George Soros began his career as a philanthropist in 1979 with support for scholarships for African-American students at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, as well as for Eastern European dissidents to study abroad.
Soros founded his first foundation outside the United States in 1984 in Hungary. His recognizable move at the time was to distribute photocopiers to universities, libraries and civic groups in support of the collapse of control over information of the Communist Party. By the fall of the Berlin Wall, Soros had already established three more foundations in Poland, Ukraine and Russia. As Communism collapsed, Soros responded quickly to seize the revolutionary moment and establish foundations in the countries of Eastern Europe and Central Asia. His work has contributed to the emergence of democratic governments and significantly more open societies in most countries of the former Soviet empire.
In order to help train a new generation of political and economic leaders, Soros established the Central European University in 1991 as a center for policy research and analysis that promotes the principles of an open, democratic society. Support for education programs, from early childhood to university, accounts for half of the annual program costs of the Foundations Open Society.
Since 1993, the Foundations have provided tens of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid during the wars in the countries of the former Yugoslavia. This was particularly important for the besieged Sarajevo, where construction crews bravely opposed sniper rifles and artillery rockets to connect residents to gas, electricity and drinking water systems.
Aryeh Neier joined the Foundations Open Society in 1993, becoming president after his leadership roles at Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union. As early as the following year, annual costs reached $ 300 million (less than $ 3 million in 1985), making the Foundations known for their quick responses to changing social conditions with new and innovative programs.
Neier began to turn the Foundations Open Society into truly international organizations. The foundations provided support for the refugees and dissidents from Burma who were hit by the repressive military regime in that country; to build cheap housing and legal, economic and political reforms in South Africa to help the new inexperienced black majority government; and for regional initiatives in Africa and Central Asia.
With the establishment of foundation programs in the United States, efforts were made in 1996 to address some of the shortcomings of an open society. The focus of the first programs was on improving end-of-life adult care, reforming drug policies, changing the criminal justice system, and opposing strict immigration laws and practices. Baltimore has been chosen as the place to form a comprehensive approach to addressing problems of poverty and injustice. The foundations supported projects in Baltimore that improved the results of reading and math tests in public schools, expanded extracurricular programs, doubled the number of people with access to medication, and increased the rate of probation in the federal state.
The geographical reach continues to expand in the first decade of the new millennium. By 2010 Foundations are present in every region of the world. In a significant number of countries where they are active, Foundations are the leading supporter – sometimes the sole supporter – of efforts to promote democratic rule, respect for the rule of law, the protection of minority rights and civil and political freedoms.
In the worldwide battle for Open Society, Foundations are leading many significant global campaigns, including:D
- Development of international forums to hold government officials and leaders of anti-government forces responsible for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. The establishment of the International Criminal Court, long supported by the Foundations Open Society, became a reality in 2002. The foundations helped and promoted efforts to prosecute leaders of the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Cambodia for war crimes at tribunals as well as at the International Criminal Court.
- Transparency and accountability for revenues that governments derive from the exploitation of natural resources. In 2001, in order to tackle corruption and to benefit citizens from their country’s natural wealth, the Foundations launched a campaign to promote revenue and budget transparency in resource-rich countries. Leading organizations in this field were funded and in 2006, with the support of the FOS, the Revenue Watch Institute was established.
- Implementation of national laws on freedom of information. In the late 1980s, only 13 countries around the world had freedom of information laws. By 2010, the number of countries with such laws and regulations exceeded 80. The Foundations Open Society have played an important role in the adoption and implementation of FOI laws.
In 2004, eight countries in the Eastern European region, which the Foundations helped transform into democracies, became members of the European Union, and three years later two more joined. With the support of the FOS and other countries, they aim to become candidates for EU membership.
The successes of the work are notable in issues related to minority rights, access to health care and women’s rights. From the very beginning, the Foundations Open Society have been committed to protecting the rights of minorities and promoting opportunities for their full inclusion in society. The Foundation’s focus is on the problems they are facing, among others, with drug users, sexual minorities, people living with HIV, people with mental disabilities, Muslims in the United States and Europe, and Roma in Europe.
In 2005 the Foundations Open Society together with the World Bank launched the Decade of Roma Inclusion 2005-2015. Since the early 1990s, support has been provided to improve the lives and promote the human rights of Roma, Europe’s largest and most marginalized ethnic minority.
In order to prevent the spread of HIV and other infections among drug users, the Foundations are working to divert the focus from criminal penalties to human rights and health services by leading a global movement to support sterile injector exchange, substitution therapy and demand reduction. Another problem in the field of public health that the FOS are dealing with is excluding people with mental disabilities from education and employment opportunities.
In response to the rape of thousands of women by soldiers during the conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in 2009 the Foundations Open Society set up a mobile court for gender crimes that travels to remote regions ravaged by war bringing justice to women. In a very important victory in early 2011, the mobile court sentenced 10 to 20 years for a colonel, three junior officers and five soldiers for raping women, men and children.
The Foundations continue to work on these issues for years to come, but they are also increasing the budget for humanitarian aid in response to the global economic crisis and recent natural disasters. In 2009, hundreds of millions of dollars were invested to help people most affected by the economic downturn in Europe and the United States. In 2010, millions were invested to alleviate the suffering of citizens caused by the floods in Pakistan and the Haiti earthquake. Foundations’ spending in 2010 is $ 820 million.
In addition to other efforts to strengthen justice and public health, the Foundations Open Society in 2011 worked to eliminate discrimination and prejudice against Muslims from Europe, many of whom have lived for generations in countries such as France and the United Kingdom; put an end to torture in health care, including forced sterilization, non-provision of analgesics and detention as a treatment; and improve the situation of young African-American men in the United States with, among other things, a $ 30 million grant for education programs for young African-American and Latino-American men in education, employment and mentoring in New York.
The proliferation of Foundations Open Society after the Cold War also faced new challenges. Increasingly nationalist and sometimes authoritarian governments have sought to silence free media and independent civic groups that challenge their control of power. Growing restrictions in Russia led to the closure of the Moscow Foundation, and then in 2015, the Russian government declared the Foundations Open Society, along with other US institutions, “undesirable” organizations. In Hungary, meanwhile, Prime Minister Viktor Orban orchestrated a series of attacks on FOS grantees, and in 2017 launched a national political campaign accusing founder George Soros of deliberately fueling the migration crisis in Europe. Today, the Foundations Open Society remain committed to George Soros’s vision. We are the second-largest philanthropic organization in the United States (the fund is supplemented by an $ 18 billion donation of Soros’s personal funds in October 2017). Our annual costs exceed $ 940 million and we operate in more than 100 countries around the world with 26 national and regional foundations and offices. We provide funding for hundreds of groups working on a number of different issues.