The humanitarian needs of more than 10 million displaced Ukrainians have quickly become staggering. Yet Mark Malloch-Brown, president of the Open Society Foundations, warns that longer-term problems resulting from Russia's invasion will grow ever larger if they aren't sufficiently addressed now.
Experts report an “unprecedented” outpouring of aid for food, medicine and other essential needs of Ukrainians. Comparatively few donations, though, have been earmarked for maintaining Ukraine's culture or democratic foundations.
To address that cause, Open Society Foundations has launched the Ukraine Democracy Fund with a $25 million pledge, in hopes of raising $100 million. The foundations, launched by billionaire investor George Soros, are now one of the world's largest funders of democracy, human rights and justice groups.
“Keeping their civil society alive absolutely is the key bit,” said Malloch-Brown, who has also served as the United Nations deputy secretary general. “Otherwise, it’s a hollow victory. If you neglect or lose that civil society piece, you’ve lost what this was ultimately all about.”
Since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, the philanthropy research organization Candid has catalogued $440 million in grants and $333 million more in pledges for the victims. Those totals do not, however, include individual donations or donations from nonprofits and corporations that haven't yet publicly reported their gifts, meaning that the actual amount of aid is much higher.
“By many measures, this has been an unprecedented philanthropic response by organizations, by individuals,” said Laia Grino, Candid’s director of data discovery. “Some groups have said that this has exceeded what they were able to raise for other crises or disasters, like the response to the refugee crisis in Afghanistan.”
Grino noted that the bulk of those donations are for immediate needs — food, shelter, safety.
“We haven’t seen a lot for longer-term efforts really,” she said. “And that will continue to be important.”
Malloch-Brown says Open Society has supported Ukraine with about $230 million in donations since the nation declared its independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991.
“The $230 million has been primarily invested in developing the sort of civil society and democratic space that has made Ukraine so different from ... Russia,” Malloch-Brown said. “Our feeling is that (Russian President Vladimir Putin’s) real target is exactly these values our investment represented and sought to build because that’s what threatens him — this sort of gloriously humorous, ironic, open, vigorous, debating world of Ukraine versus his locked-down, common, homogeneous values of Russia.”
Open Society believes its history within Ukraine and its contacts in the country are tools that must be used to keep the nation’s culture intact “by continuing to invest in human rights defenders and journalism and the civil society, which sustain the country’s democracy,” Malloch-Brown said.
It plans to continue to fund independent media throughout the war and to support journalists and scholars who are documenting war crimes or providing public health information.
“We recognize that it’s going to be harder and harder as the Russian military crackdown intensifies,” Malloch-Brown said. “A lot of people will be displaced — some into exile, some in the west of the country — but we’ve got to follow them and enable them to keep working and fighting for those values that they’ve been fighting to build for so many years.”
In two weeks, Open Society’s Ukraine Democracy Fund raised an additional $13 million from the Ford Foundation, the Oak Foundation, the Schmidt Family Foundation and other, anonymous donors.
“Philanthropy can and should anticipate what and where ongoing needs will be and step in preemptively to address them,” Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, wrote in a statement. “This crisis calls out for America to rise to the challenge and realize our promise — not just despite our missteps in recent years, but because of them.”
After all, Malloch-Brown said, there are plenty of compelling reasons to rally around Ukraine.
“Ukraine is a story about democratic success, not failure,” he said. “One can’t find many silver linings to this horrific situation, but under Zelenskyy, it was becoming this glorious, New York-like hodgepodge of opinions and views — a real rainbow of pluralism.”
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