Gates Foundation under scrutiny for “skewed” development agenda

A new report by UK campaigning group Global Justice Now questions whether the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s support of private sector-driven initiatives is doing more harm than good to the world’s poor.

bill and melinda gates
Bill and Melinda Gates at the World Economic Forum annual meeting in 2015. Image: World Economic Forum, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is widely recognised around the world as a powerful force for good, addressing hunger and poverty in many developing countries. But a new report has now claimed that its initiatives may in fact be detrimental to economic development and global justice.

In a 56-page study launched on January 20 and titled Gated Development - Is the Gates Foundation always a force for good?, United Kingdom non-profit Global Justice Now calls into question the philanthropic foundation’s programmes, saying that its development agenda is “skewed towards promoting private corporate interests” and marred by a lack of oversight in how its wealth and influence is managed.

The United States-headquartered foundation, which was set up in 2000 by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and his wife Melinda, has assets of US$43.5 billion and is the world’s largest charitable foundation. The key issues it tackles are hunger, health, poverty, and education in the developing world. 

Today, the BMGF distributes more aid for global health than any government, the report noted. It is also the fifth largest donor to agricultural initiatives globally after Germany, Japan, Norway, and the US. In 2013 alone, the Foundation spent US$389 million in this area.  

In its report, Global Justice Now took issue with BMGF’s support for initiatives which benefit corporations more than they do communities, the Foundation’s lack of an accountability framework, and its investments in companies which contribute to social and economic injustice. 

This report is the latest in a series of NGO critiques of the foundation’s work. Groups like UK charity Oxfam and environmental campaigners Friends of the Earth have in recent years also criticised the foundation for oversimplifying the circumstances in developing countries and promoting false solutions to hunger in Africa respectively.

Polly Jones, head of campaigns and policy, Global Justice Now, said in a statement that the Foundation’s influence is “problematic when you consider that the philanthropic vision of the Gates Foundation seems to be largely based on the values of corporate America”.

For instance, it promotes private sector-driven initiatives such as industrial agriculture and commercialised health and education. “Big business cannot be the solution to poverty and inequality because the relentless pursuit of profit is incompatible with securing social and economic justice for all,” she noted.

The Foundation’s funding and project development decisions potentially exacerbate inequality and the lack of access to basic resources among the world’s poorest, she said.

Specific examples outlined in the report include the BMGF’s funding for the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), an organisation which aims to eradicate hunger across the continent. 

Much of AGRA’s work focuses on promoting technology such as hybrid seeds and chemical fertilisers, which Global Justice Now says “have significant health risks for farm workers, increase soil erosion, and can trap small-scale farmers in unsustainable debt”. 

By supporting such goals, the foundation not only allows controversial agribusiness companies which own these technologies to grow, it undermines “agroecology”, noted the report. This is an approach where communities control how their food is grown, traded and consumed, and use sustainable farming methods. 

Global Justice Now also criticised the foundation’s support for increasing corporate involvement in the health and education sectors in developing countries.

It said that there is growing evidence that commercialising these sectors leads to greater inequality in healthcare access and makes systems less efficient, but the BMGF funds programmes thatpush this agenda nevertheless. 

One such initiative is the Harnessing Non-State Actors for Better Health for the Poor (HANSHEP) initiative, which is managed by a UK-based group of development agencies and governments. It has several programmes in place to privatise health services in African countries.

Big business cannot be the solution to poverty and inequality because the relentless pursuit of profit is incompatible with securing social and economic justice for all.

Polly Jones, head of campaigns and policy, Global Justice Now

Questionable investments?

Global Justice Now also highlighted that the Foundation’s Trust invests in corporations whose agendas may be opposed to hunger and poverty eradication efforts.

For example, it had US$538 million worth of shares in Coca-Cola in 2014, and is funding a project which trains farmers in Kenya to produce passionfruit for the company’s supply chain. 

“The holding in Coca-Cola contradicts the foundation’s avowed intention to promote global nutrition,” said the report, alluding to the company’s production of sugary beverages which scientists increasingly link to rising obesity worldwide.

The Foundation was also criticised for its investments when British newspaper The Guardian last March launched a campaign called ‘Keep it in the ground’, which urged the BMGF to divest from fossil fuels. Bill Gates, in response, dismissed divestment as a ‘false solution’ to climate change.

He did, however, launch the Breakthrough Energy Coalition together with Facebook chief Mark Zuckerburg and Virgin Group chief executive Richard Branson at the Paris climate talks in December, which committed to scaling up renewable energy research and development.

Global Justice Now’s report also highlighted that the Foundation is involved in another problematic practice: potentially dangerous vaccine trials in the developing world.

BMGF aims to prevent more than 11 million deaths by 2020 by delivering vaccines for diseases like polio and meningitis, and has provided US$2.5 billion to help the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunizations buy vaccines for poor countries. 

While overall its programmes in this area have enjoyed success - for instance, reducing meningitis in 15 African countries by 94 per cent since 2010 - it has also been linked by media reports to vaccine trials which have resulted in significant occurrences of illnesses and even deaths among those who were given the medication.

Global Justice Now said that while some of the reports were unverified, and that the Foundation and its partners have refuted other claims, these stories highlight an urgent need for official scrutiny of such initiatives.

A call for greater transparency

Currently, the report notes that the foundation’s only three trustees are Bill and Melinda Gates, and billionaire investor Warren Buffet. As a private foundation, the BMGF is obliged only to report its high-level financial figures to the US government to retain its tax-exempt status. This means that the foundation has “influence without accountability”, said Global Justice Now.

As a first step to addressing these and other issues highlighted in the report, Global Justice Now called for an independent international review and evaluation of the Foundation and its projects, where stakeholders - especially those affected directly by the Foundation-funded projects - could share their views.

Such an undertaking could be managed by the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), which monitors aid spending by donors, suggested the campaigning group.

They also called for BMGF to stop supporting corporate-controlled agricultural systems which trap farmers into cycles of purchasing expensive seeds and fertilisers.

When approached for comment the Gates Foundation told Eco-Business that “this report rehashes a series of unfounded claims that have been made by others and found wanting”.

In a separate response, published in Global Justice Now’s report, the Foundation said that its staff have no influence on the investment decisions made by the Trust, which is independently managed.

It also said that the Foundation already reports on its programmes to governing bodies such as the OECD, as well as the International Aid Transparency Initiative. 

Alleviating poverty is a complex challenge which will require involvement from all sectors, and the private sector has access to life-saving innovations, said the BMGF.

“In all of our work… partners guide our priorities and approach,” it added. “We listen to experts and practitioners, and take action based on evidence”. 

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