Review: The Philanthropy of George Soros

The ragged mannered philanthropist

By Oliver Kamm, October 11, 2011
George Soros difficult to warm to but a man of vision

George Soros difficult to warm to but a man of vision

Perseus, £20

George Soros's public activities are a conundrum. While containing much interesting detail, this unsatisfying book fails to resolve it. Soros has devoted huge sums to the cause of establishing institutions to protect human rights and advance the disinterested application of justice. Yet he conspicuously fails to exemplify the qualities he espouses. This is not merely an idiosyncrasy: Soros's approach tarnishes his message.

The book is in three parts: an extended essay by Soros on the thinking behind his philanthropy; a longer, sycophantic but illuminating account of that work by Chuck Sudetic, a former journalist; and a brief afterword by Aryeh Neier, an impressive figure who served as chief executive of Helsinki Watch, the European arm of what became Human Rights Watch.

With the wealth generated by his investment activities, Soros has over 30 years created a network of foundations to advance the notion of the open society. The sums he has committed to these activities are immense: some $8 billion to date. At its best, the work of Soros's foundations has undemonstratively but tenaciously asserted the rights of the excluded and disadvantaged. It is difficult to think of anyone who has taken a more intense interest than Soros in, for example, the rights of Roma people in the transition from Communism in Eastern Europe.

Sudetic provides the political context to the issue, in which the eastward expansion of the EU provides a framework of protections, and describes the work of the Open Society Foundations in helping to establish Roma organisations that will promote civil liberties.

It is a task that organisations of civil society rather than governments are best at promoting. Soros is a difficult man to warm to yet there is something inspiring in the vision behind interventions at this level. The same is true of work that Sudetic describes in tackling the spread of curable disease in parts of the world whose inhabitants cannot afford effective treatment. Likewise the work of the Open Society Mental Health Initiative in helping people with mental disabilities in isolated institutions in Central and Eastern Europe.

There is a place, too, for lobbying by philanthropic and humanitarian organisations. Neier was at the centre of this controversy in the early 1990s, when Slobodan Milosevic's genocidal campaign of aggression in the Balkans met a feeble diplomatic response by Western governments. Sudetic comments on the outstanding work of the Open Society Foundations in helping to strengthen the institutions of international jurisprudence, to pursue the guilty and deter future aggressors.

All this is important. Yet Soros seems hazy on the distinction between disinterested justice and partisan politics.

There is no reference in the book to the vexed issue of the Israel-Palestine conflict, where strengthening institutions of governance is a prerequisite of a just settlement. Yet this is one field where Soros prefers grand declaratory gestures to practical peacemaking. And his interventions in the politics of the United States could scarcely be cruder or shriller. In his essay for this book, he likens the claims of the Bush Administration to Nazi propaganda techniques.

There lies the problem: the extent of Soros's philanthropy is inversely related to the amount of intelligence invested in his political ideas.

Oliver Kamm writes for The Times

Last updated: 10:52am, October 11 2011