The Guardian, Global development, John Vidal – Study identifies Bill and Melinda Gates and Rockefeller foundations among rich donors that are close to government and may be skewing priorities
[Global development is funded by support provided, in part, by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation]
Ultra-rich philanthropists and their foundations have increasing influence on decision-making and are setting the global health and agriculture agenda in developing countries, according to a major study (pdf).
Using their immense wealth and influence with political and scientific elites, organisations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation and others are promoting solutions to global problems that may undermine the UN and other international organisations, says the report by the independent Global Policy Forum, which monitors the work of UN bodies and global policymaking.
With assets of more than $360bn (£250bn), the world’s 27 largest foundations give roughly $15bn annually to charitable causes. Nineteen of the 27 are American and many are now looking to extend their influence to poorer countries, say the report’s authors.
Foundation spending on global development has increased from $3bn a year in the early 2000s to $10bn today. By far the largest donor, say the authors, is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which in 2012 gave $2.6bn. This compares with $1.2bn from the next nine largest US trusts.
In addition, 137 billionaires from 14 countries have now pledged to give to philanthropic causes. They include the former mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg, the US filmmaker George Lucas and the Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.
“If these and more ultra-rich fulfil their pledges, many more billions of dollars will be made available for charitable purposes,” says the report, which was financed by Misereor and Brot für die Welt, two German church groups that work largely in Africa.
The study claims many foundations enable rich countries and their corporations to achieve their own ends in developing countries, from setting up public-private partnerships with pharmaceutical companies to promoting certain sorts of corporate farming and the use of biotechnology for health and agriculture.
“So far there has been a fairly willing belief among governments and international organisations in the positive role of philanthropy.” But, say the authors, a thorough assessment is now necessary because the wealthy may be skewing the priorities of the poor.
“They should analyse the intended and unintended risks and side-effects of their activities, particularly the fragmentation of global governance, the weakening of representative democracy … the prevailing practice of applying business logic to the provision of public goods.”
The authors say foundations have used their influence well to get governments to tackle poverty. “Their advocacy for global causes puts pressure on governments, and sometimes the private sector, to become more actively engaged.”
But this raises concerns about how they and their corporate partners may be taking over from the UN and weakening public health systems in developing countries. “As the UN accelerates its engagement with the business and corporate sector, as well as philanthropic foundations, it lacks the rules and tools needed to ensure it does not lose sight of its original mission.
“Through their multiple channels of influence, the Rockefeller and Gates foundations have been very successful in promoting their market-based and bio-medical approaches towards global health challenges in the research and health policy community – and beyond.”
Their strategy includes placing people in international organisations, and gaining privileged access to scientific, business and political elites.
For example, when Bill Gates visited Berlin to campaign for the Gavi Alliance (the vaccine alliance of governments, NGOs and companies set up with Gates and Rockefeller money), he met the German chancellor and the foreign, finance, development and health ministers.
“The Gates foundation has successfully positioned itself in the centre of a … community that is promoting market-based, techno-fix solutions to the complex global problems of hunger and malnutrition,” say the authors.
Leonora Diller, spokeswoman for the Gates foundation said: “The problems affecting the world’s poorest are complex and we believe that solving them requires the close collaboration of governments, NGOs, academic institutions and for-profit businesses. Governments and international organisations provide the leadership and resources.
“The private sector has access to life-saving innovations and we believe that the role of philanthropy is to take risks where others can’t or won’t. Our investments are substantial, but just one piece of the puzzle.”
According to the report, the Gates foundation is now the second largest donor to the World Health Organisation after the US, as well as one of the world’s largest single investors in biotechnology for farming and pharmaceuticals. But while the billions of dollars for research is welcomed in rich countries, its massive power to shift the agenda is questioned elsewhere.
“The mushrooming of global partnerships, particularly in the health sector, has led to isolated and often poorly coordinated solutions. These initiatives have not only contributed to the institutional weakening of the UN ands its specialised agencies but have undermined national development strategies,” it says.
“Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) states that, while Gavi has helped to lower prices of new and underused vaccines for eligible countries, the cost to fully immunise a child was 68 times more expensive in 2014 than it was in 2001.”
The report also questions why the Gates foundation invests heavily in companies like Monsanto and Bayer. “In addition to its grant-making activities, the Gates foundation has recently stepped up its support for the biotechnological industry directly.” In February, it took a $52m equity stake in CureVac, a German bio-pharmaceutical company.
“There is a revolving door between the Gates foundation and pharmaceutical corporations. Many of the foundation’s staff had held positions at pharmaceutical companies,” the report adds.
The study says: “Both Gates and the Rockefeller Foundation regard technological innovation and close cooperation with the food and agricultural industries as key to overcoming hunger … In 2006 they together launched the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (Agra), based on the premise that hunger in Africa is mainly the result of a lack of technology and functioning markets. [This] changed the farming agenda in Africa,” say the authors.
Since then Gates has given more than $3bn to support 660 agricultural projects as well as several hundred million dollars for nutrition. “The vast majority of grants focus on Africa. However, more than 80% of the $669m to NGOs went to organisations based in the US and Europe, with only 4% going to Africa-based NGOs.”
The report claims Agra has been intervening directly in the formulation of African governments’ agricultural policies on issues like seeds and land. “Because of its focus on bio-technological farming methods, it has increasingly promoted GMseeds. Critics claim that under the guise of eliminating hunger in Africa, it is a tool to open African markets to US agri-buiness,” says the report.
Achieng’ Otieno, a spokeswoman for the Rockefeller’s Africa office, said: “The agricultural research that the Rockefeller Foundation funded through the green revolution saved millions of lives. Today our focus is on making better use of the resources that go into food production, and in particular reducing both post-harvest losses and retail- and consumer-level food waste.
“These are the biggest food security issues of our day, and, yes, we want to influence decisions so that more food ends up on tables and in mouths and far less of it in landfills, particularly as we want to see this done in a way that benefits smallholder farmers.”
Diller said: “It’s important to point out that in all of our grant-making we are guided by the evidence and by the deep research and expertise of our partners and grantees … Our open access policy reflect[s] our commitment to the open exchange of information across our work. We continue to try to do all we can to be transparent and accountable to our investments and our decision-making.”