The Gates Foundation vows transparency. So why does it offer a dysfunctional search engine?

by Sasha Alyson

[Note: A year later, some of these problems were fixed, some were not. See update at end.]

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation claims that it “is committed to information sharing and transparency.”(1) How deep is that commitment?

In 2013, the foundation was embarrassed to get a “Very Poor” rating from the Aid Transparency Index. On “Commitment to Aid Transparency,” BMGF got 1.11 of 10 possible points. The foundation made some quick changes, and the next year it had moved up to the lower half of the “Fair” category. It’s been sitting there ever since. The 2018 report shows it 31st out of 45.(2) We might conclude that the foundation is less interested in real transparency, than in avoiding embarrassment.

The foundation continues to claim a commitment to transparency, particularly through a Grants Database which allows anyone to find details of grants it has made. But it appears that the actual commitment to transparency is still about 1.1 out of 10. Here’s what I’ve encountered:

It doesn’t find what you ask for.

Having heard about a Gates grant to Coca-Cola to expand operations in Africa, I looked for details. Here’s what I got. (These screenshots will look best on a large screen. Click arrows on the sides, or dots below, to navigate.)(3)

At the time of that African grant, the Gates foundation had announced “The Coca-Cola Company, TechnoServe and The Gates Foundation Partner to Boost Incomes of 50K Small-Scale Farmers in East Africa.” But on the Gates Foundation page for this grant, Coca-Cola isn’t mentioned.

As for the broken link to Coca-Cola Foundation Indonesia: Both pages for Gates grants to CFFI listed the wrong URL (website address). But the Gates Foundation did have the correct URL in their records: Their press release in 2011 got it right. Bill and Melinda Gates are eager to find tech solutions for all the world’s problems. There are simple ways, both tech- and human-based, to know if your links work. Why not use them?

It buries you in the wrong stuff.

Looking for details of a grant to Tanager, I searched for that name. Here’s what it showed.

I looked at the first ones. They had nothing to do with Tanager. The word never appeared on those pages. There were a total of just 3 “Tanager” entries, not 112.

The Gates database holds perhaps 20,000 small records, and the foundation can’t provide a way to search them. Google searches trillions of pages, some quite large, and does a far better job. Is Bill Gates really doing his best here?(4)

The database suffers from information poverty.

Since 2006, the Foundation has given about $190 million to Bono’s ONE Campaign for purposes explained like this:

  • $38,142,580 in 2009, “to promote health, agriculture, and development”
  • $39,000,000 in 2017, “to support ONE’s policy, advocacy and public awareness-raising work in the fight to end extreme poverty and preventable disease, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa”
  • $13,000,000 in 2019, “to provide general operating support”

This is money that avoided taxation because it was to be used for the public good, but the Gates foundation isn’t giving us details. Nor does the One Campaign. It is an advocacy organization, which urges more Western aid to the global South. Paula Froelich, writing in the New York Post, tells more: “One raises millions to publicize the good works of others, such as the Gates Foundation. A lot of this is done via taking VIPs and journalists on first-class, all-expenses-paid sightseeing trips to briefly experience African poverty by touring schools and hospitals before settling down to enjoy local music.”(5)

That doesn’t mean One has forgotten about Bill and Melinda Gates. Google reports that about 1200 pages at have a reference to one or both of the Gateses, or their foundation. Of his grants to One, Froelich adds: “Bill Gates has said it was the best money he ever spent.” At last, we’ve got some transparency.

Google screenshot shows "about 1,200" pages on the website which mention Bill or Melinda Gates. The One Campaign has gotten about $190 million from the Gates Foundation.

Gates blocks other ways that data might get out.

Grant data is stored in a database and pages are presumably created as requested. A search engine such as Google cannot automatically find and index such pages. There are simple ways that a website designer can allow them to be indexed, however, and many large sites, such as Amazon, take these steps. They want you to find them. The Gates Foundation doesn’t seem to care.

You cannot request a bulk export.

The World Bank allows you to download a spreadsheet with whatever data matches your search request. It took me about 10 seconds to download the Gini index of inequality, where available, for each country and each year since 1960. Many organizations offer this export function, if they have a large database that they want to make publicly available. The Gates Foundation does not.

Nor can you follow a grant.

In 2018 the foundation gave $6.5 million to the London School of Economics “to build the national and regional capacities to access and utilize global knowledge to improve the health system design and performance in Sub-Saharan African countries.”(6)

Did anything come of this? Realistically, there’s no way to know. When the foundation does list a grantee’s website it gives only the home page. In this case, that was: It will be hard, or impossible, to track it.

Here’s a way they could be more transparent. The foundation could assign a unique ID to each grant and invite, or require, that recipients offer certain things, such as independent evaluations of how it was used, which would also carry this ID. Not every grant needs to be evaluated, but with some intelligent thought about what does, this would greatly improve accountability and provide a valuable pool of “What Works, What Doesn’t Work” research.

Is the Gates Foundation trying to hide information, or is this just general carelessness? Somebody made a conscious decision to provide skimpy information about grants and a uselessly general website URL for the recipient. But there’s also a lot of sloppiness. A reasonable theory is that Bill Gates resents the suggestion that after giving away so much money, he should be held to principles of transparency that were meant for others. But he knows better than to say that. So the Foundation set up an under-funded office, charged it with maintaining appearances, and as long as it doesn’t cause embarrassment, nobody cares. The world is full of “Corporate Social Responsibility” programs which take precisely this approach.

Update: May 2021

Two months after posting this, I found slight changes on the Gates database page, but largely the same problems.

A year later, May 2021, I revisited the database page of the Gates site. Several things are different; some are not.

  • The database has a new URL:
  • If you search for “Tanager” it no longer shows a lot of totally irrelevant listings.
  • When I search for Coca-Cola, it now shows both grants to Coca-Cola Foundation Indonesia, but not other relevant grants, even where, according to Gates press releases, Coca-Cola was a key participant but the money didn’t go to it directly.
  • It allows the user to easily do a data dump of all grants – all 23,382 of them at this writing. This is a good addition, though getting such a big file will overwhelm some users. Allowing people to select by year, keywork, etc., would make the function more useful.
  • It remains uselessly vague about many grants. This year, Panorama Global got $800,000 for “general operating support.” Panorama Global says it is “a platform for social change to solve pressing global problems through Audacious Thinking and Bold Action.” Can they solve this pandemic of vagueness?

Notes and Sources

1. From the foundation’s “Open Access” page. It becomes clear that the foundation is talking about transparency that is expected from grantees, not from itself.

2. The Aid Transparency Index is produced by Publish What You Fund.

3. Screenshots are from 22 Feb. 2020, except for one which is noted as being a few days later.

4. The malfunctions are not a temporary glitch. In May 2018 I searched for “Coca-Cola.” It found the Coca-Cola Foundation Indonesia grant from 2011, but not the one from 2015. In May 2019 it reported 12 results for Tanager, only one of which was correct; now it reports 112 results, of which 3 are correct. Two of these are older, so it seems to have missed them in 2019.

5. “Inside Bono’s boundless hypocrisy,” by Paula Froelich, New York Post, 11 Nov. 2017. The One campaign disputed much of the article, but not what is quoted above. If they want everyone to know details of what they do, they could, of course, stop keeping it secret. Their response is at: One Campaign Responds To Paula Froelich.

6. Gates grant to London School of Economics. Are you surprised they would give money to England to improve health in Africa? Despite talk of “empowerment,” very little Gates money goes to people in the global South. It goes to institutions in the North to do things for people in the South. In 2018, only 1.7% of Gates grants went to recipients in low-income countries, and even this is misleading because some recipients were the local affiliate of a larger business or organization based elsewhere. A study published in the Lancet in 2009 raised similar points. Dr David McCoy et al., found that only about 5% of grants went to low-income and middle-income countries, and descriptions provided by the foundation were sometimes too vague to be of use. It pointedly noted: “In view of its receipt of public subsidies in the form of tax exemptions, there should also be an expectation that the foundation is subject to some public scrutiny.”

Top photo: Adapted for online use from the Aid Transparency Index 2018. The 17-page report notes that when conducting its evaluations, “pieces of information critical to assess project and donor impact are the most difficult to find – if available at all.” The index is published every two years; this is the most recent one.

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