The Scholarships That Launched the Open Society Foundations


I always said that I was born to do great things. I had that confidence that no matter what
was going to happen the one thing that I was sure of was that I was going to make a success of my life. I don’t remember how it started, except to say that scholarships were always important to George Soros. George’s philanthropy was always born out of a fundamental intellectual prejudice, that learning and thought were crucial to freedom. The scholarships were the first large program of the foundation when I set it up, and it was in South Africa. I thought, “This will be the most useful
thing to do” because South Africa was in apartheid rule. Some simply need more because they have been born into societies where they are at the receiving end of injustice. I didn’t really have a normal teenage life. Wars are usually things you see on TV, wars don’t happen to you. And when it happens to you, you haven’t got time to feel sorry for yourself. I studied in school inside Syria, and I wanted to find a program that I can do the things that I love but also understand from where I come. So, that started my quest for scholarships. People across time and across society, in
persecuted societies, have traveled back and forth with only the wisdom they have, so that is important that this is a long-term investment. And we really don’t say, “Look, you really
need to do this, that, and the other.” You know, it’s not prescriptive. It is simply, “You just need to think.” OSF [Open Society Foundations] has a particular characteristic that other organizations that are promoting rights do not have, which is
the freedom with which you can work. It actually changed the thinking in the head. How you approach things, how you open up for new ideas, how you look at the world in general. Without education we can’t overcome all
the challenges we are facing in the world now. It’s very important to have people with
the ability to engage in critical thinking. Because that’s an important element of a
democratic government and an open society. The challenge for open society is to say,
“How do we empower citizens to engage the authorities and hold them accountable? How do we have policymaking processes that are inclusive in which the voices of many people are heard?” If we’re going to stay true to our perspective of encouraging debate, we have to be prepared that some individuals are going to take positions we don’t agree with. It is in that sense a gamble. It has no predictive outcome, but in the larger sense of the word, it is indispensible. When you can’t walk in with a big human
rights campaign, and you can’t walk in and say, “We’re going to engage in judicial
reform,” you’ve still given 15,000 people something that has been transformative. Imagine if we put all of the recipients together and say, “What’s the real impact as a result of having received that scholarship?” I’m working with ActionAid Cambodia. I’m the human rights & disability advisor for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. I moved to Yale to lead the breast cancer
research program here, and to be the head of the breast cancer section. My job at the European Parliament really has
come at the end of a long road, which took me from The Hague to work at the UN War Crimes Tribunal, the U.S. Carnegie Council, then finally to Brussels where I work for the British delegation. I put in place a program that allowed for
participation of very poor mining communities and created a fund where 3.5 billion rand of shares were given to communities that made poor communities the third-largest shareholders within Anglo American Platinum. Recently, we’ve launched something new, which is a Track II initiative called Minsk Dialogue. And that’s basically about helping diplomats and policymakers in the political world to look for ideas how to make eastern Europe a more secure place. Without the OSF scholarship I wouldn’t have even dreamed about the possibility of me doing the things that I’m doing today. Sometimes just helping people see that they can do it, doing that kind of outreach to them —and George calls it a lifeline—is as important as tracking what they do five, ten years down the road. The providing of scholarships to as many people as OSF has is really the most powerful impact that you can have in the long term. You’re changing his or her sense of values and possibilities. Multiple generations, because the children they have will be influenced. Their siblings, their community, their family. George, I don’t think you actually realized what you were planting when you provided those scholarships. Not only were you challenging the system,
but you were providing young black people with the right to dream.

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