How Gates' billions silences criticism of his development agenda


22 January 2016

In a plutocracy, it’s no surprise that the world’s richest man is one of the most influential voices in the future of global agriculture and healthcare. What’s surprising is how little that influence is questioned. But if you’re Bill Gates, you can afford to put most potential opponents on the payroll too.

Bill Gates’ charitable foundation (the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) is the 12th biggest contributor to aid in the world, spending more than Canada, Belgium, Denmark or Italy. No donor contributes more aid to healthcare, while only four countries give more aid to agriculture. 

No wonder that Gates has a loud voice. Shouldn’t we celebrate his largesse, especially given rich country governments are failing to redistribute the world’s wealth in a more radical fashion?

Leaving aside whether it’s right for one person to have such wealth and power, the problem is that Gates’ solutions are not neutral. In fact as we've laid out in our new report, Gated Development, they’re deeply political. They put big business interests right at the heart of ‘solving’ poverty in the world. As such, they actually risk exacerbating some of the world’s most pressing problems.  

Take agriculture. Gates is a major fan of high technology solutions. His foundation is the biggest funder of research into genetic modification in the world. Initiatives that Gates funds push intensive farming methods involving plenty of chemicals and privatisation of seed distribution.

Time and again, these ‘solutions’ have proved disastrous for small farmers, allowing big players to effectively control the whole food system. They also ramp up global carbon emissions and fuel global warming.

But they are exactly what big business wants. In fact, Gates’ aid sometimes looks designed to help agribusiness develop new markets – like a project with agro-giant Cargill which helped it develop soya ‘value chains’ in Africa.  

It’s not a conspiracy, it’s simply how Gates, like so many of his fellow plutocrats, believe the world works. Big business invents useful stuff and drives growth. Let’s help them and everyone will be better off.  

In health, Gates’ schemes follow the same path, developing private ‘solutions’ which marginalise public sector healthcare. Gates works with Big Pharma, for instance supporting Glaxo Smith Klein to develop an ebola vaccine.

Of course, a new vaccine might be very useful, just as a new farming method might. But when those developments also help secure corporate control over the world’s resources, they are at the same time reinforcing the structures that create poverty and inequality in the first place. They sweep real solutions – challenging the power of corporations and creating more democratic solutions - under the carpet.

Development is no longer about those with too little taking power over their lives. It is a question of reining in those who already have too much power.

So why so much silence, even acquiescence, from that part of society which ‘advocates’ for ‘the poor’, such as international charities? Well, many seem to have made their peace with Gates vision of the future – themselves seeing big business as essential ‘partners’ in improving the lives of the poor, and fixating on technologies rather than questioning power.   

Surely the funds of the Gates Foundation must help their conversion? Senior members of staff in large development charities regularly say (off the record) that their organisations have become unable to criticise the likes of Gates. For instance, Save the Children UK has received $35m since 2010, with Save the Children globally receiving more than that much again.

Meanwhile BOND, the umbrella group for development charities which should be the political mouthpiece for the sector, has received $4.7m since 2010. However well that money may be spent, it is difficult to imagine it has no influence on the willingness of such organisations to speak out and challenge the paradigm which Gates represents.

In other words, Gates has been a key part, as has Britain’s Conservative government, of redefining ‘development’ as ‘capitalism’. He also seems to have converted many of those who should otherwise criticise him.

The ultimate power of the super-wealthy in our world derives not simply from making something happen – from supporting this initiative rather than that one – but in changing our very language and the way people see the world. The real power of the world’s richest man lies in his ability to co-opt and marginalise any accountability.

Read the report Gated Development - is the Gates Foundation always a force for good?

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