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Philanthropy and Multilateralism: Are Legitimacy and Performance Possible in a Chaotic Age?

Mark Malloch-Brown speaks to the 1818 Society at the World Bank on the crisis of legitimacy facing the philanthropy sector and multilateral institutions.

  • Date
  • November 9, 2023
  • Speaker
  • Mark Malloch-Brown
  • Venue
  • 1818 Society at the World Bank
  • Location
  • Washington, D.C.

Remarks as prepared.

Mark Malloch-Brown: Thank you Tom for that introduction and for the invitation to address your Annual Meeting. 

And thank you to everyone here, both in person and attending remotely from all over the world. 

What a wealth of knowledge and experience dwells in this global World Bank family of ours. I pay tribute to the 1818 Society for nurturing it, and for keeping us all in contact. 


Friends, let me begin my remarks by sharing with you a memory from my own World Bank days. 

It was the summer of 1997. I am sure many of you remember that time well. The Asian financial crisis was building and civil war was about to break out between the Bank and the IMF, each offering competing solutions. Stiglitz and Wolfensohn versus Camdessus and Fischer! 

History on that occasion has been kinder to our corner of Nineteenth Street, it is true. But there was no real winner. The firefighters were arguing rather than working together to put out the fire; our joint Bretton Woods reputation was the loser. 

As the Asian economies teetered, Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mohammed Mahathir stood out as one leader who looked the institutions in the eye. But this was more than a technocratic decision. 

The prime minister of what until recently had been one of the great success stories of free-market globalization—of the liberal institutional order—not only refused the support of those institutions but packaged his refusal in rhetorical assaults against that whole order; against the West, financial capitalism, and alleged speculators including George Soros. 

I already knew George well by that point and admired his already renowned philanthropic support for democracy and human rights. My family and I were staying with him one weekend that summer when my office at the Bank faxed me a speech by Mahathir attacking my host and blaming him for the crisis. 

Not only did the speech smack of anti-Semitism, it was also entirely off-beam about the nature of the crisis. George had quietly divested himself of his Asian currency holdings well beforehand and was not one of those whose sudden stampede out had caused the collapse in the ringgit. 

In his Southampton garden, we agreed that I would give George right of reply. At the time I was organizing the annual World Bank gathering in Hong Kong, and arranged for him and Mahathir to speak a day apart. 

The former touted a progressive international order of laws and transparency; the latter a closed, nationalist one. Ironically, the two old showmen have since become grudging friends as the political wheel of fortune subsequently turned in Malaysia. 

The memory of that Hong Kong gathering and its background remains lodged in my mind as an illustration of the intertwined elements of a much wider story: the long crisis of liberal institutions, including both the multilateral Bretton Woods architecture and philanthropic enterprises like George’s Open Society Foundations. 

By that, of course, I do not mean liberal in the partisan sense, but with a small-L: institutions seeking to advance progress, pluralism, and international collaboration. 

I have spent much of my career in such institutions: 

  • From my first work for the UN in the late 1970s; 
  • through my time at the World Bank in the 1990s; 
  • then back at the UN first as Administrator of UNDP and then as Deputy Secretary-General in the 2000s; 
  • as a British foreign minister after that; 
  • and today leading George Soros’s OSF, the world’s largest private funder of independent groups working for justice, democratic governance, and human rights.

So I have had a front-row seat onto that long crisis of legitimacy and performance.


Both the Bretton Woods architecture and the modern Western philanthropic tradition have their roots in the immediate post-war years; as establishment, insider institutions of a more deferential era. 

Theirs was a liberalism guided principally by ‘wise men,’ to use the term applied to that revolving door of East Coast power brokers who moved easily between U.S. administrations. 

As I hardly need to remind this audience, the Bank and the IMF were conceived in the Gold Room of the Mount Washington Hotel as the armies of the Allied states represented there swept across Europe and Asia towards the borders of the Third Reich and Imperial Japan. It was American and British policymakers who held the pen at their creation. 

Battlefield realities converged with the spirit, across the West, of the New Deal era. Was there any other moment in the past 100 years when a greater concentration of geo-political and geo-economic momentum came together in one room? 

The early flourishing of those institutions—and the new United Nations, especially during its first golden age under Dag Hammarskjöld—also coincided with a flourishing of paternalistic philanthropies.

These had their roots in the earlier quest by Gilded Era magnates like Andrew Carnegie to follow their consciences and “give back” to the societies in which they had accumulated their gargantuan fortunes. As Carnegie wrote: “wealth is not to feed our egos but to feed the hungry and help people to help themselves.” 

Notwithstanding some prying from McCarthyite hardliners in the 1950s, the likes of the Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Ford philanthropic empires were at one with the New Deal and Bretton Woods era. A little older, with early 20th century roots, they became the natural allies of these post-war multilateral institutions; partners in a global Pax Americana. 

Take Ford, founded in 1936. Its president in the early 1950s, Paul G. Hoffman, had led the implementation of the post-war Marshall Plan as Administrator of the Economic Cooperation Administration. 

Then later, when he became the first head of the UNDP, Hoffman reprised the title of “Administrator” from his earlier Marshall Plan role. I held it myself between 1999 and 2005. It accompanies the job to this day. 

Another notable Ford Foundation president was McGeorge Bundy, who led the philanthropy between 1966 and 1979 after five years as US National Security Adviser in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and one of the leading minds behind the American escalation in Vietnam; an administration colleague, of course, of the great World Bank President, Robert McNamara.

Under Bundy’s presidency the foundation backed civil rights causes, in support of the Johnson agenda, and even offered grants to Robert Kennedy’s staff after his assassination. Like Hoffman, Bundy personified the tight links between the post-war American order and the major philanthropies of the time. 

Look, too, at the Rockefeller and Ford Foundation roles in the Green Revolution in South Asia or in development in Africa. They were as much loyal partners of an American agenda abroad as they were allies of power at home. 

Looking back on that age, the likes of Hoffman and Bundy resemble secular bishops: legitimized by their social standing, the fortunes behind the philanthropies they ran, and their near-seamless integration with the Western establishment. Indeed leadership of these foundations ranked in the social cannon as unofficially equivalent to cabinet-level roles. 


With hindsight, the turning point for both multilateralism and the philanthropic world probably came with the crisis of the 1970s: 

  • The oil crises of that decade brought the New Deal era to a close and planted the seeds of the neoliberal era that would succeed it; 
  • the Vietnam War became a bloody, hopeless quagmire; 
  • Watergate discredited the American establishment; 
  • and the old deferential, paternalistic institutional order began to fracture.

Indeed, the term “polycrisis,” so often used to sum up the overlapping calamities of our own 2020s, dates all the way back to that time. 

The French sociologist Edgar Morin, later credited with coining the term, first elaborated the idea in a 1976 essay with his colleague André Béjin in which the two wrote in terms that resonate today: “There is no area that is not haunted by the notion of crisis: capitalism, law, civilization, humanity.”

Just as the philanthropists and multilateralists of the earlier age—like Hoffman and Hammarskjöld—had reflected the more settled order of the immediate post-war years, so their successors were marked by their own more troubled age.

At the Bank, Robert McNamara presided between 1968 and 1981 while carrying heavy baggage as a former U.S. Secretary of Defense and architect of the Vietnam War. For all his achievements, he remains a symbol of how the wider diplomatic and political crises of those times intersected with the legitimacy and credibility of the multilateral institutions.

Change was also afoot in the big philanthropies which, finding their legitimacy more frequently questioned in a less paternalistic age, began casting around for a more professional and expert model of leadership and working. Deference was not enough anymore.


The trends set in motion during the crisis of the 1970s would come to a head in the immediate post-Cold War years of the 1990s and early 2000s. 

This was of course the heyday of the neoliberal era, another moment in which the streams of geopolitics and economic philosophy seemed to flow in parallel for a while. Under the “Washington Consensus,” free-market economic prescriptions—privatization, deregulation, trade, and foreign exchange liberalization—were functions of the unipolar realities of global power.

But it was also the time in which the first cracks began to show in that order. Washington Consensus recipes triggered a backlash.

Despite some successes, I don’t need to tell many of you here, they sometimes included draconian belt-tightening imposed on democratically elected governments with a mandate to resist such measures. The Bretton Woods institutions became unpopular. Anti-globalization protests mounted.

In his 1999 book Homeland Earth: A Manifesto for a New Millennium, Edgar Morin returned once more to the notion of “interwoven and overlapping crises”, arguing that the world faced no single threat but rather a “complex inter-solidarity of problems, antagonisms, crises, uncontrollable processes, and the general crisis of the planet.”

Such was the backdrop when, following a period as a political consultant, I was hired to help the Bank precisely because of its embattled state.

An early but enduring memory from my time as Director and then Vice President for External Affairs was the 1994 Annual meeting in Madrid, when protestors clambered into the roof of the conference hall and showered fake dollar bills bearing environmental and anti-debt slogans onto my first President Lew Preston and his audience of listening finance ministers.

The movement represented in those rafters would reach its apotheosis in the anti-globalizations protests of Seattle in 1999 and Genoa in 2001.

I am sure many of you remember that time and how difficult it was, having pursued careers dedicated to advancing human development, to be part of an institutional architecture suddenly so widely felt to be at odds with that purpose—even when the criticisms in question were often over-simplistic.


A parallel story—of a post-Cold War heyday also coinciding with the first cracks—was playing out in the philanthropic sector around that time.

The work of my friend George Soros really took off in this era. In his 2019 book In Defense of Open Society, he recalls how those “hectic and euphoric” times saw OSF expenditures soar from $3 million to over $300 million in a few years.

He recalls: “I was not allowed to travel on my own anymore; somebody had to accompany me and take note of all the commitments I was making; otherwise, they would not be honored. That is when the foundation network started to take on its present shape.”

George was a pioneer, “a selfish man with a selfless foundation,” as he put it in typically unvarnished fashion. He rooted the legitimacy of his giving not in his own success in becoming rich and joining the American establishment, but in the impact of his grantees: from democracy activists in Myanmar, to researchers working on enlightened drugs policies in the U.S., to Roma rights campaigners in Europe.

As Darren Walker, the current President of the Ford Foundation has noted, George was the first of the great philanthropists not motivated so much by a duty to “give back” but by a deep aspiration to change things. 

Other milestones of this era included the foundation of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 2000; its grantee, the One Campaign, in 2004; and the broad philanthropic support for the Millennium Development Goals in the form of campaigns and organizations like Oxfam, the Global Call to Action Against Poverty, and Make Poverty History. 

Foundations, the Bank, and the UN alike were shifting towards a more responsive and activist model—but still one based broadly on collaboration. 

George Soros and Bill Gates and multilateralists like Kofi Annan and James Wolfensohn sat at the same tables. 

Or indeed at the foot of the same bed! I can still picture Kofi perched on the end of a bed of a hotel room at the Gleneagles G8 summit in 2005, plotting with Bob Geldof and Bono how to prize more funds out of national leaders. 

And yet: the cracks were showing. The legitimacy of the big philanthropists was starting to come under attack. Mathahir’s verbal assault on George in 1997 was a canary in the coal mine. 

Another more personal moment (for me at least) illustrating the intertwined fortunes of the philanthropic sector and the multilateral institutions came a decade later, in May 2007, in a Wall Street Journal editorial. 

This reported on a talk I had given at the Bank in which I was questioned about the risk to it from the ongoing uncertainty about Paul Wolfowitz’s position as President. The Journal characterized this as part of what it dubbed a “Euro-coup” against Wolfowitz and linked it to my friendship with George in what it grimly called “the George Soros axis.” 

As both the World Bank and the philanthropic foundations entered a new century there was a palpable loss of institutional self-confidence. 

Speaking for the foundations, these increasingly abdicated their own agency, as staff and boards fretted about the legitimacy of the fortunes that made them; and sought to find a new indirect legitimacy for what they did in the community-based social movements and groups they funded. 

Now the grantee was always right in an era of “trust-based philanthropy” to give it the sector’s own name for the practice. 

In 2020, under my immediate predecessor Patrick Gaspard, OSF announced investments totaling $220 million in emerging organizations and leaders building power in Black communities across the U.S.—seizing on the Black Lives Matter moment for change and seeking to keep up the momentum it generated. 

To be clear, OSF is not alone in shifting in this direction. To return once more to our counterparts at the Ford Foundation, I could also cite the example of their Building Institutions and Networks Initiative (known by the acronym BUILD) which makes long-term investments in social justice campaigns and capacity. 

Such spending has encouraged a broadening and deepening of civil society across the world. 

But is this enough in an era of democratic reversal? Soros had seen a strong civil society as a guarantor of new democracies, but after almost twenty years of democratic retreat, as measured by Freedom House, it has left civil society too often as a casualty, not a guarantor.


Today we find ourselves in an era in which the term polycrisis has come into its own: re-surfaced by Jean-Claude Juncker, then President of the European Commission, in 2018, and re- popularized by the economic historian Adam Tooze over the past year to denote a time in which, as Tooze has put it, “the shocks are disparate, but they interact so that the whole is even more overwhelming than the sum of the parts.” 

He makes a convincing argument. Witness, for example, the plight of a state like Egypt (though I could name many other national case studies). 

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the sharp global increase in grain and fertilizer prices disrupted the Egyptian economy, which was already worn down by COVID-19 pandemic, water shortages, and debt. Then came Russia’s withdrawal in July from the Turkish-mediated deal to allow Ukrainian grain exports through the Black Sea, which pushed prices up once again. 

By the time Hamas launched its barbaric attacks against Israel on October 7, Egypt’s annual inflation rate was nearing 40 percent. Since then, the Israeli reprisals and the unprecedented Palestinian casualties they have caused in Gaza mean that Egypt is on the front line of a new security and humanitarian crisis. 

If there is a better word than “polycrisis” to sum up this sort of situation, I am yet to encounter it. 

Just consider the statistics: 

  • Among low-income countries 60 percent are in, or at high risk of, debt distress. 
  • 2023 is on track to be the hottest year on record, and saw several successive instances of the “hottest day” record being broken. 
  • Half-way through the implementation period of the Sustainable Development Goals, only 15 percent are on track. 48 percent are moderately or severely off-track, and the remaining 37 percent are in stagnation or regression. 
  • In 2022, the number of annual deaths in state-based conflicts surpassed 200,000 for the first time since 1986. 
  • According to the UNHCR, the number of people forcibly displaced reached a record 108 million last year, up over 19 million since 2021 in what was also the biggest ever annual increase.

And of course none of these numbers reflects the deaths and wider humanitarian fallout of the terrible ongoing violence in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

Friends, the global dashboard is flashing red.


If there is one note of hope in this gloomy picture, it is that new attention is being paid to multilateral institutions—and, in some cases, the philanthropies seeking to support them.

I have witnessed that at first hand over a triptych of recent international gatherings. 

At the Paris Summit for a New Global Financing Pact in June, the UN General Assembly in September, and the Annual Meetings of the Bank and the IMF in Marrakech last month, my OSF colleagues and I saw evidence of a new spirit of ambition led by figures like Mia Mottley, the Prime Minister of Barbados and founder of the Bridgetown Initiative, and the Bank’s own Ajay Banga.

There has even been some concrete progress, albeit of a patchy sort. The Annuals in Marrakech did bring steps forward on increased IMF quotas, an additional chair for sub-Saharan Africa, the re-channeling of Special Drawing Rights to low-income countries, and the starting gun fired on the replenishment of the IDA fund.

These tentative movements forward on the global financial architecture deserve to be seen as part of a wider recalibration of the prevailing economic paradigm.

We are in a time in which, like in the 1970s, the pre-existing paradigm is as Gary Gerstle has put it, “losing the capacity to exercise ideological hegemony.”

In his excellent book The Rise and Fall of the Neoliberal Order, the Cambridge University historian goes on to argue that: “In those moments of decline, political ideas and programs formerly regarded as radical, heterodox, or unworkable, or dismissed as the product of the overheated imaginations of fringe groups on the right and left, are able to move from the margins into the mainstream.”

The neoliberal moment has passed, a process dating back at least to the financial and economic crisis of 2007 and 2008 and its long political fallout—which can be said to include the rise of authoritarian illiberalism in the 2010s.

Mounting climate crises and shocks like COVID-19 have placed a new emphasis on state capacity, cohesion, and societal resilience.


But while the spirit of the age favors stronger multilateral institutions and mechanisms for greater equity, those institutions and mechanisms remain comparatively weak.

Secretary General Guterres was remarkably blunt in his opening address at UNGA. He described how in a world that, in his words, is becoming “unhinged,” they are simply not up to the task.

“We cannot effectively address problems as they are if institutions do not reflect the world as it is.” He said: “Instead of solving problems, they risk becoming part of the problem.”

The World Bank’s resources today are much smaller as a share of the global economy than they were in the past. Paid-in capital as a percentage of global GDP it is a fifth of what it was in 1960.

And the steps forward at Marrakech were much too limited. Progress on debt was minimal and the announcements on SDRs were too modest. Fundamentally the world is still far short of marshaling the additional $3 trillion per year needed by 2030.

Ajay hit the nail on the head when he said: “we do not suffer from a shortage of solutions; we are paralyzed by a persistent lack of courage to pursue them.”

The global public seems to share his assessment. This past summer, we at OSF conducted a major study of opinion, surveying some 36,000 people in a representative group of 30 countries representing some 5.5 billion people for our now-annual Open Society Barometer. You can find a link to the full report on the OSF homepage.

The results were a sobering illustration of the human effects of the polycrisis: 

  • 49 percent of our respondents reported having worried about putting food on the table; 
  • 58 percent were worried that political unrest in their country could lead to violence in the next year; 
  • and 70 percent were anxious that climate change could affect their lives in the next year. 

But the polling also found strong support for multilateralist principles, institutions, and mechanisms. For example: 

  • 57 percent of our respondents supported the African Union joining the G20; 
  • 8 percent agreed that high-income countries should give more money to the World Bank; 
  • 84 percent, and majorities in all G20 countries, said lenders should do more help indebted countries. 

In other words, people around the world lead their own governments on the ambition and progress they want from multilateralism.

It remains an open question how long their faith will last. Might we see a point at which they simply stop believing and turn their backs on multilateral solutions? How durable is the residual legitimacy of organizations like the Bank? 

In our age of liberal institutions in crisis, we multilateralists must take such questions of legitimacy seriously indeed.


Amid such internal and external challenges, many inside institutions like the Bank are turning to the philanthropic sector for support and cooperation.

And there are still prominent examples of the two working in lockstep: witness the significant financial contributions from the Gates Foundation to the World Health Organization and how the two worked together on vaccine equity during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yet there is also a clear sense—and in some cases, a clear frustration—in Washington, New York, and Geneva that the relationship is no longer as seamless as it once was.

At a dinner during the Annuals in Marrakech, last month I was sitting next to a senior Bank official.

She recalled a time, not long ago, when institutions like the Bank would routinely invite in philanthropic organizations to cooperate with their initiatives. Now by contrast, my dining companion went on to note, we seem to prefer the role of challenger as much as partner.

At a time of more pronounced anti-establishment and anti-elite sentiment, new questions are being asked of the old Carnegie-esque paternalistic logic of “rich men giving back.” And grantees are insisting multilateralism must do more and challenge the hand of the states that feed it. Not a comfortable role!

These entirely valid debates are also accompanied by new internal splits along cultural and generational lines. Questions of gender and racial identity and justice have put some legacy philanthropies on the back foot.

Even those with a more pronounced “progressive” credo like OSF have had to grapple with these at the same time as they are grappling with how to operate legitimately and impactfully in a world increasingly consumed by crisis and institutional fragmentation.

Once philanthropists and leaders of philanthropies were secular bishops, paid up members of the establishment. Increasingly, I believe they—we—need to be heretics.

At a time of breakdown, we need to be more entrepreneurial and insurgent. We need to focus on what we can do that other actors—international institutions, national governments, private firms—cannot. We need to agitate and challenge the multilateral system from the outside.

We have grown afraid of our own shadow. Burdened not liberated by the money that made us, I believe we must have courage to see it as an empowering privilege. Then our legitimacy will come from our performance—our results. We will dare to do the things others cannot.

As you may know, we are currently in the process of moving OSF onto a new operating model designed to be much more focused on the areas where we can have an impact that would not be achieved by others—in particular fast, responsive “urgent” interventions where we can be nimbler and more opportunistic than other organizations; and long-term “patient” ones where we have greater staying power precisely because we do not have voters or shareholders to satisfy. 

Those changes are currently being implemented and the new structure will not fully take shape until next year.

But I can offer some examples of this new, more “heretical” philanthropy from our existing work.

Today the Soros Economic Development Fund, our impact investment arm, is supporting the American digital pharmacy sector to provide abortion drugs across state lines in the wake of the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade.

We are also looking to seed innovative and cooperative projects responding to the demands of the polycrisis.

For example, on a visit to Brazil in May I was able to announce $15 million in for a pilot program to develop a “standing forest” economy that preserves the Amazon while supporting the 30 million people who live there—a pioneering endeavor involving not just Brazil’s own BNDES but also the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

Another recent case is our support for the International Finance Facility for Education launched last year by Secretary General Guterres and Gordon Brown, and its guarantee program for LMICs enabling them to unlock MDB resources for education investments.

And we are doubling down on our pre-existing emphasis on what George Soros calls “political philanthropy;” grant-making that is alive to the realities of power and agency and seeks to address the underlying political causes of the challenges facing humanity.


When it comes to the future of the multilateral institutions themselves, we at OSF are seeking to follow that “urgent and patient” approach I described a moment ago. 

Among the items in the urgent, responsive, opportunistic column is our support for dynamic leaders within the system like Amy Pope at the International Organization for Migration and Simon Stiell at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. 

Here I would also like to mention our early backing for the Bridgetown Initiative and the V20 Group’s Accra to Marrakech Agenda—good examples of this more “heretical” approach to our work on multilateralism. Both are about constructively challenging the system to be more ambitious. 

In the long-term we want to seed both innovative mechanisms and approaches within the existing international system, and new complementary or even successor structures beyond it—recognizing that an architecture designed in the very different world of the post-war era may need fundamental change to rise to the challenges of this century. 

Take the future of peacekeeping and security. Today conflicts are lasting longer, killing and displacing more civilians, and—increasingly—drawing to a close not when Blue Helmets and UN negotiators swing into action but when one side vanquishes the other. Indeed Blue Helmets are being unceremoniously kicked out of a number of African countries—some of which appear to find mercenaries such as the Wagner Group better able to keep them secure. 

We at OSF are asking ourselves questions like: 

  • How can conflict prevention be made more effective in these circumstances? 
  • What can be done to improve the conduct of wars in this so-called “age of impunity” when neither states or terrorists recognize the protection of civilians as a rule of war? 
  • Amid shifting balances of power and military strength, which new players and groupings can help broker ceasefires and peace settlements? 

In the example of the renewed Israel-Hamas conflict of the past month: with the UN Security Council deadlocked, as it is so often, smaller players like Qatar or the UAE might hold the key to negotiations.

Or consider the violence in Haiti—where peacekeeping forces are to be provided not by the UN or the United States but by Kenya.

What of the other major multilateral challenges of our time?

It might be that bending the upward curve of global temperatures downwards requires not just one institution (say, the UNFCCC) but a network of institutions perhaps including a new structure—a sort of Economic and Climate Security Council—emerging from an existing entity like the UNFCCC itself, or the G20, or next year’s UN Summit of the Future.

Then there is artificial intelligence, which many are now claiming could become an existential threat to humanity within the next decade, in the absence of better multilateral oversight and regulation. 

It may well be that existing precedents for regulating technology—say, the IAEA—are not appropriate to the scale and speed of AI development. We may well need to invent something completely new, probably with the private sector where the latest breakthroughs are occurring much more closely bound in.


Friends, as you can perhaps tell, here my arguments about the future legitimacy and role of philanthropy are merging with my outlook for multilateralism as a whole.

As we in the Foundations reinvent ourselves, so must you in the MDBs. 

It is not just moving money. It is relevance and impact. It is putting yourselves back at the center of the great economic issues of our times—but doing so in the aftermath of American policy hegemony, when the power, policies, and institutions of what is to come are uncertain. 

Neoliberalism is gone, the polycrisis is here, and geopolitical competition is back. The world is an uncertain place. We can help define the new, or be discarded by it. 

Thank you.

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