George Soros, the Open Society Foundations and environmental NGOs: a transparency deficit?

Founded in 1983 by the controversial billionaire George Soros, the Open Society Foundations is a network of foundations operating on a particularly broad spectrum of activities: defense of human rights, public health, promotion of democracy and economic reform and social. The name of the OSF is in fact directly inspired by the concept of “open society” initially developed by Henri Bergson before being popularized by Karl Popper through his work The Open Society and its Enemies (1945). This concept is at the heart of Mr. Soros’ public engagement, and adapted by him, as illustrated by the title of a conference [1] of the businessman organized by the OSF in 2011 : building open societies.

As an organization whose ambition is to initiate and maintain profound societal changes, the OSF is also interested in the environmental sphere via the financing of NGOs, which sometimes appears as a paradox with regard to certain investments made by Mr. Soros in fossil fuels (cf. below). In its official communication, the OSF also claims to grant ” thousands “ funding each year, but there is a severe lack of transparency regarding the details and amounts of grants or loans granted. In addition, does the OSF really have the will and the means to ensure that the productions (surveys, reports) of the organizations it supports are sound (i.e. based on cross-checked facts )? Are the control systems sufficient to prevent organizations from taking certain shortcuts? The article will focus here on a specific case that occurred in 2021, highlighting a certain lack of transparency in the projects supported by the OSF.

George Soros seems to have an ambiguous relationship with environmental issues

The support of the Open Society Foundation for environmental NGOs seems rather ironic insofar as George Soros has already made large investments in the coal industry, which is not very kind to the planet. In the summer of 2015, in fact, the billionaire has invested more than $2 million in two coal industry giants, Arch Coal and Peadbody Energy (the largest private company in the sector). A choice that is not without causing frowns in the light of past statements by the person concerned. In 2009, George Soros had indeed referred to coal as “lethal for the climate” at the Copenhagen summit.

In the last quarter of 2017, Soros Fund Management invested in eleven companies operating in the field of fossil energyeven as Mr. Soros gave $36 million to 18 organizations participating in the People’s Climate March April 29, 2017. We understand that when it comes to making juicy investments, the acrid smell of coal does not seem to bother the billionaire unduly.

Besides this ambiguity and these apparent contradictions, George Soros is a leading personality who rarely leaves anyone indifferent. If his sulphurous reputation comes in part from a certain phantasmagoria of the figure of the all-powerful billionaire acting in the shadows, it also stems from very factual elements. In 1992, the American billionaire of Hungarian origin had for example speculated against the pound sterling, leading to its devaluation by 15% and its exit from the European Monetary System (EMS). The operation brought in more than a billion dollars in profit [2] to George Soros. In 1999, the Nobel Prize in Economics Paul Krugman [3] sharply criticized the actions of George Soros, arguing that he chose his investments with a view to trigger financial crises for one’s own gain.

Criticism of George Soros and his Open Society Foundations is too often decked out with the infamous stamp of conspiracy. If a lot of online content on this subject does in fact lead to a sometimes delirious over-interpretation of the influence and power of the OSF, it would on the contrary be wrong to deny the financial strike force of this organization, and therefore the influence it can exert. Moreover, if one cannot presuppose without proof the hidden intentions that the Open Society Foundations would serve through its investments, the support of the OSF to a multitude of NGOs can pose more “methodological” problems. The fact of benefiting from such a prestigious and generous sponsor on a financial level could perhaps explain why some of them are tempted to rest on their laurels on an operational level. The Open Society Foundations is a structure that brews so many projects and finances so many organizations that the level of audit applied to the activities of beneficiary NGOs is likely to be affected. How can you ensure that the OSF scrupulously monitors the relevance of the reports produced by the organizations it supports?

When a Dutch foundation supported by the OSF points the finger at a French distributor: lack of transparency?

In March 2021, a coalition of mostly French NGOs (Canopée Forêts Vivantes, CPT, Envol Vert, France Nature Environnement, Sherpa and Mighty Earth) and organizations representing the indigenous peoples of Colombia and Brazil (OPIAC, COIAB, etc.) attacked the Casino group in court, accusing it of complicity with deforestation in the Amazon. This action is based on a report produced by the Parisian NGO Envol Vert in June 2020. This latest report is itself based on the findings of a Dutch foundation named Center for Climate Crime Analysis (CCCA). However, a document hosted on the CCCA website indicates that the Open Society Foundations is among the donors of the Dutch organization. The ties between the CCCA and the Open Society Foundations do not stop at funding (the exact amount of which is not disclosed). There are indeed more organic links between the two structures: the Director of Legal Strategy Ben Batros was an employee of the Open Society Foundations for six years (August 2010 to November 2016) and Alex Whiting, a member of the CCCA Board of Directors since 2018, has provided training on human rights. partly funded by the Open Society Foundations between 2008 and 2009. This proximity is also found on an operational level, the Memorandum of September 2021 on “the negative impacts of the beef industry in Brazil” produced jointly by the CACB and the Open Society Justice Initiative (OSJI). We can here wonder about a certain lack of transparency which surrounds on the one hand the details of the investigation carried out by the CCCA (the list of 592 producers is not accessible to the public), and on the other hand the amount of funding granted by the Open Society Foundations. No specific document (amounts, recurrences, counterparties) on this subject has in fact been published by the OSF or the CCCA.

Credits: Cunningchrisw / Pixabay

Another problem: the CCCA is based in the Netherlands and is therefore entirely dependent on its local partners for the collection of documents or testimonies. The documents published on the CCCA website do not in fact indicate that one of their members has been on the ground in Latin America. According to the report of the Dutch foundation, the Casino group would have bought meat from three slaughterhouses belonging to the JBS company, themselves supplied by 592 producers, several of whom would have been guilty of deforestation for the purposes of breeding between 2009 and 2020. Thus, the legal action carried out with a vengeance by a coalition of NGOs comes from ultimately from a single listing of 592 producers. It is easy to understand that a long supply chain, with multiple intermediaries and a wide range of producers greatly complicates the identification of responsibilities. The contrast between the precision required in order to reliably call into question the responsibility of an actor and the probability that a link in the chain of information reaching a European NGO is inaccurate is dizzying. Erroneous information at the local level would thus lead to an intrinsically worm-eaten investigation, hence the importance of European NGOs carrying out particularly meticulous work in verifying and cross-referencing information. If we go back up the chain of elements incriminated by the NGOs, we realize that the responsibility of European distributors – if proven – appears particularly diluted. In the light of these elements, the legal and media campaign led against the French distributor is questionable.




[3] Paul KrugmanThe accidental theorist: and other dispatches from the dismal science, New York, WW Norton & Company, 1999, p. 160

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