Why should Bill Gates get to set the agenda for international development?

20 January 2016

Every January, Bill Gates sets out his vision for a better world and the role the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation can play in achieving this in an annual letter to us all. With assets of $43.5 billion, the foundation is the largest charitable foundation in the world. It is arguably the most influential actor on issues of global health and agriculture, and distributes more aid for global health than any government.

This influence has earned the Gates Foundation a place in the regular reporting of aid to the global south, as compiled by the OECD.  But this has not been matched with the corresponding accountability and scrutiny to the public that we have in aid programmes run by governments. At present, the foundation is obliged to only report its high level financial figures to the US government and its programmes are not subject to independent or public evaluation.

Global Justice Now has a strong track record in holding the UK government to account on how UK aid is spent to ensure that it reaches the people who really need it and makes a long term difference to levels of poverty and inequality.

In 1994, we took the UK government to court, and won, over its use of aid to fund a hydroelectric dam in Malaysia, in return for £1 billion in British arms sales to the Malaysian government, on the grounds that this was not going to benefit the Malaysian people. Today, we are campaigning to stop aid funding the privatisation of Nigeria’s electricity system and the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition because neither of these programmes are effectively reducing poverty and inequality in the global south. Moreover, the UK’s aid programme is increasingly prioritising the interests of big business instead of tackling the root causes of inequality and poverty.

Although business is playing an ever greater role in international development, in a recent review of the relationship between business and the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), the Independent Commission for Aid Impact is highly critical of how this is failing to benefit people living in poverty.

Our new report Gated Development demonstrates that the trend to involve business in addressing poverty and inequality is central to the priorities and funding of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. This is far from a neutral charitable strategy, but instead an ideological commitment to promote neoliberal economic policies and corporate globalisation. Big business is directly benefitting, in particular in the fields of agriculture and health, as a result of the foundation’s activities, despite evidence to show that business solutions are not the most effective.


For the foundation in particular, there is an overt focus on technological solutions to poverty. While technology should have a role in addressing poverty and inequality, long term solutions require social and economic justice. This cannot be given by donors in the form of a climate resilient crop or cheaper smartphone, but must be about systemic social, economic and political change – issues not represented in the foundation’s funding priorities.

Perhaps what is most striking about the Gates Foundation is that despite its aggressive corporate strategy and extraordinary influence across governments, academics and the media, there is an absence of critical voices. We're concerned that the foundation’s influence is so pervasive that many actors in international development which would otherwise critique the policy and practice of the foundation are unable to speak out independently as a result of its funding and patronage.

Specifically, we call on the OECD to undertake an independent international review and evaluation of the Gates Foundation; and the UK’s International Development Select Committee to conduct an inquiry into the relationship between DFID and the foundation and the impact and effectiveness of any joint activity in addressing poverty and inequality.

At a time when governments are under pressure from the public to reduce their aid expenditure and philanthropic foundations, such as the Gates Foundation, are more influential than ever, we must ensure that global efforts to address poverty and inequality are effective, long term and sustainable. Big business cannot be the solution to poverty and inequality; the relentless pursuit of profit is incompatible with securing social and economic justice for all.

Download the report Gated Development - Is the Gates Foundation always a force for good?

Photo: Flickr/Steve Jurvetson





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