Skip to main content
Newsroom Speech

Can Philanthropy Rise to the Challenge?

Mark Malloch-Brown speaks at the Social Change Initiative conference on how donors can help counter violent conflict and polarization.

  • Date
  • February 7, 2024
  • Speaker
  • Mark Malloch-Brown
  • Venue
  • Social Change Initiative
  • Location
  • Belfast, Northern Ireland

Remarks as prepared.

Thank you, Maggie. And thank you, Martin, for the invitation to this important gathering.

To be here within days of power-sharing returning to Stormont and a quarter-century after the Good Friday Agreement summons up many thoughts. Let me state two: philanthropy and patience.

It is a story that reminds us of the role that philanthropists can play in countering violent conflict and polarization.

Chuck Feeney died last October having quietly given away almost his entire fortune in the spirit of his favorite Irish proverb: “there are no pockets in a shroud!” Our host Martin, as Atlantic Philanthropies’ vice president, was his partner in his Irish work.

Feeney’s giving on both sides of the sectarian divide helped to narrow it—Gerry Adams himself suggested that his work brought forward the peace process by a year.

But a particularly important aspect of such philanthropy is that it did not stop when the ink dried on the peace agreement.

Feeney and others continued to fund efforts not just to help former militants redirect their energies into civilian politics but also to support lasting peace and reconciliation among ordinary people: integrated schools as well as universities, cultural centers, and libraries.

These exemplify two of my themes today.

First, those of us in the philanthropic sector need to concentrate not just on peace-building among elites, but on building the long-term civic and interpersonal foundations for lasting peace.

Second, philanthropists need to be a force against complacency, speaking out against assumptions that unresolved conflicts can be merely contained and in favor of deep investments in their resolution.

But it illustrates the wider privilege of philanthropy, the ability to deploy both patient and urgent capital. Urgent to remove obstructions that appear around every corner of the winding uphill road that is a peace process. And the patient capital to stick with the road through the long years before the peace agreement is struck and the long years after. You never know what the next hairpin bend may bring!

Even here in Northern Ireland—a gleaming success story in the modern history of peacebuilding—recent developments have threatened to undo hard-won progress as the implications of the Brexit vote of June 2016 have played out.


The horrific new conflagration of the Israel-Palestine conflict provides another illustration of that fact.

Just eight days before the murderous Hamas attacks of October 7, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, in a poorly timed article in Foreign Affairs, boasted that the Middle East was “quieter than it has been for decades.” A very smart man, nevertheless caught in the bubble of Washington complacency.

Just four months later we now have Secretary of State Antony Blinken characterizing the situation in the region as the most dangerous “since at least 1973, and arguably even before that.” To pluck out an event, even one as tragic and horrific as October 7, and claim it began today’s tragedy is to deny history.

As I will describe later, challenging the short attention spans of policymakers—and their absence of historical perspective—in an increasingly chaotic world is one of the areas where philanthropists can make a difference.

But first let me dwell briefly on the scale of that chaos.

The latest edition of the Global Peace Index found 2022 to have been the deadliest year for armed conflict since the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Take Tigray, Ethiopia, and Sudan—the overlooked but biggest killing fields. Add Ukraine and now Gaza and 2023 is likely to have broken that record.

To me, most striking is that governments have borrowed the tactics of terrorists, targeting civilians and breaking all the rules of war.

And we already know that wars are getting longer. Analysis by The Economist shows that where in the mid-1980s the average ongoing conflict had been raging for 13 years, the figure by 2021 was 20 years.

Last month UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Ted Chaiban professed that: “In the entirety of my more than 25-year career with UNICEF, it is hard to recall a year in which the situation facing children affected by conflict and disaster has been as dire as the one we are currently witnessing.”

This deterioration is a product of several interlocking global factors:

  • disruption and vacuums of power caused by geopolitical shifts;
  • pressures on natural resources often exacerbated by the climate crisis;
  • rising authoritarianism driving the oppression of minorities and other acts rallying majorities against the “other”;
  • polarization fueled by inequality and new technologies, most notably social media; and
  • weaknesses in the multilateral system and a breakdown of norms in what has been dubbed an “age of impunity.”

Societies and regions where people have lost sight of the basic validity of other groups and their grievances are tinder boxes. Prince Zeid Raad Al Hussein of the International Peace Institute, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, calls this the “tribalization of pain.” 

People around the world attest to this harshening of their civic environments. Last year we at the Open Society Foundations conducted a major global survey, of some 36,000 people in a representative group of 30 countries with a collective population of over 5.5 billion people.

Fifty-eight percent feared political unrest leading to violence—and a higher proportion in several of the states holding elections this year, including Senegal (74 percent), Pakistan (73 percent), and indeed the United States (67 percent).

Then there is the wider systemic risk of these archipelagos of violence and conflict joining up into larger breakdowns of order.

In recent days along we have seen retaliatory U.S. and British strikes on Iranian-backed groups, further attacks by Houthis in Yemen on Red Sea shipping, and new signs of Israel and Lebanon bracing for conflict with one another.

The risk of escalation in the Middle East recalls the historian Christopher Clark’s book, The Sleepwalkers, about the start of World War I.

In it, Clark writes: “The outbreak of war in 1914 is not an Agatha Christie drama at the end of which we will discover the culprit standing over a corpse in the conservatory with a smoking pistol. There is no smoking gun in this story; or rather there is one in the hands of every major character.”

But as his title claims, they slept-walked into it! Sadly, there was no Foreign Affairs magazine at the time to record their complacency!


Such, then, is the “challenge” contained in the title of this talk. So can philanthropies rise to it?

We’ve got the conscience for it. We are quick to sympathy and outrage—the easy bit—but can we do something about it?

We at Open Society have worked on Israel and Palestine since 1999. As the prospect of a two-state solution had waned, our focus has shifted from the discarded remnants of the peace process to long-term investments in Israeli and Palestinian civil society; including university programs training future lawyers and social scientists as well as partners focused on arts and culture, women’s and LGBTQ+ rights, and curbing disinformation.

In November, we announced an additional $3.3 million in emergency funding to support human rights organizations documenting violations of international humanitarian law and protecting vulnerable communities including Palestinians in the West Bank and inside Israel.

Another such lonely cause is that of Roma rights in Europe, on which last September we unveiled a €100 million pledge to set up a new independent foundation led by the community itself, building on our three decades of support for the community.

But the environment for such work has become gradually more difficult. In the Middle East and in Africa, philanthropies like OSF [Open Society Foundations] and Rockefeller Brothers have had to work within the bounds of anti-sanctions legislation, at the risk of severe penalties.

As rich-world governments have cut back their development budgets we have had to backfill support for organizations doing valuable work on peacebuilding.

And we have faced the prospect of government partners adopting hyper-realist stances on many foreign policy issues.

Last summer, 75 members of Congress asked President Biden to raise the treatment of India’s Muslim minority during the state visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Modi was celebrated with the biggest White House state dinner ever—with expressions of concern brushed off as unwarranted interference. Containing China mattered more than India’s Muslim minority.

Surveying this difficult landscape, we at OSF want to bring new coherence, and ambition to our work on peace-building and reconciliation, as part of a major internal restructuring designed to make our philanthropy more impactful.


Those internal changes are motivated by a certain perspective on the role of philanthropy in a world of escalating conflict and crisis.

As I wrote in a piece last month for Foreign Affairs, there was a time when the leaders of big philanthropies were rather like secular priests, bastions of the Western establishment.

Figures like Paul Hoffman, who was appointed to the presidency of the Ford Foundation in 1950 fresh from running the Marshall Plan, a core pillar of American foreign policy at the time. He then went on to be the first administrator of UNDP [United Nations Development Programme], a job I later held.

One of Hoffmann’s successors at Ford was McGeorge Bundy, who led the foundation from 1966 to 1979 after five years as U.S. national security adviser in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, a post in which he was one of the leading architects of the escalation in Vietnam.

These were Washington’s “Wise Men”—white, male and Ivy League educated. In government or out, they were architects of America’s global hegemony.

In more recent, skeptical times philanthropies have had to adopt a more humble profile: out with the old paternalism, and in with a new “trust-based” giving that lets grantees decide how to use the money they receive.

Clearly this is a better match for our times. But does it go far enough?

My contention is that the sector needs to break more definitively with its old role as a prop to the existing order, recasting itself instead as an investor in—and agitator for—new paradigms and visions of order entirely.

An age of crisis and conflict demands that we be not secular priests, but constructive heretics.

That means recognizing that we philanthropies have particular freedoms to try out new approaches, to be idiosyncratic, to take risks.

Our very weakness—we are founded on one man’s fortune (and it still nearly always a man)—is also our strength.

At our best we can reach out and do things a government, a business, or an NGO with voters, shareholders, or donors cannot. We can speak up and act with confidence if our funder allows. And with OSF's George Soros, a genetic heretic, that privilege is a large one.


When it comes to peacebuilding, that means not just falling in behind established institutions—be those governments, multilateral institutions, or private sector ones—but getting out ahead of them:

  • backing long-shot, long-term mediation efforts;
  • pioneering original new methods of opening up common ground;
  • seeding new relationships between state power and civil society; and
  • and supporting the bottom-up social movements that understand and move among the realities on the ground.

Let me expand that final point, which is especially important.

Where groups of people have become violently opposed to one another, it is not enough merely to broker peace between their leaders—especially not by wagging fingers and brandishing legal rules from the outside.

Take Israel and the Palestinian Territories today. European and North American leaders are congratulating themselves on having bypassed 20 or so more years of street fighting and at last re-endorsed a two-state solution.

They have not noticed that in the street—not just the often-caricatured Arab street but the American university campus—younger voters almost everywhere have moved on. Suddenly backing the idea of a two-state solution is seen as too little, too late.

As a non-Jewish admirer and supporter of Israel, my head and heart spin. The Kibbutz movement was for those in my generation something to admire. Today, it is viewed as part of an apparatus of colonization, occupation, and oppression. I can, and do, abhor the loss of historical memory. But equally I hate our reluctance to find common ground between these main narratives; moving forward, I hope we can be guided by both principle and pragmatism.

But the reality is that elites are in one place, people are in another. Make no mistake, hell has been let loose.

As I hardly need to tell this audience, and as the recent history of Northern Ireland shows us, lasting peace means people-to-people reconciliation. It must be bolstered and constantly renewed through strong and ongoing civil society engagement. It must be led from below.

Central to the new, more “heretical” philanthropy I am proposing is much more vigorous engagements with that reality.

Often that means being able to move at a pace other important players cannot, whether they be governments answerable to their voters or companies answerable to their shareholders.

Foundations can move very fast to respond to a sudden crisis or opportunity. But we also have sticking power, the ability to invest in causes whose results are measured not in months but in decades. We can be both patient and urgent.

As hatreds intensify, violence spreads, and conflicts become longer, more numerous, and more lethal to civilians, that focus on where we can make the biggest difference matters more than ever.

Thank you.

Read more

Subscribe to updates about Open Society’s work around the world

By entering your email address and clicking “Submit,” you agree to receive updates from the Open Society Foundations about our work. To learn more about how we use and protect your personal data, please view our privacy policy.