The 23rd annual Grantmakers East Forum (GEF), hosted by the Central European University, explored the role of foundations in confronting the new threats and challenges to civil society in Europe as well as exploring innovative approaches to fostering social cohesion. The event in Hungary brought together grantmakers, academics, civil society actors, EU and international organisation representatives.

During the Opening Plenary, Michael Ignatieff, Rector of the Central European University, welcomed delegates and, refusing to dwell too long on the political background to the conference, instead lauded the support his university has received from around the world and CEU as ‘a pipeline of young, eager hope for the future’. In introducing the conference theme, Mr Ignatieff urged those present to emancipate themselves from idea that civil society is entirely liberal and progressive, and that excellent examples of good work is being done across the spectrum.

Indy Johar, Architect and Founding Director of Project 00, gave a keynote lecture on ‘democratising the city’ which incorporated stunning visuals and stark warnings about the direction the world is taking. With a whistle-stop tour of the dangers we face, Mr Johar’s presentation included the impact of livestock production (96% of all mammals on earth are livestock); climate change; inequality; economic/labour structures, artificial intelligence; governance and science, among many others. The tone of his speech was encapsulated in one of his favourite quotes, from the film Interstellar: “We used to look up in the sky and wonder at our place in the stars. Now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.”

“Every person you have ever met is smarter than every AI machine ever built or will be built in next 40 years. Important when you consider your staff!” – Indy Johar

The plenary was followed by a packed programme of thematic sessions featuring topics such as ‘the new civil societies’, ‘social innovation’, ‘social justice’ and technology and innovation. A full list is available via the programme link below.

During the Closing Plenary there was a candid discussion on how to do things differently following the Opening Plenary presentation from Indy Johar, with one clear thread: it can’t be business as usual anymore. Participants were invited to stand by one of four signs – ‘stop’ ‘start’ ‘change’ or ‘continue’ – with ideas for where to go next with their work.  The session was moderated by Jenny Hodgson, Executive Director of the Global Fund for Community Foundations and catalysed by words from Friso Roscam Abbing Head of the EU Fundamental Rights Agency’s department that seeks to instil a fundamental rights culture across the EU.

The event closed with a Lecture Performance by Peasant in Atmosphere.  Formed for the 2017 OFF-Biennale by artist Dominika Trapp, the band takes its name from a 1917 poem by Jozsef Lengyel and brings together traditional performers of Hungarian folk music with punk singers and contemporary musicians for a set developed through intensive research, reflecting on the nexus between art and activism at various points in Hungarian history and today.

The 2019 GEF will take place in Georgia.

Visual minutes Programme Photos