Founded in 1993 by US investor George Soros, the Open Society Foundations, a group of foundations, is the second largest in the world after the Bill
WORLD: Lord Malloch Brown, the Open Society Foundations want to promote open societies - or as others would say: democratic societies. At the moment, however, openness and democracy seem to be on the decline worldwide. Why do you think that is?
Mark Malloch Brown: From 1989 to 2005 the number of democracies in the world almost doubled. And then there was an annual decline for 16 years. Today, only 20 percent of the world's population lives in a full democracy, according to Freedom House figures. There is no simple explanation for this clear decline, for example with the change in the economic situation. Most importantly, political practice in many countries has become disengaged from people's desire for their governments to improve their lives. In many countries, people have the impression that although formal elections are still taking place, the reality is that the state has been hijacked by groups that exploit its resources for themselves, for example through corruption or through tax rates that favor the rich in the country. At the same time, the practice of voting has come under fire. There is a growing suspicion around the world that votes have been counted incorrectly, although this is only true in a few exceptional cases. Confidence in elections is dwindling as disinformation spreads faster, raising suspicions of an elite culture that schedules elections in a way that the populace has no real influence. But we also see a failure of the current model of governance.
WORLD: What do you mean by that?
Malloch Brown: The increasing democratization from the 1990s onwards went hand in hand with increasing globalization, open global markets and the idea of the "small state", i.e. the state playing only a minimal role in the economy. Since then, decisions have increasingly been made on international markets as to where production takes place in China or Hungary, where workers receive social assistance and where they become poorer. This is contrary to the idea of an inclusive democracy that actively cares for its citizens. However, the "small state" model is also unable to cope with new political challenges, be it the rearmament of Europe or the trillion investments that are necessary to deal with climate change. It's not something individual states can do. Ultimately, behind the crisis of democracies is a crisis of governance itself.
WORLD: Doesn't that mean the basic idea behind your foundation has failed? The term "open society" comes from the Austro-British philosopher Karl Popper, with whom the founder of the foundation, George Soros, also studied. Popper defined open societies that empower the individual and their future prospects in a market economy, in contrast to the old tribal societies where the individual is subordinate to the community. So you believe in progress, but by your standards humanity seems to be moving backwards.
Malloch Brown: At the Open Society Foundations, we do not believe in "the end of history," as Francis Fukuyama called the seemingly final victory of democracy. Popper had a good sense of human fallibility, so does Soros, and that includes the possibility that progress can be lost again. Today we are witnessing a return of protectionism and a renewed increasing role of the state in the economy. The challenge is to ensure that this new "big state" is still one that respects people's rights and needs. The Inflation Reduction Act of the government of US President Joe Biden is certainly trend-setting, i.e. the massive promotion of green technologies in America in competition with other economies.
WORLD: Critics say the law is essentially protectionist.
Malloch Brown: Yes, it is protectionist and contributes to the politicization of world markets. But if this creates a network of countries that together build a renewable energy economy without depending on rare earths from China, but using battery and solar technologies from American or German production, then that's good. Because climate protection is an important prerequisite for protecting the existential rights of people. When I was deputy to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and we realized once again that we couldn't solve an international conflict in the way world opinion expected of us, Annan liked to say in his soft, melodious voice: "We know the direction of the wind, but we can set the sails differently.”
WORLD: But maybe your basic assumptions are wrong. About freedom. Couldn't it be that many people in the world don't want political freedom as we define it?
Malloch Brown: In any case, it is true that in the hierarchy of needs for many people, freedom does not come first, but only after good housing, work, education and health care. But we in the West are also guilty of allowing freedom to sometimes seem like a middle-class white Western demand, a luxury at the expense of economic and social rights. At least that's how China and Russia try to portray it. This alleged contrast between freedom on the one hand and prosperity on the other was already constructed in Soviet times. But this game is also made easier when democracies do not deliver on economic and social needs. A functioning democracy can cover the entire hierarchy of needs.
WORLD: To what extent?
Malloch Brown: As an election observer, I have worked in many countries that have never experienced democracy before or whose democratic traditions have long been broken. Even in such countries, one sees that the people demand responsible and transparent action and accountability from the government. And that in almost all countries there are basic elements of democratic action at the local level, for example in Africa, where decisions were made jointly in the old clan and chieftain systems. People want a say in how they are governed, and they don't want to be penalized for using that say. This is, I believe, the one major factor that propelled the spread of democracy around the world between 1989 and 2005. The other was the alliance between liberal democracy and neoliberalism.
WORLD: But the chaos that neoliberal economic policy created in Russia in the 1990s is now held responsible by many for the population's need for order under Vladimir Putin's dictatorship.
Malloch Brown: Well, in some countries neoliberal economic policies led to the emergence of a new middle class demanding democratic rights. In others, however, the new prosperity was distributed very unevenly and led to a strongly state-oriented clientele economy. But this can also be observed today in some countries, such as India, where neoliberal economic policy has brought individual companies considerable growth and enormous political influence. That's where neoliberalism took a wrong turn.
WORLD: You quoted Kofi Annan as saying that you cannot change the wind. But your foundation is accused of sometimes changing the wind. For example with the promotion of the so-called color revolutions in Eastern Europe, including in the Ukraine. With outside support for these pro-democracy movements, you are said to have fueled the West's conflict with Russia. So are you to blame for everything that is happening in the Ukraine war?
Malloch Brown: It is true that we have spent around a quarter billion dollars on supporting civil society through our foundation in Ukraine over the past 25 years. This is also true because young democracies, such as Ukraine after the breakup of the Soviet Union, need a vibrant civil society so that the new, democratically elected governments do not fall under the influence of the old power elites. It is also true that many of the civil society actors that we supported later took to the streets to protect the existence of these democracies when they saw them threatened. But we have not instigated or even paid anyone to demonstrate or to overthrow the government. In the countries in which we are active, we generally stay out of party politics and government politics. After all, we work under American foundation laws, which are pretty strict on this point.
WORLD: But the work of your foundation still has political consequences. Haven't you created an imbalance in the political landscape by using outside money to reinforce liberal voices within civil society?
Malloch Brown: No, on the contrary. An imbalance existed before, at the beginning of these young democracies. Because although there had been elections, the old elites were still very powerful through their influence in the economy and in the state apparatus. On the other hand, there were almost no civil society structures that could have controlled and, if necessary, criticized the exercise of power by the new governments. And that, along with fair and free elections, is the most important basic condition of democracy. Without the promotion of civil society, the old forces would have quickly regained their political power. Then democracy would have had no chance. Rather, by providing civil society with the means to monitor and evaluate the political process, we have helped to correct an existing imbalance.