Who is the Gates Foundation trying to empower?

by Sasha Alyson

What someone earnestly tells you they’ve been doing may have nothing to do with what they’ve actually been up to. Parents know this instinctively. The rest of us sometimes need a reminder.

Let’s look at what the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation tells us.

“Empowerment of women.” I wouldn’t be surprised if Melinda Gates has talked about “empowerment of women” more than any other human being – 17 times in a short article for Science magazine in which she speaks of “the beginning of our concerted push in putting women and girls at the center of our work.” Clearly she is passionate about this – or is it all just done for appearances?

I ask because it’s remarkable how little the foundation has funded for such things in the years since 2014 when she announced the concerted push. The foundation has six “program” areas; none are about women. Of the foundation’s 100 biggest grants in 2018, 14 seem particularly related to women. Most of these went to organizations in the USA, most were to influence activities in Africa or Asia. Most of these grants were for contraception, but not always. A grant of $3.7 million was intended “to strengthen the evidence base around women’s empowerment collectives in India and East Africa.” That $3.7 million went to a think tank in Washington.(1)

Listening. “Special effort must be taken to hear from and listen to those voices most marginalized.” Now it all makes sense. Melinda asked some women’s collectives in India and East Africa what they needed, and they said they’d really like a think-tank in Washington to figure out if they were doing a good job. They estimated that this could be done for $3 million but to be on the safe side, the Gates Foundation threw in an extra $700,000.

“We listen…. We empower….” Bill and Melinda Gates, like U.N. agencies and international NGOs, like Jeffrey Sachs and his Millennium Villages Project, repeat these mantras endlessly, to divert attention from the fact that they are doing the exact opposite. On one occasion, the foundation brought 250 teachers to a luxury hotel in Arizona to hear its vision of education. A Gates representative tripped over himself trying to have it both ways as he told them, “We’re trying to start a movement. A movement started by you. A movement you’re leading.”

The Gates Foundation gave $19 million to MasterCard to expand into the Kenya market; they said this would empower poor people who got their first credit card. It doesn’t matter if U.S. taxpayers, like myself, think MasterCard should fund its own expansion efforts; tax-subsidized funds went for this purpose and we got no voice in it. It doesn’t matter if Kenyans would rather see financial services developed by a Kenyan company rather than an American company, backed by American “philanthropy,” sending its profits back to the United States, and making it harder for Kenyan entrepreneurs to get a foothold providing services that would be more locally accountable. Kenyans get no voice in this.(2)

Who’s in charge?

The Gates Foundation pushes a top-down approach: Wealthy Westerners will decide what’s best for the global poor, and will provide it – if and when they wish. Suppose that true development cannot happen if corporations and bureaucrats far away are calling the shots. Suppose, for a moment, that development requires that the people affected must be integrally involved and have ultimate control. Suppose that it is even people’s right to have more, rather than less, control over their own lives.(3)

If that is the case, then any discussion of development must look at issues of power and control. Those are two things that Bill and Melinda Gates aren’t thinking about deeply, much less planning to share. When asked if Gates money sometimes crowded out other voices, Melinda replied that “I’d love to say we had outsize influence. We don’t.” She earnestly explained that she didn’t stay awake worrying about little things because “my role is to make sure that I’m advocating on behalf of, for example, women in Kenya.” Would it be better to create space so they can advocate for themselves? I don’t think the idea ever entered her mind.

In 2018, 83.6% of the Gates Foundation’s funding went to high-income nations and only 1.7% to low-income nations. Even this tiny number is misleading: $4 million, for example, went to Tanzania – but to the Tanzanian subsidiary of a bioscience firm based in India.(4) It is of course easier in rich countries to find qualified organizations to fund – but this is part of the reason: Their counterparts in poorer countries have few resources. If the Gates Foundation wanted to “empower” the poor, it would push in that direction, not support the status quo.

But it prefers the plump, familiar status quo. Melinda Gates is thrilled that you can get Coke in the middle of the Sahara; she is not concerned about communities that have lost their water supply after Coca-Cola made a deal with their government to open a giant plant nearby. In fact, MasterCard is not the only huge corporation to benefit from Gates funding; the foundation has also helped Coca-Cola expand its operations in Africa.(5)

No worries, we’re happy to plan your future for you.

Several things have stood out during my research into the Gates Foundation. First, something positive. I’ve been surprised at how much good research includes the tag “Funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation” – though rarely is this about projects that the foundation itself initiated. For all its talk of being data-driven, the foundation shows remarkably little interest in evaluating the impacts of its own funding. The BMGF also funds media – sometimes with a clear intent to influence coverage but it also funds the Guardian’s development section which has on occasion strongly criticised the foundation.

But overwhelmingly, when the Gates Foundation says it is funding development, the grant money goes to the global North, and it keeps control, power, and wealth concentrated there, while the very people that the foundation claims to help are seen as passive recipients of generous philanthropists. A 2009 analysis found a similar pattern, and concluded that this lopsided approach to funding could “undermine coherent and long-term development of health systems… and diminish the capabilities of Ministries of Health in low-income and middle-income countries.”(6)

Agriculture in Africa is another main focus of the foundation. GRAIN, an international organization that supports small farmers, looked at $3 billion of grants that the Gates Foundation has given for agriculture and found that:

The Gates Foundation fights hunger in the South by giving money to the North…. The foundation has consistently chosen to put its money into top down structures of knowledge generation and flow, where farmers are mere recipients of the technologies developed in labs and sold to them by companies.”

That was 2014, and nothing has changed. While in Ethiopia to accept an honorary degree from Addis Ababa University, Bill Gates told the crowd that “our priority is to support programs developed by Africans, for Africans.” Here are a few recent Gates grants:

• Johns Hopkins University (USA) got $11 million “to support (a) the collection of data on contraceptive dynamics and… (b) the use of this data to effect change in policies and programs… across 12 countries in Africa and Asia.”
• Columbia University (USA) got $1 million “to strengthen the networks and capacity of grassroots women’s activists in sub-Saharan Africa and document their impact through participatory research.”
• Tanager in Washington got $14 million “to strengthen African institutions’ ability to implement quality nutrition and gender approaches.”
• Pamela Steele Associates in England got $20 million “to support Ethiopia’s pharmaceutical transformation goal of a high performing supply chain system.”
• Ohio State University (USA) got $1.6 million “to inform family planning policy and family planning program initiatives in Sub-Saharan Africa through new approaches to understanding the demand for family planning.”
• The World Bank got $20 million “to increase rural women’s economic empowerment in the agriculture sector (RWEA) in Ethiopia and Nigeria through evidence-informed policy change.”

Some of these may work out well, some may not, but this is not an attempt “to support programs developed by Africans, for Africans.” This is karma colonialism. Bill and Melinda Gates and their wealthy friends in the West will handle all the heavy thinking for the Rest, in Africa and Asia and wherever else the population just isn’t able to manage its own affairs properly. In this view, the world’s poor are like a family pet. We want the family dog to be healthy, affectionate, and dependent. We do not ever want the family dog in a position to say, “From now on, I will sit at the same table and eat the same dinner as everybody else.”

Notes and sources

  1. All references to grants, and quotes about their purpose are from the Gates Foundation’s grant database, although as noted below, it’s harder to search this database than it should be.
  2. The MasterCard grant is briefly described on the Gates database. Also worth reading: Linsey McGoey, who has written a critical book about the Gates Foundation, tells how she was dis-invited from a BBC show after she questioned a prohibition against talking about this grant.
  3. The Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776.
  4. These figures are my own breakdown. In contrast to some large organizations, which make it easy to download spreadsheets of their data, the Gates Foundation makes it difficult or impossible. In this case, we spent two days copying some 1500 grant descriptions, one-by-one, that the Foundation listed for 2018. That is not possible for their 2019 grants; they now limit search results to 1000 items.
  5. A number of Gates Foundation grants have benefited Coca-Cola, its subsidiaries, or its foundations. In theory, you could find all of them by using the search function on Gates website. But you can’t. I’ve elaborated on false transparency at the Gates Foundation.
  6. Several articles in The Lancet examine Gates operations. This quotation comes from “The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s grant-making programme for global health,” by Dr. David McCoy et. al. Also of interest is “What has the Gates Foundation done for global health?” which finds an “alarmingly poor correlation between the Foundation’s funding and childhood disease priorities” and concludes that “[a]lthough it is driven by the belief that ‘all lives have equal value’, it seems that the Foundation does not believe that every voice has equal value, especially voices from those it seeks most to assist.”

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