Report Slams Gates Foundation for Self-Serving Agenda, Corporate Ties
Just days after Microsoft announced it would donate $1 billion in cloud-computing resources to 70,000 nonprofits worldwide, founder Bill Gates is in the crosshairs for his philanthropy.
In a 54-page report released Thursday, U.K. social advocacy group Global Justice Now slammed the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for using its enormous giving-power to influence global health policies in the foundation's own interests. The report also claims the Gates Foundation often invests in the same health care and pharmaceutical companies it funds, creating “a corporate merry-go-round" that benefits corporations while undermining support for basic public health systems.
"The [foundation's] program is not a neutral, charitable strategy for which the world should be thankful that a rich man is deciding to spend his money on good causes," reads the report's introduction. "Analysis of the foundation's programs shows that it has an agenda—it is a specific ideological strategy that promotes neo-liberal economic policies, corporate globalization [and] the technology this brings, and a long outdated view of the centrality of 'aid' in helping the 'poor.'"
Among the report's allegations against the Gates Foundation:
- It provides a disproportionate amount of funding to health organizations in high-income countries, "exacerbating unequal research and development infrastructures between poor and rich regions." The report cites as an example the foundation's "overwhelming focus" on developing and promoting new vaccines at the expense of already-proven preventative measures for diseases that most affect poverty-stricken areas.
- Its projects are primarily "vertically funded interventions targeted at specific diseases or health problems" and do little to strengthen public health systems, leaving underdeveloped nations ill-equipped to combat the root causes of disease. The report backs this claim with comments from Margaret Chan, director general of the World Health Organization (WHO), who said in an interview with The New York Times that the WHO's budget is "driven by what I call donor interests." This limits the organization's ability to maintain fixed support staff "to build response systems" when there is no active health emergency. Adds the report: "The inference in Chan’s remarks is that the WHO, whose largest donor is [the Gates Foundation,] is unable to respond adequately to ebola and other disease outbreaks because donor interests prevent it from being able to build public health systems in developing countries.
- It "prioritizes support for corporations." The report notes that the Gates Foundation has funded a huge number of projects for major corporations—including Monsanto, Bayer, GlaxoSmithKline, Merck and Coca-Cola—and that the corporations often stand to profit. According to the report, the foundation has owned or still owns shares in some of the corporations it funds. "The foundation is profiting from its investments in corporations which contribute to social and economic injustice," reads the report.
Perhaps the most troubling allegation, though, is one we've heard before—that the Gates Foundation, through massive donations and global influence, has effectively bought the silence of would-be critics. The Seattle Times addressed the issue in 2008:
“The danger isn’t in what people do tell you—it’s in what they don’t,” departing foundation CEO Patty Stonesifer warned in the 2007 annual report.
In other words, Stonesifer says, the Gates Foundation needs honest feedback and criticism to help it figure out how best to improve the health of the world’s poor, boost food production in Africa and improve schools in the U.S.
Honesty can be hard to come by, though, when you’re handing out staggering amounts of cash.
And some question how sincere the foundation is about listening to critics.
“They’re not really fostering tough debate,” said Pablo Eisenberg, a columnist for The Chronicle of Philanthropy and senior fellow at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute. “They have not solicited and gone after people who will tell them the truth.”
The Global Justice Now report reinforces those claims. It notes that the Gates Foundation has spent $1 billion on policy and advocacy, investing heavily in training programs for journalists at major media organizations, and funding research and articles in scientific journals. It also notes that the foundation supports a number of NGOs that "might otherwise be expected to criticize aspects of the foundation's agenda," but have been notably silent.
In other words, many of the organizations capable of holding the foundation accountable are unwilling or unable to do so. Adds the report, quoting Sophie Harman, an academic at Queen Mary University in London: "One explanation for the silence is that 'everyone is scared of challenging Gates and the foundation’s role because they don’t want to lose their funding.'"
It makes sense that the organizations receiving funds wouldn't actively criticize the foundation providing the funding. But if the reports are true, it's led to an echo chamber of sorts—one in which the Gates Foundation cannot be criticized. From The Seattle Times story above:
Countless blogs and websites spout off on Microsoft’s every twitch. A single blog, The Gates Keepers, watchdogs the Gates Foundation. Few people ever weigh in with comments. The moderators say they remain anonymous out of fear of lawsuits and what they call “Bill Chill.”
“If we criticize the foundation in our own names our funding will be cut or we will lose our jobs,” reads one exchange.
It's a complicated ethical dilemma. The Gates Foundation is the world's 12th-largest donor, spending more on aid than most countries—including Canada, Belgium and Italy. It is a vital source of funding for hundreds of nonprofits, NGOs and other organizations in almost every sector, providing critical support for their missions. According to the report, the foundation issued 6,210 grants from 2010 to 2014 alone, and has spent $23.9 billion since 2000.
Even if the Gates Foundation is a bully that stands to benefit from its own philanthropy, as Global Justice Now alleges, it's hard to argue that it's not making a positive difference in world affairs. At one point, the report notes that The Global Fund, an organization that the foundation supports, has spent just 10 percent of its total output since 2002 on strengthening public health systems. It is intended as a knock against the Gates Foundation, but the math says otherwise. The Global Fund has spent a total of $25 billion over that span—10 percent of that is still $2.5 billion. That's not inconsequential.
It's also worth noting that many of the report's positions are subjective. Has the Gates Foundation prioritized vaccines? Yes, but those vaccines have saved an estimated 5.812 million lives. Has the foundation invested heavily in genetically modified organism (GMO) research and advocated for genetically modified crops? Sure, but a large portion of the scientific community believes GMOs could end world hunger. Global Justice Now counts these and other claims as a strike against the Gates Foundation, while largely ignoring the positive outcomes.
Still, the report's top recommendation—that the Gates Foundation should receive an independent review and evaluation—seems fair. More accountability, especially from organizations of this size, isn't a bad thing. As Nonprofit Quarterly's Martin Levine writes, "Beyond debating merits and downsides of specific strategies, the growing influence of a small number of very large foundations should cause us to consider if their work is sufficiently transparent and accountable."
For its part, the Gates Foundation stood by its philanthropic approach. In a written response, the foundation said its chief goal is to "improve quality of life for the world's poorest people," and that doing so requires collaboration from organizations across all sectors—nonprofit, for-profit or otherwise.
"Governments are uniquely positioned to provide the leadership and resources necessary to address structural inequalities and ensure that the right solutions reach those most in need," said the foundation. "The private sector has access to innovations—for example, in science, medicine and technology—that can save lives. And we believe that the role of philanthropy is to take risks where others can’t or won’t."