Many of my well-intentioned students are in awe of Bill Gates. He’s a rich guy, a successful businessman, who is giving away a large portion of his income to help solve the world’s economic and social problems through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. What could be more admirable?
I do remind them that it’s Gates alone who gets to decide what the problems are, what the solutions are, and how those solutions will be enacted. We’ve seen that already in the area of education reform. The rest of us have no say in the matter. In other words, it’s the problem of philanthropy in an increasingly unequal country and world.
One of the areas in which the Gates Foundation has been allocating more and more money is food and agriculture, especially the problems of hunger and agricultural production in Africa, guided by the motto of “Listening to farmers and addressing their specific needs.” In 2007, it spent over half a billion dollars on agricultural projects, and has maintained funding at around this level. Since spending so much money gives the foundation significant influence over agricultural research and development agendas, the folks at GRAIN [ht: mfa], a “a small international non-profit organisation that works to support small farmers and social movements in their struggles for community-controlled and biodiversity-based food systems,” decided to look into where the money is going and what it’s being spent on.
What they discovered is that, first, the Gates Foundation fights hunger in the South by giving money to the North.
Roughly half of the foundation’s grants for agriculture went to four big groupings: the CGIAR’s global agriculture research network, international organisations (World Bank, UN agencies, etc.), AGRA (set up by Gates itself) and the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF). The other half ended up with hundreds of different research, development and policy organisations across the world. Of this last group, over 80% of the grants were given to organisations in the US and Europe, 10% went to groups in Africa, and the remainder elsewhere.
Second, the Gates Foundation gives to scientists, not farmers.
the single biggest recipient of grants from the Gates Foundation is the CGIAR, a consortium of 15 international agricultural research centres. In the 1960s and 70s, these centres were responsible for the development and spread of a controversial Green Revolution model of agriculture in parts of Asia and Latin America which focused on the mass distribution of a few varieties of seeds that could produce high yields – with the generous application of chemical fertilisers and pesticides.
We could find no evidence of any support from the Gates Foundation for programmes of research or technology development carried out by farmers or based on farmers’ knowledge, despite the multitude of such initiatives that exist across the continent.
Third, the Gates Foundation buys political influence.
Does the Gates Foundation use its money to tell African governments what to do? Not directly. The Gates Foundation set up the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa in 2006 and has supported it with $414 million since then. It holds two seats on the Alliance’s board and describes it as the “African face and voice for our work”. . .
AGRA intervenes directly in the formulation and revision of agricultural policies and regulations in Africa on such issues as land and seeds. It does so through national “policy action nodes” of experts, selected by AGRA, that work to advance particular policy changes.
Finally, the Gates Foundation is not listening to farmers.
Listening to someone, if it has any real significance, should also include the intent to learn. But nowhere in the programmes funded by the Gates Foundation is there any indication that it believes that Africa’s small farmers have anything to teach, that they have anything to contribute to research, development and policy agendas. The continent’s farmers are always cast as the recipients, the consumers of knowledge and technology from others. In practice, the foundation’s first guiding principle appears to be a marketing exercise to sell its technologies to farmers. In that, it looks, not surprisingly, a lot like Microsoft.
Thanks to GRAIN, we now have another example of the problem of philanthropy in an age of growing inequality.