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by Hans Dembowski

Billionaire philanthropists mustn't set policymakers' agenda

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is stepping up its efforts to promote international-development programmes. The billionaire couple’s cause is worthy. It is noteworthy, nonetheless, that it also pursuing an agenda of its own.

The Gates Foundation has long been involved in development programmes. Among other things, it helped the Global Fund to Fight HIV, Tuberculosis and Malaria and the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa to take off. It tends to rely on big data and normally emphasises high-tech solutions. That is not surprising given that Bill Gates owes his incredible wealth to the success of Microsoft, the software giant he founded in 1975. High-tech approaches are not always appropriate, however.

Demanding up-to-date medical care for every pregnant woman makes sense in theory, but is unrealistic in countries that lack the needed academically trained physicians. In such places, traditional midwives play an indispensable role. Involving them in health policies is essential for making progress fast, but that is not what the Gates Foundation is promoting.  

It is true that Africa needs a green revolution to feed a fast-growing population. Such a green revolution, however, must keep smallholders in business and benefit them. It must also be environmentally sustainable. The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa focusses on high-yielding crops which require pesticides and fertilisers. Its approach is basically a capital-intensive, not labour-intensive. A severe environmental side-effect is the depletion of biodiversity. Western high-tech agriculture is not the appropriate model for sub-Saharan Africa.

I would not go as far as to argue that the Alliance is harmful per se and should be discontinued. My point is that the policies it promotes are controversial. The Global Fund, moreover, is definitely doing indispensable work. A lot needs to happen in Africa, and philanthropic involvement can be useful.

I worry, however, that philanthropists’ influence can be excessive. Policymakers should seek advice elsewhere as well, but they tend to fall for the prescriptions offered by highly successful business people. Entrepreneurs like Gates seem to have a magic wand that delivers incredible results.

Adding to that mystique, billionaire philanthropists like Gates often entice policymakers by co-funding programmes. Their monetary contributions can be so huge that cash-strapped governments feel they must grasp the opportunities on offer. Obviously, this road leads to plutocracy.

It is worth bearing in mind that Microsoft’s spectacular rise was not due to its superior software. Microsoft grew strong because it supplied programmes to IBM, the dominant IT company of the 1980s. Struggling with anti-trust proceedings, IBM had to outsource important tasks, but any competitor who wanted to be of relevance still had to deliver IBM-compatible products. In practical terms, that mostly meant using Microsoft and Intel products. By the late 1980s, Microsoft and Intel held a similarly dominant position as IBM had earlier, and eventually Microsoft itself became entangled in anti-trust proceedings in the 1990s.

Bill Gates’ desire to fight poverty and promote sustainability seems real. He deserves praise for promoting the common good rather than merely protecting his own interests, as the Koch brothers are doing. Their huge wealth is based on fossil fuels and they use it to sponsor climate-change denial and campaign against taxes. I’m sure that Gates, unlike the Koch brothers, wants to do good. I am less sure that Gates’ tech-industry experience and billionaire wealth give him an insight into everything that needs to happen in the poorest parts of the world.

I appreciate his efforts to promote the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)  and his contributions to the One Campaign, which aims to hold donor governments to their promises concerning official development assistance (ODA). But I will always insist that philanthropists like Gates must not be setting policymakers’ agenda - not least because their belief in market results is not rooted in the kind of average or median experience that statisticians usually refer to, but in their own extremely improbable luck.




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