“Don’t just go for safe projects, take on the really tough problems”, were the words of advice, Warren Buffet, co-trustee of the Gates Foundation, gave to Bill Gates about philanthropy. When the foundation was founded in 1994, known then as the William H. Gates Foundation, after Bill Gate’s father, there was little doubt that the charity was going to succeed, because after all, everything associated with Bill Gates – the richest man on the planet – succeeds.
Some 16 years later the Gates Foundation has been cited as being the “most powerful charity” in the world, overtaking, in the words of somebody close to the Gates Foundation, the “slow and bureaucratic UN” and creating a “post-UN world”. Should we embrace and admire the courage and generosity of the billionaire philanthropist and be delighted about the phenomenal amount of aid and assistance he is bringing to the lives of the world’s neediest? Or should we be worried about the seminal power the foundation is creating, allegedly surpassing the UN, exploding out of a revival of interest in the west in the problems of the poor?
‘Philanthrocapitalism’ is a word that did not exist until fairly recently, when it was conceived to describe the growing ways that capitalism can be philanthropic, functioning for the benefit of humanity. Philanthrocapitalism essentially mirrors the way that business is done for profit. Entrepreneurs involved in philanthropy do not just want to write the cheques that fund the projects, they want to be involved personally, providing a hands-on approach and bringing pioneering ideas to scale by investing their time and energy, as well as their money. And this is the essence behind the birth, development and subsequent success of the Gates Foundation.
Bill Gates is a natural problem solver. He thrives on taking on challenges and solving tough problems. As does his friend and the Foundation’s co-trustee, Warren Buffet, hence his words of advice, “don’t just go for safe projects, take on the really tough problems.” Amid the surge of entrepreneurial wealth in the last thirty years, accompanied with a willingness to give the money made through entrepreneurial ventures away to the poorest in society, there is also a growing acknowledgment that governments alone cannot be relied upon for solving the world’s ‘big problems’. To quote an unnamed source from the Sunday Times, the world’s problems, “need big-brain answers… independent of government,” hence the rationale behind the howls that we are experiencing a “post-UN” era.
And there is a basis for commending these new approaches in the world of charity, surmised by the success Gates has achieved, as Bill and his wife Melinda Gates wrote on the foundation’s website, in ensuring people “grow up healthier, get a better education, and gain the power to lift themselves out of poverty.” And praise of Gate’s and his charity is justifiably immense and far-reaching. Last year the medical journal Lancet congratulated the foundation for giving, “a massive boost to global health funding”. It stated:
“The foundation has challenged the world to think big and to be more ambitious about what can be done to save lives in low-income settings. The foundation has added renewed dynamism, credibility and attractiveness to global health.”
Even Michael Edwards, a veteran charity commentator who has previously been a critic of billionaire philanthropists, believes the Gates Foundation has brought a “new vigor” to charities and that it provides a more “positive story”.
The foundation has reached an unprecedented ubiquity in the world of philanthropy, which has previously been unreachable. Publications such as the Wall Street Journal and the Economist, previously avoiding world poverty issues, are featuring stories about the foundation, whilst celebrities and politicians alike all want to be seen with Bill Gates to increase PR. And why shouldn’t they? After all he is achieving what is apparently ‘unachievable’ by governments. So amid all the success, praise and notoriety, how can Bill Gates and his ‘problem solving’ charity, possibly be criticized?
Because there are political implications involved in such a fast, result-driven, business-like approach to philanthropy. Devi Sridhar, a global health expert at Oxford University, is critical of such practices, referring to the “loss of health workers from the public sector to better funded NGOs offering better remuneration”, which Sridhar says is a “particularly serious problem”. The impact of the loss of health workers will have on the accomplishments of the UN and other governmental organizations will be detrimental and will ultimately negatively affect those in the world who are suffering the most. The solution? Perhaps Mr. Gates and his fellow philanthrocapitalsim should not be as ‘flamboyant’ with their wages or governmental organizations increase wages to compete with NGO’s? Perhaps a standard salary should be implemented throughout the philanthropy sector as a whole, and then a preference to be employed by the likes of the Gates Foundation and other private sector charities would not be so attractive.
And that is what the crux of this whole debate boils down to, money. Writing for the Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics, Devi Sridar talks about the Gates Foundation and other health organizations based in wealthy countries having a tendency to, “fund a large and costly global health bureaucracy and technocracy based in the north.” Gates literally has billions and fortunately for the poor, is willing to share it. In a letter from “Bill and Melinda” on the foundation’s website, the couple admit that they can afford to make more innovatory solutions to world poverty that governments cannot afford to make. In short, the Gates Foundation can afford to take risks. But risks should not be attached to the vocabulary of beating world poverty, should they?
The Gates Foundation is in many ways very similar to Microsoft, in the fact that it is extremely motivated by science and technology, after all Bill Gate’s mind works within these realms, a trait which Jeff Raikes, Chief Executive Officer of the Gates Foundation, commented on:
“The foundation is really orientated towards the science and technology way of thinking. We’re not really the organization involved in bed nets for malaria. We’re much more involved in finding a vaccine.”
Whilst finding and funding vaccines is an imperative requirement to help those suffering from disease and hunger, supplying bed nets to prevent malaria is surely as imperative. And this catalytic, fast-paced, science-based, valuing statistics more than ideology attitude, is at the heart of philanthrocapitalism, and the fact that the foundation focuses, primarily, on funding and finding vaccines is arguably open to criticism. Michael Edwards is of this line of thought, asserting:
“The world isn’t a giant experiment. The foundation affects real people in real places. Why should Bill decide which sort of vaccines get developed.”
Referring to the Rockefeller and Carnegie foundations, which incidentally have not commanded an ounce of the success the Gates foundation has achieved, and have arguably helped ground a basis for the argument that private foundations in the US do not work globally, Edwards continued:
“Those foundations have almost exactly the same character as the Gates foundation: top-down, technocratic, applying the language of engineering to social problems.”
Stretching his desire to donate his fortunes to the people who really need it even further, last May, Gates along with several other great entrepreneurs, including David Rockefeller and Warren Buffet, held a meeting in New York designed to discuss the world’s economic problems and how the rich people of the world could help the desperately poor. In short, the outcome of the meeting is that Gates and his fellow philanthrocapitalists are trying to persuade the rest of America’s billionaires to pledge at least 50% of their wealth to charities. This ‘boom’ in giving is somewhat resented by some who dislike the growing trend of business tycoons effectively ‘playing God’, a view which collaborates with the cynical outlook that Gate’s dedication towards philanthropy is merely a continuation of his world-dominating behavior at Microsoft.
And finally, is the Gates Foundation really replacing the UN? A source ‘close to the Gates Foundation’ believes that because “people have gotten interested in fast results” and the UN is “too slow and bureaucratic” it is creating a kind of “post-UN world”. When asked about this slightly controversial assertion and of the fears that the foundation is becoming too powerful, Jeff Raikes, stated:
“We are not replacing the UN. But some people would say we’re a new form of multilateral organization.”
It is hard to believe that the UN, in its quietly un-ostentatious way, which is much more than a peace-keeper and forum for conflict resolution, will ever be replaced and that there will be a “post-UN world”. Since 1945 the UN has been accredited with negotiating many peaceful settlements that have ended regional conflicts. But it has also promoted democracy, development, human rights, self-determination and independence, and woman’s rights. It has protected the environment, prevented nuclear proliferation, strengthened international law and ended apartheid in South Africa. It has provided safe drinking water, reduced child mortality rates, and provided food to the victims of emergencies. The list could go on and on, and compared to the largely ‘vaccine orientated’ nature of the Gates Foundation, the UN’s achievements are sublime, and so has a longevity that is, and I believe, will remain unrivalled.
That is not to say that what Bill Gates and his foundation is achieving should not be commended. At the end of the day, do children living with HIV in Africa care about who is paying for their medicine? Or does an old lady in China fighting tuberculosis care who has developed her treatment? Whilst it is highly unlikely that the UN will be superseded, the power of the most powerful, determined and resourceful must never be underestimated, and as the famous American anthropologist Margaret Mead once said:
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed individuals can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.”
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