Bill Gates is the most generous man in the world. As of 2015, his lifetime giving total stood at $27 billion—more than the individual gross domestic products of 88 different countries and $6.5 billion more than the next highest individual giver, Warren Buffett. So when Bill Gates wants to give your impoverished country a whole bunch of chickens, you take them.
Unless you're Bolivia. Bolivia is having none of that chicken business.
"He does not know Bolivia’s reality to think we are living 500 years ago, in the middle of the jungle not knowing how to produce," said César Cocarico, Bolivia's minister of land and rural development, according to Financial Times. "Respectfully, he should stop talking about Bolivia, and once he knows more, apologize to us."
Let's back it up a bit. In a June 7 post on his Gates Notes blog, Gates announced his new "Coop Dreams" initiative. The plan, in partnership with hunger-relief charity Heifer International, was to give away 100,000 chickens to various poverty-stricken nations. Gates wrote:
If you were living on $2 a day, what would you do to improve your life?
That’s a real question for the nearly 1 billion people living in extreme poverty today. There’s no single right answer, of course, and poverty looks different in different places. But through my work with the foundation, I’ve met many people in poor countries who raise chickens, and I have learned a lot about the ins and outs of owning these birds. (As a city boy from Seattle, I had a lot to learn!) It’s pretty clear to me that just about anyone who’s living in extreme poverty is better off if they have chickens.
In fact, if I were in their shoes, that’s what I would do—I would raise chickens.
Bolivia, it seems, would not do that. Gates never specified where the chickens were going—in his blog post he mentioned only sub-Saharan Africa as a recipient—but, apparently, Bolivia was on the list. And the country respectfully declined the offer. Or, rather, not so respectfully.
"I think it’s rude coming from a magnate that does not know Bolivia’s reality," said Cocarico. "He should inform himself that us Bolivians have a lot of production and do not need any gifted chicks in order to live. We have dignity."
(We'll pause here to note that the details are a bit hazy. Financial Times said only that Gates "supposedly offered" the chicken donation, and that the story had "spread to Bolivia's state news agency and wire services." It's possible Bolivia's inclusion was merely a rumor. But either way, the government was not happy.)
Now, it's unlikely Gates decided on a whim that donating 100,000 chickens was the answer to world hunger. He offered plenty of data on how and why chickens could benefit a developing country, and his plan had the backing of at least one expert researcher, Dr. Batamaka Somé, an anthropologist who has extensively studied poultry farming's economic impact. But it appears Gates may not have considered the cultural and social implications of such a gift.
According to The Verge, Bolivia produces 197 million chickens a year, with export capacity at 36 million. That's a bona fide chicken surplus. The country's economy is trending up, tripling over the last decade and on track for greater 2016 growth than any other South American nation, The Verge reported. And Bolivia's $33 billion GDP is greater than all but nine of the 48 countries comprising sub-Saharan Africa.
It's easy to see why Bolivia took offense to avian assistance. The country sees itself as an up-and-comer in the global economy. It doesn't want to be treated the same way as, say, Burkina Faso. And it doesn't want handouts—especially not feathery ones.
Gates, and especially The Gates Foundation, has drawn criticism for at times pushing his own philanthropic agenda, whether recipients want it or not. Offering chickens to a country that doesn't need them, while not as serious an allegation as, say, pushing for vaccines at the expense of strengthened public health systems, likely will only reinforce that narrative among critics.