Tunnel Vista – Bill Gates’ Proprietary New Philanthropy in Africa

Microsoft has now launched its new operating system – Windows Vista. Within a year, 100 million computers will be running it. The code underneath the hood of the operating system is a tightly kept secret. There’s no way to fix it if it’s broken, other than to wait for Microsoft to come out with a patch. Indeed, most users won’t have a choice about whether they want it – it’ll come standard with new computers. Unlike free, open source software, Vista will depends for its adoption on market domination, heavy advertising, and unforgiving software license contracts that force businesses to upgrade to it.

It’s a business model that keeps the cash flowing into Microsoft’s headquarters in Redmond, and thence into the pockets of Bill Gates, whose net worth is now a shade over $50 billion. Which begs the question: how do you spend that kind of money?

To some extent, the decision was made for him. In the 1990s, when he faced a series of potentially serious lawsuits, Gates announced that he was going to give away large slabs of his money. As the jury deliberated, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was launched. Today, it sits on an endowment of over $30 billion, a pile that includes some of Warren Buffet’s loose change. Together, Buffet and the Gates’ aim to fight hunger and poverty. Africa is in their sights. And they’ve promised to bring the same no-nonsense business approach to spending their money as they brought to earning it.

This is why their New Philanthropy is certain to do more harm than good.

Bill Gates and a field of dollar-shaped wheat

First, some back story. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has, in a recent series of articles (here and here), come under the scrutiny of the Los Angeles Times . Here’s a snippet from one of the pieces, by Charles Piller, Edmund Sanders and Robyn Dixon, reporting from Nigeria:

Justice Eta, 14 months old, held out his tiny thumb.
An ink spot certified that he had been immunized against polio and measles, thanks to a vaccination drive supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
But polio is not the only threat Justice faces. Almost since birth, he has had respiratory trouble. His neighbors call it “the cough.” People blame fumes and soot spewing from flames that tower 300 feet into the air over a nearby oil plant. It is owned by the Italian petroleum giant Eni, whose investors include the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The Los Angeles Times journalists found out that the Foundation’s good works were being undermined by its support of corporations that do harm. So how do the Gates’ respond to this pointed, and serious, contradiction? In the Financial Times last week, Mr and Mrs Gates were quoted as saying, rather flatly, that “we do not anticipate any change in our approach”.The logic, one that sums up the marketing of Microsoft’s operating systems as much as the Gates Foundation’s activities, is this: don’t look under the hood, just look at what it’s doing.

An ethical investment advisor, treading carefully so as not to alienate a potential client, responded: “This is a rather out-dated perspective. The evidence is that you can invest responsibly without damaging your financial returns.”

(As an aside, I wonder whether this is true. When I came to the US in 1997, I had $10,000 in savings. I put $5000 away in two different ethical investment funds, a nest egg for my kids. Today, ten years later, the nest egg is worth, er, $11,000. If I’d had taken the cash out last year and invested it in China, I’d have $20,000 today. But let’s leave that aside for the moment, not least because my ten grand isn’t going to shape the market in the way that the Gates’ $31 odd billion might.)

At the end of the day, it doesn’t much matter whether this is true. Even if it isn’t possible to invest responsibly without taking a hit, you’d think a charitable foundation would be the first in line to shuck out a few bucks in exchange for the warm inner glow of fiscal probity.

But the Gates’ are almost pathologically reluctanct to look and think holistically. Instead, there’s a fixation on a narrow and harmful accounting of cost and benefit. Want to improve the lives of Africans? Then vaccinate against polio – an easy, guaranteed return on investment. Even if the source of that investment, the companies that do harm in communities in Africa, mean that the death from other poverty-related diseases will be more likely.

Of course polio needs to be eradicated. Of course there needs to be intervention to fund research into curing tropical diseases that the pharmaceutical industry avoids because its beneficiaries can’t afford to pay. But India and Brazil have found ways around this problem – by licensing generic drug production (and legally brushing aside the intellectual property rights of the pharmaceutical giants), and by taxing the rich to heal the poor. It’s a big picture solution, one that works efficiently and effectively, and one that demands a much bigger overview than the Gates’ seem to be capable of.

It’s an approach that is both myopic and revealing. In asking the public to accentuate the positive, and to ignore the context of his foundation’s interventions, Bill Gates shrugs off one of the deepest flaws in his approach to solving hunger in Africa.

The Foundation is behind a new push, known as the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). Together with the Rockefeller Foundation, the Gates Foundation will be investing $150 million in AGRA. And it’s a recipe for disaster. It pins its hopes on a second generation of Green Revolution technologies, seemingly ignoring the disastrous lessons of the first Green Revolution.

Peter Rosset, Miguel Altieri and Eric Holt-Gimenez over at Food First have enumerated Ten Reasons Why the Rockefeller and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundations’ Alliance for Another Green Revolution Will Not Solve the Problems of Poverty and Hunger in Sub-Saharan Africa. It’s not a punchy title, I’ll admit. But their reasoning is sharp.

The arguments against AGRA are powerful:

  1. The Green Revolution actually deepens the divide between rich and poor farmers.
  2. Over time, Green Revolution technologies degrade tropical agro-ecosystems and expose already vulnerable farmers to increased environmental risk.
  3. The Green Revolution leads to the loss of agro-biodiversity, the basis for smallholder livelihood security and regional environmental sustainability.
  4. Hunger is not primarily due to a lack of food, but rather because the hungry are too poor to buy the food that is available.
  5. Without addressing structural inequities in the market and political systems, approaches relying on high input technologies fail.
  6. The private sector alone will not solve the problems of production, marketing and distribution
  7. Introduction of genetic engineering—the driving force behind AGRA initiative—will make smallholder systems more environmentally vulnerable in Sub-Saharan Africa.
  8. The introduction of GE crops into smallholder agriculture will likely lead to farmer indebtedness.
  9. AGRA’s assertion that “There Is No Alternative” (TINA) ignores the many successful agroecological and non-corporate approaches to agricultural development that have grown in the wake of the Green Revolution’s failures.
  10. AGRA’s “alliance” does not allow peasant farmers to be the principal actors in agricultural improvement.

Note the common thread here. The problem of hunger isn’t simply a lack of food being produced. It’s not something that can be fixed quickly through a single technological intervention. The problem requires a systemic, holistic and open approach – one to which Gates’ life experience has left him particularly poorly prepared.

Worse, the New Green Revolutionary technology that Gates is pushing has a pretty bad track record in Africa. Recently, a three year long project, trumpeted by the biotech industry as a showcase for its philanthropy and technology, produced a genetically modified (GM) sweet potato that was just as susceptible to a key virus, and returned lower yields, than an ordinary variety. According to the New Scientist magazine

“The GM project has cost Monsanto, the World Bank and the US government an estimated $6 million over the past decade…[and] embarrassingly, in Uganda conventional breeding has produced a high-yielding resistant variety more quickly and more cheaply.”

In short, the technology isn’t up to much. Further, what matters more than the technology itself, no matter where it comes from or how good it is, is the social, political and economic context into which it is introduced. No technology is socially neutral. This is why Rosset, Holt-Gimenez and Altieri are right that GM crops will exacerbate the tensions between rich and poor farmers.

Here’s an example from some research I’ve had a hand in, on the effects of genetically modified cotton in South Africa (here) . Since GM crops are more expensive, when seed companies introduce them, they have to introduce a means for farmers to pay for the seed. In South Africa, farmers took advantage of a madly generous loan scheme, one which bankrupted the local seed company. The company went under when the farmers to whom it had loaned cash didn’t repay their debts. The farmers themselves then became insolvent, after they found themselves living with unrepayable levels of debt, most of which has long been spent.

The farmers who can crawl back out of debt tend to be rich. Hence the inequality-producing effects of the technology. And most farmers in the area where GM crops are most widely grown don’t want to grow cotton at all. They’d rather grow sugar cane. But they don’t have irrigation, and there isn’t a way to get their crops to market. The only company nearby is a cotton company. So they grow cotton.

To sum up, then. GM technology has yet to prove that it has much to offer poor African farmers. Introducing GM technology means hitching the welfare of entire communities to the provider of seeds – usually the GM company, but otherwise the local power-broker. Either way, this isn’t a progressive way to build social change.

In any case, the problem of hunger in Africa is often associated not with insufficient food production, but with conflict and drought. When there’s drought, as eminent economist Amartya Sen has observed, it’s not that food disappears – it’s that it’s hoarded, priced above the ability of the poorest to be able to afford it. Does the Gates intervention go any way to addressing this? It does not.

And here’s the rub. There are other ways of reducing hunger in Africa. They are ways that pay attention to the systemic problems facing the continent. Problems like war and conflict, problems like arms, diamond and natural resources trade (illegal or ‘legal’), which create the conditions for so much misery. Systemic solutions see farmers as innovators, as survivors, as citizens, as leaders in a suite of interventions that are political, social and economic.

The Gates solution ends up exacerbating the problems facing the poor, shoring up institutions and companies that scalp poor farmers. And then they offer a band-aid, one that helps the wound go septic.

Philanthropy isn’t meant to be like sausage-manufacturing – yet every step of the way in the Gates plan for Africa, from endowment investment to the agricultural spend, induces nausea. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. Microsoft’s chief software architect has spent a career developing technological patches, and then patches for those patches, and so on. If one were uncharitable, we might see the Foundation itself as a patch for his falling personal stock in the 1990s. It does rather seem that Gates’ generosity is charity in its worst form, a mode of self-aggrandizement. Such is the narrow vista, and greatest tragedy, of the world’s richest man.

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