Founder / Chairman
Open Society Foundations
George Soros is the founder and chairman of Open Society--a network of foundations, partners, and projects in more than 100 countries. His commitment to the idea of open society--where rights are respected, government is accountable, and no one has the monopoly on the truth--makes the Open Society Foundations unlike any other private philanthropic effort in history.
Soros began his philanthropy in 1979, giving scholarships to black South Africans under apartheid. In the 1980s, he helped undermine Communism in the Eastern Bloc by providing Xerox machines to copy banned texts, and supporting cultural exchanges with the West.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, he created Central European University to promote critical thinking. He expanded his philanthropy to the United States, Africa, and Asia, and his Open Society Foundations have supported paralegals and lawyers to represent thousands of individuals who were unlawfully being held, sometimes for years and without any legal representation.
He underwrote the largest and most concerted effort in history to bring the Roma people of Europe into the mainstream. The Foundations have provided school and university fees for thousands of promising students, including young Roma, refugees from armed conflicts, and young people from other marginalized groups.
George Soros helped establish an international system to bring transparency and accountability to the natural resource extraction industries, whose practice of making secret payoffs to local tyrants has for decades fueled some of the world's worst political unrest and most heinous violence. He has supported independent organizations such as Global Witness, the International Crisis Group, the European Council on Foreign Relations, and the Institute for New Economic Thinking.
"My success in the financial markets has given me a greater degree of independence than most other people," Soros once wrote. "This allows me to take a stand on controversial issues: In fact, it obliges me to do so because others cannot."
For more information about George Soros's activities that are separate from the Open Society Foundations, visit www.georgesoros.com.
Ann Paisley Chandler: What motivated you to start the Open Society Foundations?
George Soros: I was born in 1930 in Budapest to a somewhat unusual middle class family. My formative experience came in 1944 during the German occupation. Being Jewish this was really very dangerous. We lived through the occupation with false identities. Not only did we survive, but my father helped save a number of other people who were less fortunate. This time period was, for me, a very positive experience, which is a rather unusual thing, considering what the Holocaust was all about. It shaped my outlook on life, preparing me to face harsh reality and instead of giving in, actually trying to prevail. These lessons guided me in both business and philanthropy.
Chandler: The Open Society Foundations which support human rights in over 100 nations have changed the lives of millions of people in America and abroad. Where do you feel you have had the greatest impact, and what are you most proud of accomplishing?
Soros: My foundations have been instrumental in bringing the plight of the Roma--an ethnic minority of 10 to 12 million people scattered across Europe--to the attention of policymakers in Brussels. Roma everywhere face discrimination and persecution on a daily basis. Some years ago, I visited a village in Romania, and saw the seeds of a crisis at hand. In this village, the Roma were scavenging on a garbage dump. Without help, I realized, sons would join their fathers on the dump; daughters could only hope to be married off. There was no clear way to escape their fate. My foundations began working on the Roma problem in Hungary and other Communist countries 30 years ago. In those countries, the living conditions of the Roma have actually deteriorated since the Berlin Wall came down. So while progress has been made, there is much more to be done. But there are bright spots on what has been a rather bleak horizon. Organizations like the Roma Education Fund are helping to educate young Roma children. We have launched many Roma programs that we hope will soon be scaled up across Europe. My Foundations are also working with the Council of Europe to establish a European Roma Institute that will preserve and rebuild Roma culture--encourage the Roma to embrace their heritage and retain their identity. None of this is easy, I know. But if we can better use the resources at hand, and increase the investment in programs with a proven track record, we can improve on the current condition of the Roma. We can create hope, where once there was none.
Chandler: What current or new projects are you most excited about and why?
Soros: I recently established an Open Society Initiative for Europe, because I believe that the financial crisis has endangered the principles of an open society in Europe. Like all of my other foundations, it is guided by a board composed of people living where the foundation is active, and it has begun to function. The European Union is in my view the shining example of an open and free society. That is why the current crisis is so personal to me. I am very concerned about Europe's future and the potential dissolution of its open society. In the run up to World War I or in the Weimar Republic, people did not think all those terrible things that followed could happen. But I have a particular sensitivity to these matters, because I lived under both Nazi and Soviet occupation. And I would hate to see a repeat of dark times in Europe.
Chandler: What are your views on the situation in Ukraine and the role of large foundations dealing with the crisis and how to best support local NGOs, since the EU itself is in crisis and may not have the capacity to provide sufficient support.
Soros: We are witnessing the birth of a new nation, a new Ukraine--with a limitless future made possible by people willing to sacrifice their lives for their country. I think people are willing to endure what hardships Putin deals out in order to build a better future here. And my foundation is working with experts in Ukraine to create a strategy for keeping the spirit of the Maidan alive.
We can help support free and fair elections, and encourage parliament to pass laws giving candidates equal time on television to make their case to the country. The people of Ukraine should choose their own representative. And they must seize the moment to reform the judiciary. This is vitally important, and you can't do it piecemeal. This will not happen overnight. We have been involved in judicial reform movements for more than 25 years, and it is hard work. But there is a unique opportunity here. Ukrainians have already seen one revolution fail, and they will need to pull together to help this one succeed. It is a long road, and a learning process. But focusing on these goals will put Ukraine on the right track--and honor the solidarity, the courage, and the dignity of the Maidan.
Chandler: What would you say are your most ambitious projects in the U.S. and abroad?
Soros: My work on drug policy has been particularly challenging. For more than four decades, governments around the world have pumped huge sums of money into ineffective and repressive anti-drug efforts, ignoring programs that actually work. There is an economic and human cost to these policies, affecting both consumer and producer countries. This is especially true in the U.S., which has less than 5 percent of the world's people but almost 25 percent of the planet's incarcerated population. Most are drug and other non-violent offenders for whom drug treatment and other alternatives to incarceration would probably prove cheaper and more effective in reducing recidivism and protecting society.
For years, my foundations have supported needle exchanges and substitution therapy programs to demonstrate that good work is possible. One country found that for every $1 invested in needle exchange, $27 is returned in cost savings. That is no small matter, considering the billions of dollars spent treating HIV. We have seen similar returns on investment with supervised drug injection rooms and medication-assisted treatment of opiate addiction. Yet despite these benefits, the U.S. Congress continues to block federal funding for needle exchanges. Several governments around the globe fight to prevent any mention of harm reduction in international forums, lest it clash with the predominant drug war ideology. Yet I believe change is still possible. In 2016 the UN General Assembly will review the current state of the drug- control system. We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to fix a broken global framework for coping with the drug crisis.
Chandler: What have been your greatest challenges, and how have they informed your decision-making process in subsequent initiatives? What were the lessons learned?
Soros: I have found our Burma Project extremely frustrating and occasionally rewarding. I was constantly tempted to cut it. We have consistently supported the international sanctions against the military junta, but the regime went from bad to worse: It turned into a one-man dictatorship. Burma has a lot of natural gas and other natural resources; now that the pipelines have been completed, the military are assured of a regular flow of funds. After they killed Buddhist monks and lost whatever respect they still enjoyed from people, they withdrew to a mountain stronghold where they are protected from any popular uprising. Fortunately they began to realize that their policies produced the opposite result from what they intended. They were fiercely nationalistic and jealous of their independence; yet they became extremely dependent on the Chinese. They wanted to restore some measure of legitimacy and introduced a constitution. The elections were thoroughly rigged in their favor; still, they are becoming more susceptible to international influence. They finally released democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. This opens a new chapter. It is liable to prove as frustrating as the previous one but in a different way. At least there will be some forward movement, only justice will not be served. Aung San Suu Kyi will not be allowed to reenter politics; but she is unlikely to be prevented from running a foundation. Eventually the military will have to recognize her and enter into a dialogue. The groundwork that our Burma project has been laying may serve a useful purpose after all.
Chandler: What inspires you and excites you most about the impact of your goals?
Soros: I have always believed that no one has the monopoly on the truth. My foundations have local foundations, run by local people so that those on the ground can decide the best way to tackle open society problems. I am always impressed when an idea that I didn't believe would work turns out to be a success. Change cannot be prescriptive, but must come from those on the ground leading the way.
Chandler: What do you want your legacy to be?
Soros: When I originally started I thought that this is something that should last only my lifetime and I had no intention of keeping it going. But then, I discovered that there are certain functions that need a foundation to take care of that we are engaged in and that I'm not needed to do that. Now that I've decided to continue the foundation, beyond my lifetime, I hope to somehow institutionalize this tradition of entrepreneurial philanthropy.
This post originally appeared in Philanthropy NYU. The academic journal at New York University can be accessed at philanthropynyu.com.