Gates Foundation is too big to ignore the politics of poverty

The killing of polio workers in Pakistan by the Taliban is a tragic illustration of why no development program can ignore the political problems associated with poverty. EPA/Arshad Arbab

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s 2015 annual letter outlines their vision for global development and poverty reduction. The letter outlines four areas where they expect breakthroughs over the next 15 years to transform the lives of the world’s poor for the better.

However, critics accuse them of being complicit in a “tyranny of experts”, which reduces development assistance to quick-fix solutions that do nothing to resolve the political problems that are seen as the main underlying cause of poverty.

Is the Gates Foundation, which spends more on development aid than most governments, doing more harm than good? How can this philanthropic body and others be encouraged to tackle the political as well as technological challenges of development?

Technocratic approach under attack

The immediate response from commentators to the Gates Foundation letter has been to draw attention to its shortcomings and the general approach to development it embodies. Oxfam’s Duncan Green sees the letter as a “technocrats’ charter” – a simplistic worldview in which apps and meds and anti-malarial nets can fix the problems of development. What is missing is any political dimension to their development agenda.

According to Green and others such as Columbia University’s Chris Blattman, the central challenges of development are not technocratic but political. Projections suggest that, by 2030, half the world’s poor will live in conflict-affected and “fragile” states. All the technocratic know-how that the Gates Foundation envisages may be meaningless in such contexts.

For instance, the Gates Foundation thinks we can wipe out polio within the next few years. They make no mention of Taliban violence against polio workers in Pakistan.

This debate of technocracy versus politics is not unique to the Gates Foundation or the philanthropic sector. The increasing dominance of randomised control trials (RCTs) as the standard for assessing development interventions has, critics suggest, skewed development debates and marginalised issues such as human and civil rights.

Prominent former World Bank economist William Easterly names the Gates Foundation alongside his erstwhile employers as prime suspects in this “tyranny of experts”. Easterly is part of a growing critique of philanthropic development funds.

For a long time, most development thinkers and policymakers saw the Gates Foundation as more or less benign. The Gates Foundation has poured vast resources into combating poverty and ill-being in the developing world. It has committed nearly US$2 billion to eradicating malaria. The initiatives it supports range from agricultural innovation to gender empowerment.

However, alarm bells are increasingly ringing. While no-one disputes the inherent value of this kind of initiative, the impact of the Gates Foundation and others on the broader development agenda, deliberately or inadvertently, is being questioned.

Foundation rubs shoulders with nations

In 2013, the Gates Foundation disbursed US$3.6 billion in grants. The vast majority went to global development and health projects. Only ten countries (including Australia) spent more on official development assistance than the Gates Foundation – much of this in the form of concessionary loans rather than grants.

For critical scholars like Michael Moran, the influence of philanthropic foundations is more than just financial. They are reshaping the whole architecture of development assistance along precisely those lines that Green and Easterly worry about: away from a central concern with rights and legitimacy towards an illegitimate, technocratic “authoritarian development”.

Yet philanthropic foundations are here to stay and their influence is only likely to grow. Wealthy countries are scaling back development assistance in both financial and – at least in Australia’s caseinstitutional terms. Only six countries have ever met the UN’s target for wealthy countries to provide development assistance of at least 0.7% of national income.

Public opinion is not helping. A 24-country IPSOS study found that 51% of respondents thought development assistance was wasted money.

The Australian development aid program is designed ‘to promote Australia’s national interests’.

Apologists for the Gates Foundation could not unreasonably point out that Australia is unambiguous that its aid approach is designed “to promote Australia’s national interests”. However, the Gates Foundation declares that its mission is:

… guided by the belief that every life has equal value … to help all people lead healthy, productive lives.

Philanthropic assistance might not be perfect, the argument would run, but it is surely better than the overt or covert self-interest that undergirds government development assistance.

Rather than scorn ‘impatient optimists’ Bill and Melinda Gates, critics need to persuade them to engage with the politics of the work their foundation does. EPA/Jean-Christophe Bott

Opening the door to political engagement

The challenge is not to reduce the impact of philanthropic foundations on international development. It is, instead, to get them to engage more critically with the system that they are part of. They need to recognise the inherently political dimension of their activities in the communities where they work and at the national and international policy level.

The latest Gates Foundation letter offers room for hope. While the letter focuses on the technocratic solutions that are necessary but insufficient for transforming the lives of the world’s poorest, it is bookended by tentative recognition of the political challenges that need to be met to make their optimistic vision achievable.

The first of these, with which they open their letter, is climate change. The second, with which they conclude, is a call for people to act as “global citizens”.

It is easy to find fault with the Gates Foundation’s approach to these issues. In recognising that immediate action on climate change is imperative, they still see a primarily technocratic solution – development of clean energy sources. And their call for global activism is well-meaning but, charitably, naïve enthusiasm.

However, these are areas where positive engagement with the Gates Foundation could reap rewards. No matter how technocratic his predisposition, it will not take Bill Gates long to realise that the primary challenge for climate change action is not technological but political. This is true in terms of achieving both individual behaviour change and co-ordinated, substantive and binding commitments from governments.

Bill and Melinda Gates describe themselves as “impatient optimists”. That sums up their strengths and weaknesses. Their strengths: their optimism, in a field often beset by doom-and-gloom naysayers, and their willingness to put their substantial resources behind this optimism. Their weaknesses: their impatience for quick-fix technocratic solutions that ignore or downplay the political challenges of co-ordination and implementation.

More patient optimists may find that working with the Gates Foundation and other philanthropic organisations – to engage them in the political obstacles to their technological utopianism – could yield very positive outcomes.