Wednesday, June 11, 2003

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End of an era

George Soros is a third-rate philosopher but a first-rate philanthropist [How does he rate as an international financier?--ed Well, he used to be first-rate, but Daniel Gross now believes his influence is on the wane]. Soros has been a fixture on the Slate 60 ranking of philanthropy.David Plotz notes, "George Soros has poured much of his fortune into civil-society projects. His Open Society Institute is a Bell Labs of civil innovation, seeding schools, NGOs, and organs of a free press all over the world." He correctly identifies Soros' philanthropy as a guide for building civil society in Iraq.

So it's somewhat sad to link to this Washington Post story :

Now more than 15 years and $1 billion later, George Soros has concluded that his mission is over. With the government in Moscow stabilized and a new generation of homegrown philanthropists emerging, the international financier has decided to leave Russia to the Russians and effectively withdraw from a country that has absorbed much of his time and energy.

"I'm basically closing it down in its present form," Soros said of his foundation in an interview this weekend. "I've spent a very large amount of money here and a lot of it was really money where I was substituting for the state. I don't think that's appropriate anymore. Russia as a state is reestablished and doesn't need my subsidy."

He will remain involved in small projects. But Soros's exit as a major benefactor is a milestone in Russia's development since the collapse of Soviet Union in 1991. No other private initiative from the West has had such influence in shaping the new Russia as his Open Society Institute. "The Soros foundation was instrumental in the development of nonprofit organizations in Russia," said Olga Alexeeva, director of the Moscow office of the Charities Aid Foundation, a British organization. "I can't compare anyone else with Soros and that will leave a significant gap."....

The Open Society Institute in Russia will become 15 organizations that will continue their work but will have to find other funding. After spending $1 billion in Russia over the last 15 years, Soros said he will scale back to just $10 million a year.

As someone who used to work for an organization that Soros helped midwife, it's worth noting that the genius of Soros' civil society work was his firm message to the organizations he funded that his largesse would be temporary. This knowledge provided the necessary incentives for these groups to keep their bureaucracy to a minimum and actually dispatch people beyond national capitals into areas that needed civil society the most. His decision to largely pull out of Russia is fully consistent with that philosophy.

To reiterate -- I think Soros' philosophy is hackwork and his politics border on the histrionic. In his philanthropy, however, Soros epitomizes the rare combination of geneosity and hard-headedness that is needed to build civil societies from the ground up.

posted by Dan on 06.11.03 at 10:05 AM