, and some of those people make valuable contributions."

We talked about work in the Roma community, the challenge of dealing with secret police files, and how Ukraine managed to avoid the fate of Sri Lanka.

The Interview

Over the last 20 years or so, have you had any second thoughts about some of the assumptions with which you came to Human Rights Watch?

I always knew, or believed, that there wouldn't be any easy path from Communism to democracy and respect for human rights. If there was going to be a transition, there would be some steps forward, some steps backward. It was an exhilarating period, but I don't think I was excessively romantic about the prospects at that moment. There were different factors that contributed to the fall of the Berlin Wall. On the one hand, it was an advance, or a concern, for more liberty or more freedom. There was also a desire for the material well-being, or the apparent material well-being, of the West. On the other hand, it had an anti-colonial or nationalist element to it: resentment of the Soviet overlord in the region. It didn't seem to me easy to disentangle those components. The move towards greater freedom was exhilarating, but I understood then that it was more complicated than that.

Have you been surprised, for instance, by the relatively high level of nostalgia for the pre-1989 era, even in countries like Romania?

Yes, that has surprised me. But there was a certain higher level of security under the old systems, as people knew it at that time. Still, it was a pretty awful system, and I didn't expect that level of nostalgia.

By the way, since you mentioned Romania, the whole way in which the revolution took place there and the summary execution of the Ceausescus on Christmas day 1989 was a clear indication that this wasn't all going to be a picnic.

When you look back at your tenure here, at Open Society, what would you say were the strongest achievements as well as the things that could've been done better?

In terms of achievements, we were in a position to empower a certain number of people to undertake certain activities. We weren't a driving factor in what took place. I assume you've come across the name of Annette Laborey. I consider Annette an unsung hero of what took place in 1989. Annette is of German origin, but she lived in Paris, was married to a Frenchman, and most people thought she was French. She directed an organization that got no attention, the Foundation for European Intellectual Exchange. That was its decision, to operate without getting attention. Between 1974 and 1989, she brought about 3,000 independent intellectuals from Eastern European countries to be visiting scholars at Western universities, mostly universities in Europe. She had gotten in touch with me relatively early in this effort to help her place some of these people at American universities. A lot of the people who later played a role as intellectuals in the transformation in Eastern Europe had their first exposure to the West through the arrangements she made. The Ford Foundation had been the initial supporter of her work. But at a certain point the Ford Foundation support was coming to an end, and she encountered George Soros, and George became her major supporter. The most valuable role that we played in the pre-1989 period was the support of her efforts. After 1989, she became the director of the Paris office of the Open Society Foundations. We didn't have a need for a Paris office per se, but that was where she lived, so we created a Paris office so she would direct it. She played an important role in the Open Society Foundations, and we made her a vice president of the Open Society Foundations. She recently retired, but she has joined the board of the Open Society Foundations.

I think, secondarily, the support that was provided for human rights efforts, focusing on that region, was important. But basically an outside donor doesn't make a revolution. The most you can do is assist a certain number of people who have their own projects, and some of those people make valuable contributions.

In terms of the other side of the equation, have you been disappointed in anything in terms of articulated goals?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.

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