Our Burning Planet

PHILANTHROCAPITALISM

How Open Society Foundations’ new ‘One Africa’ strategy befits our broken world

How Open Society Foundations’ new ‘One Africa’ strategy befits our broken world
George Soros, billionaire and founder of Open Society Foundations. (Photo: Simon Dawson / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

In a one-on-one interview with Mark Malloch-Brown, global head of George Soros’s Open Society Foundations, Daily Maverick was confronted with a set of contradictions that cut to the heart of our planetary predicament. The start was OSF’s decision to reconceptualise Africa as a single, homogenous entity. But what it was really about, we discovered, were the pitfalls of ‘philanthrocapitalism’. This was affirmed a week later when, by sheer coincidence, we were invited to a dinner with an executive board member of the Gates Foundation.

Charity creates a multitude of sins — Oscar Wilde

‘The first reason for this was just a simple matter of efficiency; it enabled us to cut the number of administrators working for us on the continent by a very large number.”

So said Mark Malloch-Brown, global head of George Soros’s Open Society Foundations (OSF), less than three minutes into the interview — and while the explanation was delivered with polish, there was the unmistakable feeling that it was being offered as an apology.

“Secondly,” Malloch-Brown continued, “it was around, if you like, our ‘philosophy of impact’. Because we were wearing two sets of blinkers. One, we had a very ‘projectised’ approach to grant-making activities in Africa, and two, perhaps we didn’t understand the, um, interrelationships around geography.”

Okay, scratch the “polish” part, this was most definitely an apology.

By Daily Maverick’s reckoning, the offence was obvious. There we were, in a boardroom of the Saxon Boutique Hotel, Villas & Spa in Johannesburg, where entry-level suites begin at R10,000 per night and the cheapest item on the menu is R250 (for a toasted chicken mayonnaise), discussing OSF’s freshly minted “Africa Regional Strategy”. By the sound of things, while dozens of Malloch-Brown’s guests were arriving for the multicourse meal in the private dining room outside (there are wines in the Saxon’s cellar, Daily Maverick understands, that cost upwards of R150,000), a whole lot of people had just lost their jobs. (And a whole lot of good projects will lose funding – Ed)

Also, there was the official OSF document, which had been emailed to us that morning. Despite our best efforts, we had battled to get past the opening paragraph:

“This One Africa strategy (2022-6) was developed over an intensive eight-month period in a process involving staff from across our five entities (AfRO, OSF-SA, OSISA, OSIEA and OSIWA). It sets out the overall direction for OSF in Africa in the next five years. It is flexible given our complexity and diversity, to allow for adaptation as needed across contexts and over time.”

For us, whatever the bailout clauses in the final sentence may have been about, it was all contained in the phrase “One Africa”.

That’s right, “One Africa”.

In the year 2022, six decades after the continental map had been liberated from the shades of colonial rule — blue for British East Africa; green for French West Africa, etc — the “world’s largest private funder of independent groups working for justice, democratic governance and human rights” had decided, based on the prevailing winds, that it was best to treat the landmass as a homogenous entity.

So what, we wanted to know — since we couldn’t locate them in the document — were these prevailing winds?

In Malloch-Brown’s terms, they were OSF’s “opponents”.

“Our opponents don’t necessarily target us,” he explained, “they target the open societies that we fight for. So, you know, I look at everything from disinformation campaigns to an opponent as natural as climate change.”

These fast-gathering forces, as Malloch-Brown confidently pointed out, had been working lately on the regional and global levels, with little regard for national boundaries. By scaling back OSF’s presence on the continent to offices in Johannesburg and Nairobi, with smaller outposts in Kinshasa and Dakar, he was arguing that the transnational threats could be more efficiently tackled. On the surface, this was a rationale that was tough to dispute, partly because it placed the solution out of the hands of a single actor. Still, the pronoun slip-up at the end seemed telling: he had definitely used an “I” there instead of the standard “we”.

Sanctum sanctorum

In the career trajectory of a professional development worker, Daily Maverick knew, things didn’t get more impressive than the example of Malloch-Brown. From 1999 to 2005, as the head of the United Nations Development Programme, he served alongside African UN secretary-general Kofi Annan as the operational spearhead of the Millennium Development Goals, a self-proclaimed “unprecedented effort” to meet the needs of the world’s poorest.

Later, he was promoted to Annan’s chief of staff, and then to deputy secretary-general of the UN, before accepting a post in the British government of Gordon Brown as “the minister responsible for Africa and Asia”. To top off his CV, there was a stint at the World Bank, where he was head of external affairs. But his biography on the OSF website was perhaps best expressed in these terms:

“Malloch-Brown was knighted for his contribution to international affairs and is currently on leave from the British House of Lords. Malloch-Brown is a Distinguished Practitioner at Oxford University’s Blavatnik School of Government, an adjunct fellow at Chatham House’s Queen Elizabeth Program, and has been a visiting distinguished fellow at the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization.”

In other words, as far as the OSF’s new boss was concerned, we were in the sanctum sanctorum of the Anglo-Saxon establishment. Out here, the place at the table of Big Capital was supposed to be a given — as implied in the venue for the interview.

But the real irony, aside from the “streamlining” that OSF’s Africa operations had just undergone, was in the timing. Within the next 24 hours, Liz Truss would resign as prime minister of the UK.

The billionaire class, whose cause she had championed by cutting back on their taxes, had been her undoing. And while Malloch-Brown was obviously a lot left of Truss on the conservative/liberal spectrum, to cite bipartisan politics would be to entirely miss the point.

***

George Soros, or so the legend goes, is not Bill Gates. Before the publication in 2015 of No Such Thing As A Free Gift: The Gates Foundation and the Price of Philanthropy, the world’s prototype tech billionaire — who for many years was also the planet’s richest person — was charitably unassailable. He had carefully crafted the image and reputation of the “good billionaire,” and his philanthropic work was seen as unambiguously positive. But for those who doubted whether private capital could (or should) do the work of governments, Professor Linsey McGoey’s book was a breakthrough.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, McGoey argued, had actually made the world worse off. The problem, in her estimation, was threefold.

First, there was the inherent lack of democratic accountability — in 2013, for instance, when it emerged that Gates was the largest single donor to the World Health Organization, the implication for member countries was that their say in policymaking had almost certainly been eroded.

Second, McGoey showed, by channelling tens of billions of dollars into health and education services around the world, Gates had inadvertently ensured that sovereign governments would spend less of their own budgets in these critical sectors. Last, there was the fundamental issue of the modern billionaire who, under the guise of “doing good”, was mostly just recreating the world in his gilded, self-involved image.

“The great industrialists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were dubbed robber barons due to the widespread condemnation of their predatory business practices,” McGoey reminded her readers in the book’s introduction. Then, in the very next sentence, she drew the comparison between Gates and the founder of OSF.

“Today, some of the world’s most celebrated philanthropists, from Gates to George Soros, earned billions through business tactics that have compounded financial instability, eroded labour protections, and entrenched global economic inequalities.”

According to McGoey, then, while Gates and Soros were obviously not the same person, there was more holding them together than there was keeping them apart. In Gates’s case, it was the fact that Microsoft’s business practices had been deemed illegal in a series of antitrust lawsuits in Europe and the US, which meant that he really did preside over a monopoly that stifled competition. In the case of Soros, it all boiled down to his enormous hedge fund, which at one point had famously broken the Bank of England.

By this definition, both fortunes had been made in a way that left society-at-large poorer — and both fortunes were later channelled into charities that attempted to fix the same problem their founders had helped to create.

The term for it, in McGoey’s work, was “philanthrocapitalism” — a phrase that had first been coined by the Economist magazine in 2006. Back then, the charitable sector was one of the fastest-growing industries in the global economy, with the US alone witnessing the establishment of 85,000 private foundations since the turn of the millennium. The tendency among this new breed of donor, as McGoey argued in a highly cited academic paper published in 2012, was “to conflate business aims with charitable endeavours, making philanthropy more cost-effective, impact-oriented, and financially profitable”.

Enter Anand Giridharadas, the McKinsey consultant-turned-big-ticket-journalist, who in 2018 released his New York Times bestseller Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World.

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In one of the book’s pivotal chapters, Giridharadas focused on a young man who also used to work at McKinsey before moving to Goldman Sachs. At some point, the man threw in the towel and took a job with OSF.

“He’s a smart, capable guy and it’s probably better that he’s doing this than just staying in banking,” Giridharadas explained to an interviewer. “But one of the things that happens is when the language of our social problems is reformatted for the operating system of business people’s minds, the nature of the problem is changed. We stop actually talking about justice and rights and power. We start talking about scale and efficiency and leveraging synergies. Those are not just different words. That actually is a different diagnosis.”

***

As it turned out, for the duration of the day prior to our interview, Malloch-Brown and his staff had been hosting a conference on the humanitarian crisis in Cabo Delgado, northern Mozambique. Although Daily Maverick wasn’t there for any of it, it was a fait accompli that the walls of the deluxe Saxon had just heard harrowing first-person accounts of the jihadist insurgency, replete with forced evacuations, lost family members and beheadings. Aside from Malloch-Brown, who had clearly grown a thick skin during his prodigious career, the OSFers all seemed jittery, almost as if they had caught PTSD by proxy.

“You can’t solve the problem of Cabo Delgado by looking only at Mozambique,” Malloch-Brown informed Daily Maverick, as an addendum to his line on the “One Africa” strategy.

Indeed, to understand Cabo Delgado, one first had to understand the history of jihadism on the East African seaboard, stretching down from southern Somalia into Kenya, Tanzania and below. According to the experts, it was a history that included colonialism on the Swahili littoral, Saudi Arabian scholarship funding for the youth, kinship networks and the so-called Global War on Terror. But as far as the received wisdom was concerned, while there certainly were international volunteers in the jihadist groups, the vast majority of local militants had been drawn into the conflict “by their perceived socioeconomic exclusion amid major mineral and hydrocarbon discoveries in the region”.

Put another way, it was the African resource curse all over again, with the climate crisis thrown in for good measure. Implying that Cabo Delgado, in the terms of OSF’s new Africa strategy, demanded focus on all four of the organisation’s goals: “expression and participation”; “security and rights”; “accountability and justice”; “opportunity and equity”. 

How OSF would meet these objectives was, of course, another matter. What was needed most in Cabo Delgado, by any estimation, was material support for the Mozambican military. The supply of arms and training was obviously beyond Soros’s mandate — and yet without security for the villagers, most of the other goals were pie-in-the-sky. The only goal left was “expression and participation,” which in the words of the “One Africa” document was all about “amplifying people’s voices”.

Were the Mozambicans whose voices were amplified at the Saxon that day aware of the import of their surroundings? Did they go home feeling lighter, or was there a curious sense of heaviness? Did they buy, even for a second, that their hosts were heroes in the fight against “inequality”?

Bar follow-up sessions with the Mozambicans themselves, such questions were unanswerable — but what was clear was that Malloch-Brown kept returning in our interview to this one all-encompassing ideal: the eradication of inequality. The other ideals he referred to fairly often were “scale” and “efficiency”. Giridharadas, it appeared, had a point: the diagnoses were entirely incompatible.

No damage, but no good either

In December 2021, in the journal Global Studies Quarterly, a comprehensive peer-reviewed paper was published under the title “Assessing the International Influence of Private Philanthropy: The Case of Open Society Foundations”. In it, the authors assembled an original database to evaluate all the grants assigned outside the US between 1999 and 2018 — the total was $1.7-billion, with South Africa alone receiving $155-million — against OSF’s stated aims and objectives. The conclusion, after the authors’ quantitative assessment of the “macro-level impact on democratic governance, freedom of expression, government accountability, and societies that promote justice and equity” was the following:

“Based on the available data, we find no evidence that OSF grants produce a positive impact at the macro-level on these goals nor that they effectively contribute to destabilise countries through protests and mass migrations as its critics claim. These results may have to do with lack of effectiveness or with motivations not matching the outcomes measured here.”

In a nutshell, OSF hadn’t done any lasting damage, but it hadn’t done any lasting good either. It was a remarkable conclusion, not because it was unexpected, but because the authors of the paper had also pointed out that it was highly likely that Soros would bequeath most of his remaining fortune to the foundation in his will (the man is now 92). At a rough guess, given that this fortune at the time of writing was estimated at $8.6-billion, that would equate to another $6-billion, over and above the $32-billion he had already bequeathed (the US, his adopted country, got by far the lion’s share).

So here was the final, multibillion-dollar question: what did OSF need to do differently to, as Malloch-Brown put it, “make an impact”?

For starters, by Daily Maverick’s reckoning, they would need to practise what they preached. Like billionaires the world over, Soros seemed to have one set of rules for himself and his inner sanctum and another for the world “out there”. As coincidence would have it, a week after the interview with Malloch-Brown, Daily Maverick was invited to an “intimate dinner” with Susan Byrnes, chief communications officer and executive board member of the Gates Foundation. The venue was one of the most exclusive restaurants in Johannesburg.

Since we were now au fait with the subject matter, Daily Maverick brought up the work of McGoey and Giridharadas. Byrnes, suitably polite and polished, rejected the criticisms out of hand. Trained as a journalist, she informed us that she had left the newsroom for philanthropic work because she found the former excessively “cynical”. Hope, she said, abounded at the Gates Foundation. By way of example, she cited the great strides made by Gates in eradicating polio and malaria in Africa — and Daily Maverick, there to understand and not to quarrel, fully acknowledged the victories.

Still, we felt it would have been nice of Byrnes to acknowledge a few things in return. First, with the fall of Truss, the secret was finally out: billionaires the world over didn’t like to pay taxes or pander to governments, and philanthropy offered them a way out of both. Second, what billionaires liked even less than taxes and governments were people who challenged their worldview.

Those people, to state the obvious, were the rest of us; the people who hadn’t been lucky enough to “partner” with them or their foundations. And like we saw in the UK during the 45 days of Truss’s term in office, like we read in the editorials on Davos every year, like we witnessed at all the COPs, we were getting angrier.

Because to compromise with billionaires was a compromise that no longer worked. Beyond a clearly defined point, they appeared to have no interest in altering the status quo.

At COP27 in Egypt next month, with the billionaires either silent or cheering from the sidelines, it was bound to be more of the same — a fossil fuel lobby with a headcount that would make up the single-largest delegation; an indigenous contingent whose shockingly true voices would be forcefully ignored; a raft of UN press statements that would refuse to admit the utter failure.

It was no longer an exaggeration, nor was it sensationalist, to state that the future of humanity was at stake. And in this reality, the real reality, the greatest charity that the philanthrocapitalists could offer us was their integrity of thought, word and deed. DM

Disclosure: The donations of OSF to Daily Maverick, since our establishment in 2009, have made up a vanishingly small percentage of our total funding needs. We receive no support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Peter Atkins says:

    An apt epitaph for philanthro-capitalism “Did no good, did no harm”, to the objects of their attentions, not sure about the impact on the foundations themselves. So what is a better way to do philanthropy? Perhaps DAYGO (donate as you go, so as not to do some much damage along the way – e.g. reduce your profits so you don’t have the problem of giving it all away when you get tired of it all.

  • Wendy Annecke says:

    Acerbic and thought-provoking article. The funding conundrum is just that – the feeling that we are owed for the exploitation of our resources. The knowledge that we have been unable to protect our resources and use them for the good of ourselves. And who can say no to money especially when it’s going to fund something that will ‘make a difference’? I’m reminded again and again of Beyers Naude exhorting us to work within our own communities and to find the means internally to do what needs to be done. But that was then, what should we be doing now?

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