This week, the rich and powerful can be found at the top of a mountain in Davos, Switzerland, working out how to solve the global problems they're causing. We already know that they breathe a finer, more purified air than us and right now, at the World Economic Forum, that's literally true. Two of the most powerful people enjoying that crisp Alpine oxygen are Microsoft founder Bill Gates and his wife Melinda. Their philanthropic organization, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, now has an enormous influence on global health and agriculture policy. With assets of $43.5 billion, it is the largest charitable foundation in the world, providing more aid to global health than any country.
On Wednesday, the campaign group Global Justice Now, which champions social movements and proposes democratic alternatives to corporate power, released a report called "Gated Development." In it, the Foundation is blasted for its links to Microsoft's tax evasion practices, its lack of accountability, its close relationship to multi-national corporations, its support of private healthcare and education, and its championing of genetically modified (GM) crops.
Global Justice Now is calling for an international investigation into the Gates Foundation, and their report constitutes an attack on "philanthrocapitalism," the increasingly popular philosophy of applying business models to charity. In this way, the group is echoing the Global Policy Forum, which argues that super-rich philanthropists use organizations like the Gates and Rockefeller foundations to influence policy-making across the world.
Thanks to the methods the Foundation pursues, social justice is sacrificed on the altar of technocratic progress. For example, its work in Ethiopia turns a blind eye to the human rights abuses regularly committed by the autocratic Ethiopian state—much in the same way that the US and UK governments do. This development agenda happens to coincide neatly with the agricultural practices favored by multi-national companies and the Foundation.
The Gates Foundation invests in the some of the same companies it funds—it used to own shares in Monsanto and supports a number of projects in which the GM manufacturer is a beneficiary—and remains a heavy pusher of chemicals and patented seeds. Global Justice Now points out that this undermines food sovereignty movements across the developing world and takes power out of the hands of local people and places it in the cash-hungry paws of international corporate executives. Of the $669 million that the Gates Foundation has granted to NGOs for agricultural work, over three quarters has gone to organizations based in the US; Africa-based NGOs received just 4 percent.
Not everyone agrees with the report, however. As a source in Ethiopia's ministry of foreign affairs told VICE: "In general, the work of the Foundation is regarded as a very good thing… Both Bill and Melinda have visited a number of times and have done excellent work."
The Gates Foundation's structure comes under fire too. There are only three trustees—Bill Gates, Melinda Gates, and Warren Buffett—and it remains unaccountable to public bodies, except for tax reporting purposes. Appropriately enough, Buffet's son, Peter, wrote an essay about working in the charity sector in which he notes that: "Because of who my father is, I've been able to occupy some seats I never expected to sit in. Inside any important philanthropy meeting, you witness heads of state meeting with investment managers and corporate leaders. All are searching for answers with their right hand to problems that others in the room have created with their left."
Its selective focus on particular diseases and vaccines has, Global Justice Now says, weakened public health services across Africa by skewing health priorities "towards the interests of wealthy donors (vaccines) rather than resilient health systems." This was particularly visible during the Ebola crisis, when the single-disease focus of philanthropic organizations was blamed for inadvertently leading to the collapse of basic healthcare provision in parts of West Africa.
The Foundation argues that private sector involvement is vital to the work it does and that, since 1990, "the world has cut extreme poverty, child mortality, and malaria deaths by half, reduced maternal mortality by nearly 50 percent, and driven new HIV infections down by 40 percent."
Perhaps more noteworthy is the roster of companies invested in by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Trust. The Foundation points out that "the endowment that funds the Gates Foundation is independently managed by a separate entity, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Trust" and that Foundation staff have "no influence on the trust's investment decisions and no visibility into its investment strategies or holdings."
Nevertheless, these investments fund the Foundation's ongoing charitable activity. Companies widely criticized for contributing to social injustice such as Walmart, Coca-Cola, Pfizer, and BAE Systems are among those benefitting from $29 billion worth of investments in corporate stocks and bonds. Many of the Foundation's senior staff members used to work in the multi-national corporations whose success the Foundation benefits from.
The list of mining companies the Foundation has interests in reads like a Who's Who from the murky world of natural resource extraction across Africa. Bill Gates believes that fossil fuel divestment is a "false solution"—it's a belief evidenced by his Foundation's $1.4 billion financial stake in fossil fuel companies, recently reported by the Guardian.
The Gates are not elected politicians. They are not policy experts. They are people with an unfathomable amount of money. Founding and running a software company ought not give you the authority to influence global policy to the extent Gates does. The image of Gates as a kind-hearted nerd "giving away" his fortune is a bit confusing, too, since he is richer than 45 sub-Saharan countries and his wealth is, in fact, increasing.
In her book, No Such Thing as a Free Gift: The Gates Foundation and the Price of Philanthropy, the sociologist Linsey McGoey points out that today, charitable foundations are intimately involved with how the money they give out is spent. The Gates Foundation claims that it is guided by its partners' expertise, but McGoey argues that the evidence suggests that, whereas charity once trusted those with knowledge and experience to do what they did best, today's philanthrocapitalists want to tell us all what to do.
The Bill Gates Foundation tells the poor that they need its money, rather than economic, social, and political justice. In doing this, the Foundation comes to exemplify what the Ancient Greeks called iatrogenics—"harm caused by the meddling of the healer." With the world's wealth in fewer and fewer hands, we should all be very worried by the healer's meddling.
Follow Oscar Rickett on Twitter.