Wednesday Oct 16

Modes d’ emploi – Part 2: The Idea of Open Society as a Tool to Open Societies

Towards a Global Open Society

How to go about it? It looks like Soros is ready to jump over all theoretical and practical difficulties just to be able to launch the slogan, and probably he is right: at present, societies that aspire to world leadership seem to be in dire need of such universalist slogans.

Soros explored one practical approach, speculating whether his own OSF “fractal version” of open society (323) might not be reproduced worldwide. The answer he arrives at is negative:

I wish this approach could be replicated on a larger scale, but I realize it cannot be done. Indeed, my own foundation network has reached a scale where it has lost some of its erstwhile flexibility and begun to take on the character of a bureaucracy. (p 324)

And Soros is second to none at understanding the perils of bureaucratization when one uses other people’s money to solve other people’s problems. Here’s what he says about (state) bureaucrats:

Bureaucracies tend to be more concerned with self-preservation than with carrying out their mission. Accountability is an essential feature of democracy, but it encourages defensive behavior, second-guessing, and recrimination. We hold public servants to higher standards than businessmen. We tolerate losses in business but not in foreign aid. No wonder that those in charge avoid risks even at the cost of avoiding success. (p 322)

As the direct OSF approach didn’t work, pragmatism prompts Soros to accept another approach, via foreign aid:

When I advocate constructive intervention for the sake of building opensocieties, I am advocating foreign aid. In a sense, that is what my foundations do, and that is what I advocate for the alliance of open societies. (322)

However, he’s conscious of the numerous problems of foreign aid, which he sees as “an entrepreneurial activity more difficult in many ways than running an enterprise for profit, yet it has been reduced to a bureaucratic exercise.” (p 322)

That’s definitely a “second best”, but “second best” is all right in Soros’ thinking, in fact, it’s the only realistic course when dealing with opening society.1 So:

Official foreign aid cannot possibly be as effective as my philanthropic endeavors (although it can make up in quantity what it lacks in quality). Still, we cannot do without it if we want to build a global open society. The same argument applies to other forms of official intervention:

The fact that it is ineffective does not mean that it is unnecessary; it means that we should try to make it more effective.2 Rule-based incentives are preferable to government-administered programs. But even in administered programs it should be possible to unleash the creative energies of people who care – there is no reason why entrepreneurship should be confined to the pursuit of profit. (p 324)

It is remarkable that we are back to ethics again: even official aid can work if there are “people who care”. On the one hand, this looks like a counter-institutional approach: institutions are supposed to function effectively regardless of whether people care or not. On the other hand, Soros seems to be telling us, even when dealing with mega-institutions (probably this holds only for developed democracies, I’d say), we should not discard a reliance on moral behavior. Soros posits that there “have always been two main themes in U.S. foreign policy: geopolitical realism, and what may be called “open society idealism” (p 331). This makes the USA a rather unique country, but on the road to global open society it could be the decisive ally.

After the vagaries of description and analysis, I’ll conclude this section with George Soros’ mobilization message, with which he himself concludes his book advocating a reformed global capitalism:

My expectations focus on the Open Society Alliance. I do not know what response my proposal will evoke, but I do know that we need to make progress along these lines if we want to make good use of the possibilities opened up by the development of a global economy.Whether I have convinced others or not, I have managed to convince myself. (…) Once again, I have a clear sense of mission for my foundation network. ... I can state it in general terms: to foster the civil society component of the Open Society Alliance. (p 360)

4. Understanding opening and the practice of OSF

A summary of my understanding of work to open societies, reached so far, runs as follows:

(1) It is work that ought to be done in every society regardless of circumstances.

This follows from the outcome of the analysis of open society as ideal. More concretely, this means work either when closing tendencies are prevailing, so we should help the opening tendencies; or, if the closure taxis isn’t prevalent, we want to make the members of that society freer citizens through the creation of new groups and/or dissolution of old ones.

That means, in short, to help the free creation of new groups; the free dissolution of existing groups; the establishment of a non-coercive mechanism that allows the ideas of a given group to be adopted by all other groups, i.e. by the whole society; finally, the establishment of a coercive mechanism against the existence of groups aiming at the destruction of the free group system thus described. All such tasks can last theoretically ad infinitum, as we have shown that the notion of “perfectly open society” doesn’t make practical sense. The reasons to halt work, whenever and wherever, can’t therefore come from “opening“ logic, but only from quite different logics, e.g. political logic, if we decide that democratizing is more important than opening, or business logic, if we decide that the cost/effect ratio should be a major factor, or bureaucratic logic, if we decide that chance of hierarchical promotion as a result of spectacular impacts should be a major factor; other logics and their various combinations are also possible.

(2) It follows that our work should be targeting not “the society” as a whole, but separate groups in that society.

A typical case is when a group is not allowed by other groups, or by the rest of society together, to disintegrate, i.e. its members are not allowed to become individual members of a larger group, or of the society at large and be treated with equity. This exposes the nonsense of the political slogan “separate but equal”. The habitual political term for such cases is discrimination. However, wise of the “group-opening” approach, we should be careful not to limit ourselves to working directly against discrimination by the habitual political methods, but work for the disintegration of the discriminated group by all methods that are expedient.

These two simple points are enough to orient and evaluate our practice. I’ll draw here on the OSF experience, as that material should help us understand what the group approach can give us concretely.

4.1. Preparatory stage

a. Getting oriented by thinking

How does one finance an infinite undertaking out of finite funds? This rhetorical question has become practical for us, after we concluded that any society at any point of its life is eligible for “opening” work. In that case, how do we choose where to give, and how much? For if indeed any society at any point is eligible, then we have to give them an equal right to support. We needn’t add to that statement “in principle”, because we should have been adding it to all our statements already, and that’s cumbersome: all our thinking here is an attempt to formulate the principles of good behavior of a pro-open donor. These principles should be clarified before the beginning of actual work, which begins with the first contact with a potential grantee.

We can begin by saying what the donor should not do. (Some of these suggestions apply not only to the preparatory stage.) That the weight of bureaucratic considerations ought to be minimized should be obvious even to the odd people who aren’t familiar with the brilliant oeuvre of C. N. Parkinson. That political considerations are not connected to “opening” work in a way that allows policy to be founded on them was already shown. What we haven’t analyzed is business logic based on cost/effect. It is an all-encompassing logic and bureaucratic and political moments may be part of it, along with any other reasoning that appears relevant: we do want to know what we should put in a situation in order to get what we want, to judge if it’s worth it.

We could, of course, assume the position that we are not justified to treat the matter in this way because we can’t have a definite object, as there is no perfect open society, from which follows that we should just put in all societies indiscriminately, “as much as we can, for there is no enough”. However, right away we’ll be confronted with the possible case of a society on its way to perish from plague or famine. If it does perish, there will be no society for us to help open, and while it’s still with us, the process of perishing will probably take its attention away from its self-opening.

So, we’ve come to a bifurcation. Either we take the narrow professional’s way and discard as ineligible for opening all societies that will foreseeably perish. Or we remind ourselves that “Shabbat was made for man and not man for Shabbat”, and go the way of the broad professional (which notion some will call oxymoronic).

In that case we decide that fighting famine or plague today is part of the means for fighting for openness tomorrow. Plus, we can expect fringe benefits, if we manage to arrange that the salutary bread or medicine be distributed in an “open” way, which means equity, transparency and accountability.

A textbook case in point occurred in Bulgaria in the mid-1990s, luckily not so drastic. A Bulgarian NGO was implementing a Human Rights project supported from abroad to give HR lectures to villagers living in a remote and isolated area. On their first tour the NGO people were told by the people of one village: “We don’t need your lectures. We need water, and have been trying for decades to get public money for a pipe to connect us to a dam, and have failed. If you can get us the money for the pipe, we’ll install it ourselves. Then we’ll have water and we’ll all come to your lectures!” The NGO took the broad view, and so did the donor, and both water and lecture attendance materialized.

The example shows that the broad approach has worked and can work. It costs more, but it is more effective. I am making the point because this is the only happy-end story of this sort that I have witnessed; in several other cases during the last quarter of a century the narrow view was applied as a matter of course. Had the implementer from the example taken the narrow view too, the village would have simply just been excluded from the project by the implementer, on the basis (it would have said in the implementer’s report) of “unwillingness to cooperate”. And had the implementer taken the broad view, but the donor stuck to the narrow view, everything would have finished by the “out of scope” donor’s verdict. I want to emphasize that both the narrow and the broad approaches are good business approaches. The often-heard repartee that “This is not a business”, because “the aim is to spend and not make money” doesn’t change matters, for a donor should spend but not squander. Therefore, whether the donor will adopt the narrow or the broad approach would depend not on principles, but on other factors, and their choice will eventually give the donor a reputation for “high risk” or “prudent”, as it would a businessman.

That dilemmic situation, which for the donor is a matter of choice of support strategy, for the group involved might be a matter of life and death. And in that case not the donor ethics, but the donor’s morality is put to a severe test. Recent history has recorded situations circumstantially very different, but very similar morally, in which the narrow approach was adopted, resulting in disregard of - mass murder.4  Such grisly parallels to “innocent” open-society donor work would be irrelevant, and the dilemma non-existent, if the business approach would be coupled with the anthropological approach to openness.

It was said that the anthropological approach makes its target not society as a while, but concrete groups. If we would apply it mutatis mutandis to the Bulgarian village story, our reasoning would be of the following pattern: “We want to help open this group. The first step is to open them to themselves as group. To do that, the basic strategy is to urge them to self-organize to solve a concrete problem of their group. We learn that they have self-organized already around the water issue, but haven’t found the resources to resolve it. They ask us for help. We understand that if we help, besides resolving the problem, a good thing in itself, we’ll also get a group that:

(a) has resolved its problem, so has become open to itself as group and gained self confidence for further group action and self-opening;

(b) has resolved it’s problem with outside help, so it has become open to commerce (in the broader sense already used) with other groups, paving the way for further steps against isolation;

(c) sees the donor as a partner that can be trusted, and whatever comes from that donor are “openings” and such far-fetched things is bound
to be taken much more seriously than before the water pipe money was found, so we have prepared the ground for more opening through future partnerships.

All this is good and is what opening work is all about. The downside is that the undertaking would cost us more money and effort than we had anticipated, but donors should, within their mandate, spend money, not hoard it.

Looking at this lengthy improvisation, the reader may wonder why exactly the donor’s dilemma disappeared. Easy: it disappeared because when we decided to opt for “the group first”, things became concrete, and the logical link water-opening became manifest. Had we kept thinking of opening the “society” of which this group is but a small part, we would not have been sure that we want to deal with this group in the first place, for in the society approach, “all groups are equal”. But that’s only when we think of them in abstracto. If we start learning concrete things about them, we realize how unequal they are.

Ideally, we should be able to list mechanically “all the groups” in a society and then devise criteria by which to arrange them in order of need. But that’s a theoretical impossibility: we can group members of a society in various ways, so an individual would become member of many groups simultaneously; what’s more, smaller groups would likewise participate simultaneously in a multitude of larger groups; thus our exhaustive group list will end up so ambiguous that it couldn’t serve as a basis for further action. The purely abstract approach, that was to guarantee equality, failed us. The anthropological approach, based on studying the concrete group, dissolved the dilemma. It showed that in choosing the broad path, a donor is not being charitable, she is being logical and her behavior is not self-contradictory.

b. Getting oriented by doing

We already saw that we can’t start donor work by thinking of “all groups”, because a list of “all groups” in a society is impossible to make.5 The reason we wanted that list in the first place was equality before help, and theory showed us that such equality is unattainable. At this point, if we’d stick to equality, we should abandon the very idea of doing donor work, for we now know that even with the best of intentions we cannot treat all potential grantees equally, so if we start practicing, we shall not be treating them equally, for many reasons.

For example, equality before help can only be based on the assumption that at the beginning we know about these groups equally nothing. In practice that is never the case. There is always some pre-science about the concrete characteristics of certain groups of that society or certain regions of that country, and no pre-science about others. Therefore, we should abandon the perfectionist attitude and agree to the “second best”. What is the practically attainable “second best”, imperfect equality? It is based in our knowledge of groups in a society that we assume could be our future grantees. And for sure that knowledge, preceding our own concrete practice and experience, is very imperfect indeed, and so our decision to start with these groups and not with others is ethically imperfect as well as intellectually questionable. But if we want to move at all from ground zero, we must accept that. I’ll mention just one possible bad development that may follow from the built-in imperfection of a donor’s functioning in this situation, as I have seen it happen.

In 1994, OSF-New York had proposed to OSF-Bulgaria to develop a plan for growth. Two plans were proposed: one was based on retaining the gist of the extant decision-making system. The system was that project directors would present their grant proposals to a Foundation’s Directorate of four, who would take the final yea or nay decision by consensus, or return the documents for further clarification; the work of the system was monitored by a local Board of the Foundation. The alternative plan was that work be separated by areas, with each area having a mini-board that would decide on grants; the Foundation’s Board would monitor work in general, but not bother with grants. That plan seemed to make more sense, as the Foundation was supposed to grow. However, a colleague and I (we were two of the four directors) strongly opposed it. We were afraid that the “preknowledge” that such professionally specialized mini-boards would indicate to applicants, professionals in the same field, would yield decisions that would be made in a spirit of “ties and connections”, and result in granting to favorites and non-granting to “enemies”. That was a well-known phenomenon in Bulgaria, which usually surfaced whenever a collective professional peer decision would have to be taken. Of course, the old system was not exempt from this danger too, but in practice the danger was effectively forestalled by the open and reasonable way decisions  were made in the Directorate. The innovative project was adopted by the Bulgarian Board and endorsed by New York, the Directorate was abolished and the mini-boards established, and my colleague and I were offered jobs that had no real say in granting or policy making. We accepted initially, hoping to be able to at least act as internal watchdogs; in a couple of months my colleague was fired and I resigned in solidarity with him. I haven’t followed the Foundations’ performance in any systematic way, but I have reason to believe that a regular part of the grants was not made by merit, but went to favorites. Thus, OPM earmarked for opening society went to newly created closed groups. That seriously lowered project effectiveness; it was of course also demoralizing, in the Foundation and out.

Let’s now consider a “good practical” donor would do with the information that she has, in the context of her experience. She would come up with the decision that, from all groups she knows about, she’ll become interested in the certain groups and not in the rest. The decision to start work “at this point and not at that point,” is based on the rationale that “here” she divines a better chance for success, or for bigger success balanced by higher risk, etc.

That type of donor’s decision resembles a businessman’s decision – but it only resembles it. For a good businessman puts himself at the center, everything else is means for producing his own profit, which is what matters; as to the rest, if there is a rest, it’s charity. While a good donor puts at the center the group’s profit calculated intuitively in “more openness,” while the donor’s work and money is the means to get to that goal.

In the businessman’s case we find money on both the cost and effect sides; in the donor’s case money is found only on the cost side, and the effect side is money-free. Thus it becomes clear that even when applying the cost/ effect logic, the donor is logically bound to treat money differently from the businessman.6

To put it simply, the businessman is aiming the money at his own betterment, while the donor is aiming the money at the betterment of the group he wants to help; the business is the beginning and the end, the donor just the beginning. Therefore, when addressing donorship, the “business” logic is to be treated with an emphasis on the quotes.

The donor can borrow the cost/effect scheme, but not let himself be led by it. As he can’t hope to consider “all” groups for support, he should stick, piecemeal, to the groups that he has become interested in and has learned about. We see that at the start of work and before the first grant, the donor’s experience with previous groups (a kind of general pre-knowledge of yet untested relevance) is her only unsure safeguard against total arbitrariness of choice.
Uncomfortable, but normal.

It became clear that the donor, even when using the group approach to orient herself, is of necessity acting in a situation of imperfect knowledge. It is imperfect at two levels:

• Initially, the donor draws from her general experience: the main unknown is what parts of that experience are relevant to the society in which the granting is to be made.
• In the process of work, the donor would amass concrete knowledge from her experience of the potential grantees and their situation; that knowledge grows from virtual zero theoretically to infinity. The main problem here is that no matter how much a donor comes to know, and how well that knowledge is organized, it can never be “enough” for a concrete grant or granting policy to be rationally “fully grounded”. At best, the concrete grant or donor’s policies can be “reasonably grounded”, so the decision always involves a risk that has to be taken by the donor.

c. Learning about the prospective grantees

The two things a donor needs to know about a grantee are:

(1) Whether the grantee can be trusted, i.e. whether he has produced a bona fide project, which the grantee thinks makes sense, is doable, and shall be accounted for honestly.

(2) Whether the grantee can indeed implement the project, meaning that apart from the grantee’s word, the donor has her own picture of the situation and can judge it independently of the grantee.

The rest of grant-making consists in judging whether the concrete projects make sense, and I’ll treat it briefly below; the focus here are the grantees.

Looking back, I think that I could name one macro-factor which in-formed the grantee status in the three societies I have worked in as part of a collective) donor: Bulgaria, Belarus and Russia.7

In Bulgaria (of the early 1990s) the important thing to learn was the level of honesty of the pool of prospective partners. In Belarus (of the 2000s) the important thing to know was the level of fear.

In Russia (also of the 2000s), I believe that the major problem was the reverse trust: from partner to donor. Of course there was also the fear factor, though not as strong as in Belarus; and the Komsomol-type projects, maybe relatively no less abundant than in Bulgaria; but both would be easier to understand and counter than the reverse lack of trust.

4.2. Granting: two major problems identified

Now, when analyzing the OSF granting experiences that I know, I’ll be checking them against the anthropological approach developed here. However, at the time these grants were being made, no such approach was in use. As said, in Belarus the political approach was used by the Belarus Project of OSF (1997-2012); and in the early 1990s in Bulgaria no particular approach was used, and granting was made on the intuitive basis of “helping change,” which also boils down to a political consideration. Thus, the problems identified, of which two, as more important, shall be discussed here, are the result of a practice based on the idea of democratization, and not of “opening society”. The slogan of that practice should have been “Democratize to open!”, but in reality it was as a rule cut down to “Democratize!”

a. The problem with Human Rights

In the Belarus Project we were generally believers in Human Rights, and some of us had worked in the field.8 So it came somewhat as a surprise to us when we, as BP, started to look at HR applications as not quite “the thing”, and at least I gradually started to see HR not as a priority.

From the point of view of political change, HR in Belarus proved to be an approach of very low returns. Among colleagues we would often refer to HR applications as “export-oriented”, i.e. with no home effect.

The HR approach tells dictatorships that they better stop being dictatorships, but dictatorships disagree. Unfortunately, that holds true even for those international organizations, for whom national HR reports and their statistics make sense, for on that basis they do their daily work. As we know, not only HR internationals, but even the EU and USA together, lacking an implementation mechanism, can do nothing to stop a dictatorship from HR violation.

In 2011, fifteen persons were killed and more than 200 injured in a Minsk subway bombing. Two young men were convicted and sentenced to the death penalty. There was evidence of mistrial, and Belarusian HR monitors tried to get international support. They wanted a retrial, or at least to stop the execution, as Belarus was in a process of abolishing the death penalty. They got plenty of support, and Catherine Ashton personally tried at least to defer the execution. The two young men were put to death.

That’s how the problem looks in a political framework; translated to anthropology, it becomes clearer and easier to asses and treat.

When one is accusing the Belarusian regime of HR violation, we are using an international standard that as yet has not been adopted by official Belarus; but it has not been adopted by most of the population either. Therefore, in most cases when we invoke human rights, we are strengthening the unity of that population in a group against the “foreign aggression” of Human Rights. The same has been happening in Bulgaria whenever the country has been convicted and fined by the Human Rights Court in Strasburg. However, in Bulgaria with its governments that at least have to pay lip service to EU values, the situation is more complicated and an anti-HR union harder to achieve; there is a chance for the group that believe in government by Human Rights to grow.

What has been shown here is, however, not that HR work is irrelevant to a society’s development, but that it is useless in a closed-group situation and counterproductive as a mobilization tool. The BP’s tendency to deprioritize human rights work followed from the purely political, pro-democracy approach adopted. However, had we applied the view of opening of society as a permanent effort, we would have seen the sense in continuing HR support even if HR didn’t bring political dividends to the opposition. The focus would then be shifted from getting electoral results to educating the society; this entails switching to long-perspective vision and an indefinitely long commitment. That is not an easy decision for a donor.

b . Case in point: HR approach to the Roma problem

If we look at the Roma problem as practical political anthropologists (not to be confused with academic culturologists), we can also see why the HR approach hasn’t solved the problem of discrimination against the Roma (nor indeed any other problem of society). It is the macro-society that is to blame for the discrimination and segregation of the Roma, no question about it. However, the unfortunate conclusion from experience is that using the HR approach, we have just been reiterating that the macro-society is to blame. We have monitored discrimination practices, hate language and ghettoization, and appealed to the macro society to change for the better. But the only positive outcome has been help to particular HR violation victims, and such cases haven’t affected society. As a result, in Bulgaria for example there hasn’t been a clear, no-return improvement of attitudes of the non-Roma towards the Roma in the last 25 democratic years. Both the macro-society and the Roma minority seem to have accepted to live with a permanent problem in a chronic phase, with occasional acute peaks, after which all is back to routine.

In the case of the Roma, donors (including OSF, to my knowledge) have acted as democratic states do when they include a dictatorship in aid programs with the aim of helping it develop into a democracy. For example, the EU does that, with its programs for the Belarusian state. Such programs may result in “more good than bad” by some criteria and in the opposite by others, but that’s beside the point. The point is that in no way do they affect the state of the dictatorship, except by giving it some extra political legitimacy at home of the type “Whatever those foreigners say of Lukashenka, they cooperate with him!” (which the dictatorship neither counts on, nor needs), and some bureaucratic legitimacy abroad of the type: “Dictatorship or not, they can uphold their end of a contract!” - which the dictatorship counts on, but again doesn’t need. (What it does need abroad is political legitimization, and cooperation in programs usually doesn’t get it that.)

Most international donors have not repeated the mistake of governments, and have bypassed the Belarusian state to work directly with Belarusian NGOs devoted todemocracy. Doing that, even if they feel that the battle for democracy in Belarus has been lost, they have helped a battle fought for the right cause.

In the case of the Roma that battle for the Romany communities hasn’t even been started. The reason is that regarding the Roma, the international donors keep repeating the mistake of governments towards dictatorships. The thing to do for the Roma should therefore be analogous to what international donors have been doing In Belarus; bypass the state and work directly with NGOs; i.e. bypass the traditional leaders and work, from inside, with those unhappy few that are ready for personal sacrifices in order to work for the opening of the Romany group. As often as not they stand alone, and if they act at all, they act as one-wo/man NGOs without support, for having been marginalized both by the minority leaders and the donors. But they are the ones that can make a difference. The fact that no real difference has been made in the Romani situation the last 25 years shows that such people have neither been identified nor supported.

c. The problem with grantee development: professionalization or Komsomolism

It was suggested in discussing the case of Russia that the strategy to work for open society openly, via cooperation with the state, is futile, as the state depends on its survival on the lack of change. The natural choice for an international donor is, then, to work with NGOs. If the donor is committed to at least mid-term engagement, then professionalization of these NGOs is sure to ensue. In theory this isn’t bad as it means effective achievement of goals and implementation of projects. I remember how in the early 1990s in Bulgaria practically all potential donors that came to our NGO (the Center for the Study of Democracy) counseled us to “focus” and choose an area of activity to specialize in, and couldn’t understand our reluctance. As a matter of fact, we didn’t understand our reluctance ourselves, resisted intuitively for a while, then gradually gave in. In hindsight, I think that our intuitive resistance was right and it is a pity that we didn’t persevere.

I’ll be simplifying matters a bit, but in Bulgaria In the 1990s there was a dilemma for NGOs: continue with a wide profile, accepting non-professionalism In order to preserve the civic activist approach – or narrow down, professionalize and forget about civic activism. In the situation we had then, NGO professionalism and activism just didn’t go together. So, it was a choice, which in the last resort was a choice between systems of value prioritization.

As said, OSF-Bulgaria chose to professionalize and quickly got out first of the civic activism model, then, gradually, out of the civic model altogether. The successful cooperation with a willing state, which obtained during most of the1990s, may have been a factor in pushing OSF-Bulgaria towards the model of functioning as a “state within the state”. That gave it weight in Bulgarian society at the time, and while it couldn’t change its un Bulgarian agent image which all NGOs had acquired since the mid-1990s, it successfully countered most of its practical effects: work continued unhindered.

The problem was that OSF’s “state within the state” didn’t produce an open state within the postcommunist state: it ended up as postcommunist state within a postcommunist state. From outside, which was my position, its behavior looked like it had acquired all the major characteristics of that hybrid postcommunist animal. Plus, the people in the governing bodies of OSF, along with the staff of other successful NGOs at the time, like the Center for the Study of Democracy, the Institute for Market Economy, the Center for Social Practices or the Centre for Liberal Strategies (of which I speak as an insider) became part of the transitional political elite. Having got there, many of the NGO leaders decided that it was important to stay there, and become part of more permanent elites.

In the Belarus situation, OSF tried to avoid the corruption circle and supported organizations that clearly did have output, such as human rights groups (despite all the problems with HR support discussed above), and independent journalists, pollsters and political analysts; also, some book publishing. However, in a while it became clear that all these activities, non-Komsomol and making sense of themselves, didn’t have any significant effect in diminishing the dictatorship’s grip on society at large. Nor did the sufferings of such grantees at the hands of the regime have any political effect: under the menace of the regime, sympathy did not translate into a political position.

That was in a situation in which the donor community had long ago been convinced by the Established Belarusian Opposition that in dictatorial Belarus it was impossible to defend Human Rights – and any kind of rights – in court, per definitionem, so that’s why nobody should even try. The majority of the international donor community listened to the opposition and wouldn’t support exceptional persons and NGOs.

When you start doing something, you don’t know how effective you are going to be, but you put up with that uncertainty, and hope; while you are doing it, you can assess your effectiveness up to that point, and if you find it unsatisfactory, you can again bank on uncertainty and again hope for a better future; however, if you consider stopping doing something, you have to know. There is no uncertainty to ignore or rely on: you must know “for certain”, i.e. to the best of your abilities and in good faith, that what you have been doing is ineffective and has no reasonable chance of becoming effective in the observable future; and when you are satisfied that this is indeed the case, you stop.

So far, effectiveness of OSF work has been discussed at its start (in Eastern Europe) and in progress (Bulgaria, Belarus, Russia); but effectiveness was not seen as a crucial issue in these cases. However, at a closure, assessing effectiveness becomes an all-important factor. I’ll examine in brief the rationale of a donor’s behavior, at closure, declared or interpolated, from two viewpoints: first, as seen by donor (of which I was a part) at the time of action, and second, from the point reached by my understanding now.

In one of her lectures, Esther Duflo showed a graph of foreign aid to Africa: the line went unwaveringly up, indicating a constant increase of aid money over time. Then she showed a GDP graph for Africa for the same time period: it was a wavy horizontal line, indicating no significant increase or decrease. Duflo’s conclusion was: We don’t know. We don’t know whether foreign aid prevented the fall of that GDP, or prevented its growth, or had no effect.

Even the most innovative development economists, using the most innovative, therefore, most risky and mistake-open assessment methods, can always rely on checking their soft sociological data and softer intuitions against some hard data, like GDP or other quantifiable entities. So, at first glance, an attempt to evaluate society-opening work using Duflo’s approach looks like nonsense, as we obviously don’t have any hard data to rely on. We can count the money we want to give, assess the risk involved, but, unlike the GDP, we can’t quantify openness.9 On the basis of the comparison of aid money with GDP money, Duflo shows that what was assumed to be known – or to be an unknown of no consequence - is so important, that it challenges the rationale of the whole aid undertaking.

In the case of society-opening work we don’t have the hard data to arrive at such a hard “We don’t know”. On the other hand, the situation is not as soft as “We don’t know what we don’t know” – which is often used as an excuse for not assessing effectiveness. Certain things about what we don’t know we certainly have learned!

At BP we had always been self-critical, especially at our annual Board meetings, but in the end we would conclude (that’s my view at least) that we were doing the right thing, and if we were not getting better results, probably nobody else could get them either. Changes in our policies or modus operandi were repeatedly made, but radical changes were considered and repeatedly refuted. In 2010 for the first time the word was said that, no matter what, if we couldn’t become more effective, we should better close down.

In that situation we opted for an outsider’s view, and had the Project subjected to an evaluation. Some of the changes proposed we adopted and not others, but again it all boiled down to “producing more of the same” and that “same” was what was being questioned in terms of effectiveness to start with.

A similar message came from an extensive survey that we made among all of our serious partners in Belarus: many made recommendations, but none recommended a radical change in policy and practice. Thus, not our work, but the way one could judge it became a major issue.

Therefore, for me the BP was closed down in a closed way; and as I couldn’t explain the rationale of the closure to myself, I couldn’t explain it to our Belarusian partners either (and nobody else tried). As a result, for our partners too, the BP was closed down in a closed way. The promoters of open society had given a textbook example of closed society practice.

What I can say about assessing the effectiveness of opening work now, at the logical end of this essay, may come as an anticlimax, for it follows directly from points already made.

Having accepted that opening work is a thing we ought to do in every society at any moment of its development, one realizes that no matter how “ineffective” that work may be in terms of cost/effect, it is effective in open society terms. In that context, to stop such work would be the only ineffective act of a society-opener, and it would be an act of ultimate, total ineffectiveness. As effectiveness or the lack of it is no longer ground for starting or stopping work, to assess effectiveness becomes an endeavor of relatively minor importance.

There is a class of activities which are so important in terms of pure quality, i.e. that something is being done, and not how much of it is being done (much by whatever criterion) - that when we decide to quantify that quality and arrange these activities in order of that quantification, we can’t escape the feeling that we are doing something artificial and essentially useless.

That feeling is a true one. Whenever quality beats quantity, our intuition is there to wake us to the fact even if our reason sleeps. After all, Jesus of Nazareth told the parable that the shepherd who relentlessly searched for the lost sheep, felt at finding it that it was more precious to him than the disciplined ninety-nine.

Deyan Kiuranov of Sofia, Bulgaria was active in the Bulgarian anticommunist opposition and afterwards worked as a political scientist for NGOs and Soros’ Open Society in Bulgaria and Belarus. Follow excerpts from his essay “The idea of open society as a tool to open societies”; notes and references are omitted and available on our website.

 

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