The Open Society Foundations — and their enemies

Business magnate George Soros founded the Open Society Foundations. Photo by: Mirko Ries / World Economic Forum / CC BY-NC-SA

BUDAPEST, Hungary — From the street, the building that houses the Open Society Foundations’ Budapest headquarters is conspicuously boring. In a sea of baroque, neoclassical, and gothic architectural statements, the flat concrete structure appears better suited for administering grants and reviewing budgets than for hatching the vast campaign against national borders and state sovereignty that George Soros and his foundation routinely stand accused of engineering.

Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban is not alone in flinging those accusations — Soros is a favorite boogeyman for pro-Brexit voters in the United Kingdom, populists across Eastern Europe, and even Republicans in the United States. But in Hungary, the anti-Soros campaign has moved to the very center of political life. Orban’s party and supporters invoke Soros’ name and image to paint an apocalyptic vision of what might happen if the Hungarian-American financier, his foundation, and the NGOs they support are allowed to carry out their alleged “globalist” agenda.

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Soros’ picture is plastered on billboards, photoshopped into a group hug with the politicians who are his alleged puppets. On some of the billboards, those politicians hold wire cutters — also photoshopped — which they have apparently just used to cut through Hungary’s border fence and unleash a flood of Muslim migrants into the country.

Orban and his allies have proposed a legislative package dubbed “Stop Soros,” which would impose onerous new restrictions on Hungarian civil society organizations that work on issues even remotely tied to migration. The proposals — which many expect will become law now that Orban’s “Fidesz” party secured a two-thirds majority in a resounding election victory last month — would require these NGOs to apply for a special license, tax their international funding at a prohibitive 25 percent, and forbid visitation to Hungary’s border zones.

Last month, the pro-Orban publication Figyelo published a list of 200 people deemed to be “mercenaries” of George Soros.

The operating environment has gotten so ugly for Open Society, which gave $3.6 million to 46 different groups in Hungary in 2016, that the foundation announced this week they will relocate their office from Budapest, Soros’ birth city, to Berlin.

“The government of Hungary has denigrated and misrepresented our work and repressed civil society for the sake of political gain, using tactics unprecedented in the history of the European Union,” said Patrick Gaspard, president of the Open Society Foundations, in a May 14 statement.

Orban’s rise has come at the expense of democratic institutions. Hungary has seen its indicators of democratic freedom decline for the 10th year in a row, according to Freedom House — a trend in a world where the civic support structure of democracy is broadly threatened.

According to Freedom House, 71 countries registered declines in political rights and civil liberties in 2017, while only 35 registered gains. For the 12th year in a row, more countries retreated from democracy than moved closer to it. Hungary’s decline has been particularly precipitous.

For organizations dedicated to advancing democratic freedom and minority rights, these are sobering trends. They beg questions about what it means to invest billions of dollars in open societies, only to see many of them growing more closed.

“We are having to reassess how we operate,” Jordi Vaquer, Open Society Foundations’ regional director for Europe, told Devex from his office in Barcelona.

Open Society’s decision to relocate from Budapest is a dramatic and visible statement, but it is only one small part of a more complex story about how a multibillion dollar global foundation dedicated to advancing democratic freedom is responding to a rising tide of forces that stand opposed to those same values. The foundation’s leaders have not publicly alluded to any major strategic pivot, but they do acknowledge that Open Society has begun to think and act differently in some important ways.

Soros founded the Open Society Foundations in 1979. He named his philanthropic enterprise for a book by the philosopher Karl Popper: “The Open Society and its Enemies.” Soros has given more than $32 billion to the foundation since then.

In October, the Open Society Foundations revealed that Soros had, over the course of several years, transferred $18 billion of his fortune to his foundation, quietly vaulting OSF into the upper echelons of philanthropic organizations. Only the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is larger. With billions of dollars left to spend and programs in more than 100 countries, the Open Society Foundations — and their enemies — will continue to set the terms of this struggle.

Minorities and majorities

The Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a nongovernmental watchdog that advocates for asylum seekers, has been one of Orban’s most vocal and active critics — and stands to suffer because of it. In 2016, the committee received a $610,000 grant from Open Society.

Both Open Society and the organizations they fund are well aware that in order to be successful in the current political climate, they need to rethink how they communicate about issues that increasingly run counter to majority opinions. In the face of well-coordinated, well-funded government propaganda campaigns, that is far easier said than done.

A political billboard in Budapest, Hungary, depicting Hungarian-American financier and Open Society Foundations founder George Soros with Hungarian politicians. Devex/Michael Igoe

“I have attended some very interesting trainings around this topic, and we were exposed to very interesting examples about how to reframe human rights messages. We had very interesting presentations from the U.S., from Western Europe,” said Gabor Gyulai, director of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee’s refugee program. “What I felt during these presentations was, wow, these are super interesting. But also, wow, this is absolutely not applicable in our context.”

In countries where millions of people are actively working in solidarity with refugees, or with LGBTI people, or with victims of domestic violence, civil society organizations have something they can build on to shape a message that will attract broader support.

In a society where the vast majority believes that what you are standing up for is not a valid cause, there is much less to build on, said Gyulai, an expert on refugee issues who is also working with the United Nations to build a global network of open access courses on asylum law.

The problem gets even more difficult when the state is actively working to prevent that kind of coalition from forming.

“When you are struggling against a massive, incredibly well-funded government propaganda, which just transmits fake news and absolutely blatant lies about everything that is happening, it's very difficult for you to do something. So we have to find more alternative, creative ways. Some obvious messages that everybody would say, ‘Oh that should ... work,’ just do not work,” Gyulai said.

In 1956, during Hungary’s revolution, 200,000 people fled the country as refugees to Austria and Yugoslavia, giving rise to the first mass recognition of refugees in history, and helping to create the international system that still coordinates refugee support and resettlement today. 100,000 people were resettled within the first week of their recognition as refugees. Refugee advocates have tried to draw links between that extraordinary moment in Hungary’s history and the plight of refugees trying to enter Europe today.

“There are so many nice examples,” Gyulai said. “It just doesn’t work. They just don’t care. They say that was different.”

Gyulai is clear-eyed that the Hungarian Helsinki Committee and its allies do not have the resources to provide a counterweight to the government’s “omnipresent” propaganda, and he thinks it will require a more concerted effort to reach younger generations with alternative interpretations through school curricula or TV programs.

“But obviously for that you need much more massive allies,” he said. Less than a week after Devex met with him, Gyulai’s name appeared on the list of “Soros mercenaries.”

The Hungarian Helsinki Committee is not alone in recognizing that in order to work on behalf of social minorities and vulnerable groups, they have to get much better at understanding the views of the large portions of society who do not share their values.

“The perceptions and understandings of social majorities and important players in the system play now a much larger role in how we plan any kind of act, or decide on any kind of grant than they did in the past,” Vaquer said. “We are extremely aware that some of the ways in which we used to frame our work for Open Society have become a lot less effective.”

Prior to the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union, there was a debate among British citizens about whether the country should leave the European Convention on Human Rights. At that time, Open Society joined a donor collaboration to fund polling and focus groups aimed at understanding how the British public had come to understand the concept of human rights, and which messages still resonated with them.

The foundation is now also paying much more attention to the interconnection between its activities, and to the ways in which programs it funds in one place might be perceived by people somewhere else — perhaps even years after the fact.

“We are trying to understand much better how actions, which may have very positive effects and which may be advancing our agenda, may have collateral damage or may hurt our options in other areas,” Vaquer said. “If we do something in Macedonia, and this is depicted a certain way, that may affect — not just our work — but our grantees in Italy, or in Romania, or in Hungary. We have never had so many internal communications about this … We’re conducting a lot more of this kind of risk assessment.”

The risk that Open Society weighs is not the potential for its activities to create controversy, but for that controversy to prevent the foundation from being able to carry out its activities.

“We don’t exist to defend ourselves. We exist to make change out there,” Vaquer said. “If we only existed to protect ourselves, then that would be their victory.”

“That is a classical philanthropic reaction — let’s not go anywhere near that, because that’s controversial. If you do that, if you allow controversy … to stop you from doing things, then an authoritarian government or a reactionary player in society … have a very easy task.”

— Jordi Vaquer, Open Society Foundations’ regional director for Europe

Controversy has always accompanied the foundation’s support for civil liberties and minority rights, Vaquer said, and by itself is not a reason to stop doing something. That would mean abandoning some of the groups most in need of Open Society’s support.

“That is a classical philanthropic reaction — let’s not go anywhere near that, because that’s controversial,” Vaquer said. “If you do that, if you allow controversy — rather than prohibition or danger or safety issues — but controversy to stop you from doing things then an authoritarian government or a reactionary player in society, they have a very easy task.”

“Some of the work that Open Society does has never been popular — not only with governments, but also with majorities ... The work on rights and freedoms, if it’s not at all controversial, it’s probably not meaningful either,” he said.

‘Politics’ versus ‘policy’

In Pecs, a small city in southwest Hungary about 200 kilometers from Budapest, a local human rights foundation called With the Power of Humanity confronted its own office building-related controversy.

When the organization announced it had received funding from Open Society to make grants to local, community-based initiatives — part of OSF’s effort to reach Hungarians outside of progressive-leaning Budapest — authorities accused them of being part of Soros’ plan to build immigration centers throughout the Hungarian countryside to help facilitate the influx of migrants, even though none of the organization’s projects have anything to do with migration.

“Since there is no real migration here, it’s just not an issue,” said Vilja Arato, With the Power of Humanity’s program coordinator.

The municipality distributed a statement that local tenants and business owners would deny the organization office space and venues for their activities, said Zoltan Mester, the organization’s communications director.

“The goal of these attacks is not the big philanthropies that are based in Western Europe or the United States. Those are the excuse. The real targets are, of course, the human rights defenders on the ground,” Vaquer said.

With the Power of Humanity supports local human rights initiatives with the general aim of building a sense of civic engagement among the people of Pecs. Mester said he invited the city’s mayor to visit their programs, but he declined. “We try to show the people that there is nothing to hide, no secret plans.”

Two days after the government’s attempt to prevent the organization from renting an office, local residents organized a protest in support of With the Power of Humanity. The public response, which Mester said drew at least 300 protesters in a part of Hungary where people are generally wary of political demonstration, also brought into stark relief a philosophical dilemma that Open Society’s grantees — and some inside the foundation itself — say they are facing.

“When the citizens of Pecs decided to protest on our behalf, there was a political person there, so we decided not to go to the protest,” Mester said.

Positioned at the center of a firestorm, and working on issues of human rights and justice that are inherently political, Open Society and its network of grantees admit to constantly grappling with the distinction between partisan politics and public policy.

Zoltan Mester (left) and Vilja Arato, employees of the With the Power of Humanity Foundation. Michael Igoe/Devex

Among With the Power of Humanity’s staff, the debate over what is and is not an encroachment into party politics plays out constantly, Mester said.

“Every day it’s a big fight ... because especially in this time and especially in Hungary, everybody thinks that political is something bad … In Hungary if you say ‘political,’ you think about ... party politicians.”

— Zoltan Mester, With the Power of Humanity’s communications director.

“Every day it’s a big fight ... because especially in this time and especially in Hungary, everybody thinks that political is something bad … In Hungary if you say ‘political,’ you think about the parties or the party politicians,” he said.

Arato faults Hungary’s lack of political education. “People are not prepared to be able to make a difference between party politics and political issues like that. That’s why it’s really hard for us to deal with these topics,” she said.

Now that With the Power of Humanity has a connection to Open Society, its staff feel a responsibility to defend themselves against accusation of partisan meddling, but also to protect their grantees from the risks of that association.

“We have now these 60 applicants … who could be in danger if we get too much in a political context. So we decided — I think together — that we definitely stay far from politics and are not taking part in any political action. We thought that it’s a clear thing, but almost every day there is a case which makes a fight among us,” Arato said.

‘A mid-sized European town’

Some of Open Society’s staff also struggle with a temptation to act more politically, said Csaba Csontos, who was hired as a Hungarian-speaking spokesperson for the foundation last year, to provide a public face to a suspicious populace.

“When we distanced ourselves from the election campaign, I got some criticism from different colleagues … Why we are not clearer? Why we are not more sharp, more critical against the government? Yes, there are some voices,” Csontos said. But, he added, the overwhelming feel inside the Budapest office is anxiety and uncertainty about what the politics will mean for the foundation.

As a tax-exempt nonprofit organization, Open Society is legally prohibited under U.S. law from making political donations or participating in political campaigns for or against any candidate.

Even if they were not legally prohibited from getting into politics, they wouldn’t, said Vaquer.

“There are very good reasons why human rights groups, independent journalists, all sorts of movements … tend to make lousy electoral players. It’s not their game, and this is not our game,” he said. “We couldn’t legally, but also we couldn’t in terms of capacity. We don’t even know how to do it. Election machines are very, very different from philanthropic organizations.”

While George Soros is personally a major donor to the U.S. Democratic party, he created Open Society with a different vision of political change, Vaquer said. Since the 1980s, the foundation has basically invested in two things — people and organizations of civil society.

“George Soros could have done many other things with his fortune, but that was the vision from the start — that those two were going to be the pillars of the ways in which he would then seek to define open society,” Vaquer said. “If you look at our budget 30 years later, that’s still what we are doing overwhelmingly. We’re still supporting civil society organizations and individuals. We haven’t changed that.”

The Open Society Foundations office in Budapest, Hungary. Devex/Michael Igoe

Faced with a constant barrage of accusations that they are part of George Soros’ secret plan to meddle in national politics, some of Open Society’s grantees find themselves responding to the obligatory questions that follow.

“I have never received any direct or indirect orders from George Soros, and as to my best knowledge none of my colleagues have,” David Vig, head of the law enforcement program at the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, responded to a Devex question about Soros’ involvement in their work.

In accusing the foundation of orchestrating a global campaign to transform Europe and erode countries’ national sovereignty, OSF’s enemies ascribe much more power and reach to the organization than its employees and grantees would ever claim to have. It is tempting to do the same thing when asking if Open Society has been successful in achieving its goals. The declines in democratic freedom currently underway in many countries where Open Society operates might raise questions about whether the foundation and its benefactor have been operating with the right theory of change.

“Listen, we have the budget of a mid-sized European town every year. We spend what a city like Genoa or Valencia will spend in one year,” Vaquer said.

“I believe we are punching well above our weight, but still, do you imagine that we, as an organization, will be a determining force in the political evolution of countries? … There’s an issue of proportion, both of the ambition, and of the actual amounts.”

With the erosion of the values and norms it promotes, Open Society is not necessarily thinking differently about how the foundation measures its impact, but its leaders are coming to terms with a more realistic view of what is possible.

“I think it has made us extremely aware of the limitations of what can be achieved with cross-border philanthropic activity,” Vaquer said. “It was perhaps a product of the exceptional time that was the 1990s that OSF had such a disproportionate impact on some places, in terms of being part of their political transformation, but that was probably exceptional.”

About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.