“They seriously and very sentimentally set themselves to the task of remedying the evils that they see in poverty, but their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it… the proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible.”
(Oscar Wilde on philanthropists, quoted in Global Justice Now, 2016. Emphasis added.)
The existence of, and significance, of philanthropic foundations and their influence are increasingly becoming part of public discussion. Foundations have come to be significant in US partisan politics after the 2016 election, with criticism from both the left and right being directed towards Bill and Hilary Clinton’s Clinton Foundation, including its scandalous kickbacks schemes in Haiti, and its dependency on donations from the Saudi royal family. Asra Nomani also brought attention to the dominance of organizations funded by one of Clinton’s most generous financial backers at the Women’s March on Washington, George Soros, who also heads the Open Society Foundation, a significant philanthropic actor in its own right. More recently, Donald Trump’s philanthropy has also come under scrutiny.
Perhaps the most critical analysis of modern philanthropic foundations available to the wider public is a report by the UK pressure group Global Justice Now. Their report Gated Development: Is the Gates Foundation always a force for good? (2016), which provides a damning assessment of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMG for short), received little attention in the mainstream media, apart from an article in the UK paper The Independent. The article summarizes the Global Justice report as saying that the Gates Foundation promotes neoliberal economic policies and “corporate globalization” in service of its allies and funders, including major transnationals, agricultural companies, and pharmaceuticals.
Given the Gates Foundations’ significant investments in ExxonMobil, Dutch Shell, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and McDonald’s, and its significant ownership of pharmaceutical intellectual property (McGoey, 2012), Global Justice’s claim deserves more attention than it has been given by the media. The Gates Foundation purports itself to be at the forefront of improving quality of life in the Global South, yet invests in some of the largest transnationals involved in destructive resource extraction and exploitative labour practices throughout the world, to say nothing of Microsoft’s own exploitative, neoliberal growth schemes (Microsoft is one of the largest funders of the Gates Foundation besides Warren Buffett and the Gates themselves), which provided the surplus wealth necessary to create such a massive philanthropic enterprise.
Transnational Oligarchs, gangsters turned self-appointed Saviors
The Gates Foundation is often seen as the global vanguard of what its proponents call “philanthrocapitalism” – the application of business strategies to the distribution of charity and aid through philanthropic organizations. Such a strategy and ideological fixation has recently come under criticism, even by the “cautious fans” of philanthropic organizations, pointing out how profit-maximizing logics when applied to international development often result in shortsightedness (Youde, 2013; Edwards, 2009)
Looking at history, it is clear that this is by design, rather than by accident. Birn (2014) provides a historical comparison between the Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation. Both foundations have been significant in shaping the development of global health policy, operating on similar models, which the Rockefeller Foundation pioneered and the Gates Foundation claims to innovate upon. Thus, the contemporary hype around “philanthrocapitalism” is more of a re-brand of old-fashioned oligarchic foundations rather than anything substantially new. Both Gates and Rockefeller disbursed charity strategically, as way to secure their for-profit companies’ investments, fend off radical alternatives, and promote development strategies which keep recipients dependent on their aid and their products.
It is difficult sometimes for the public to imagine philanthropic foundations, which spend lots on public relations emphasizing the selfless “good” their work does, are actually doing harm or advancing private interests. I myself remember growing up in an environment saturated with stories of the benevolence of Bill Gates, “the billionaire who wants to give it all away”. Gates in those days, and to an extent still does today, possessed a veneration as a kind of philosopher-king, making it somewhat unthinkable to question in decent company why this one individual should have more wealth than the GDPs of forty-five countries. This is consistent with the capitalist moral ethos which Linsey McGoey (2014), an expert in philanthropic foundations, says that philanthropy helps reinforce.
Yet this humanitarian morality, what Maximillian Forte calls “moral narcissism” (2012), hardly stands up to examination. After all, as the Global Justice Now report points out, the practices of the BMG Foundation are consistently part of a strategy to bolster the investments of its funders and those companies it holds shares in. Funds and resources are often disbursed not to the poorest of the world’s population, but to countries and populations that the BMG can expect a return from (Global Justice Now, 2016). Furthermore, similar programs could easily be funded through state revenue acquired by taxing such large personal fortunes as that of the Gates and Buffets, thus private, unelected actors are taking over way was historically the responsibility of democratic, sovereign state formations (Global Justice Now, 2016; St.-Pierre, 2014). Such philanthropic elites often circumvent their obligations to their fellow citizens in the form of taxes through elaborate tax evasion schemes, such as those uncovered by the Paradise Papers.
Biopower and “Compassionate” Biological Imperialism
“Each of these two über-powerful foundations [Rockefeller and Gates] emerged at a critical juncture in the history of international/global health. Each was started by the richest, most ruthless and innovative capitalist of his day” (Birn, 2014)
This is particularly evident in global health governance, a sector itself pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation. Rockefeller’s motivation for establishing global health as a humanitarian sector was primarily driven by his desire to stave off criticism of his business practices and combat the rise of militant labor unions and radical socialist organizers within his US workforces, especially after armed guards massacred striking workers at a Rockefeller-owned mine (Birn, 2014; Youde, 2013). The Rockefeller Foundation represented the entrenchment of philanthropy, as opposed to church charity, which explicitly understood itself as being a defensive investment in alleviating suffering among the masses to forestall said masses from taking issues into their own hands.
Michel Foucault described biopower as “an explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugations of bodies and the control of populations” (1976) pursued by states and the administrators of various capitalist power structures. In the case of global health governance, the “bio” in biopower is quite literal. The BMG, in continuation of its predecessor the Rockefeller Foundation, is one of the largest players in global health governance, policy, and research development today. It is the second-largest funder of the World Health Organization, second only to the United States government, and owns most of the HIV/AIDS research being conducted in the world today, leading to increasing concern among the scientific community about the independence, accountability, neutrality and purposes of HIV research being conducted (Birn, 2014). Meanwhile, Brazil and India were both served lawsuits for subsidizing the manufacture of cheap, no-name HIV and Malaria treatments (St-Pierre, 2014).
Further exercise of oligarchic-imperialist biopower by Gates Foundation includes reproductive health aid and in agricultural reform, pushing alarming agendas. Research shows that the BMG’s promotion of genetically modified seeds has served as an instrument to displace Indian peasants, as intellectual property ownership over seed DNA is given priority over traditional land rights. Meanwhile, concerns have emerged that Gates Foundation-funded hospitals and medical facilities are performing forced sterilizations and other non-consensual population control operations on African women as part of BMG’s reproductive health programs.
Africa: The Philanthropic Playground
Nowhere is this philanthropic power-grabbing most pronounced than on the African continent. After all, it is usually African children, African cities, and African landscapes that are used as props for philanthropic advertising, a sadistic showcase of desperation if there ever was one. The BMG is of course active in creating these “poverty porn” productions, but these visual manifestations of imperial humanitarianism also enlist the talents of celebrities, such as U2’s Bono, who readily embrace the “private sector” as a solution to “Africa’s problems”. Nowhere do these philanthropists indict colonialism, imperialism, or neo-colonialism in Africa for contributing to the continent’s many problems, because this of course would indict them and their own enterprises in perpetuating Africa’s status as a vast dependency.
The “concern” generated by such imagery, and the push for “innovative” solutions aggrandized by them, is mobilized selectively. For example, Mozambique’s public healthcare system, dubbed a model for the developing world, was gutted after the fall of the USSR (Mozambique’s main financier and ally) and USAID support was redirected to be filtered through NGO’s and Private-Public Partnerships (P3’s), some overseen and lobbied for by the BMG. P3 hospitals poached Mozambique doctors away from the public service with promises of higher salaries, eventually causing the public health system to completely implode, and for health services in Mozambique to be operated primarily by private actors (St-Pierre, 2014). This is consistent with Global Justice Now’s accusation of promoting “corporate globalization” (2016) – using aid as an instrument to force the privatization of robust public services, transforming them into profitable commodities for sale with captive markets of desperate citizens looking for adequate health services.
One should also scrutinize the positions of humanitarian imperialists like Bill and Melinda Gates about issues not immediately within their sphere of influence. The language of humanitarian imperialism has existed quite comfortably for some time now in the circles of militarists and interventionists overseeing US imperialism’s operations on the African continent. It was the same humanitarian imperialist discourse of “saving” that was used in the US-NATO intervention in Libya (Forte, 2012), which after months of indiscriminate bombing and support for jihadi terrorist organizations, resulted in the looting of that countries oil and mineral wealth and the absolute collapse of Libyan society. The fall of Libya’s pan-Africanist, anti-imperialist oriented government also created a power vacuum quickly filled by the US African Command (AFRICOM), which is now waging wars throughout the continent. Given that statistically speaking, wealthy Americans are the demographic most likely to support foreign military interventions abroad, and often lobby for such interventions, it would not be ridiculous to suspect that philanthropists like Bill and Melinda Gates were quite pleased with the Obama administration’s interventionist strategy in Libya, and the subsequent expansion of AFRICOM, seeing it all as part of the West’s great humanitarian project. A 21st-century white man’s burden.
While the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are perhaps the most obvious culprit given their foundation’s massive size, one should not let other foundations like the Clinton Foundation, the Trump Foundation, George Soros’ Open Society Foundation, or new entrants like the Zuckerberg Foundation, off the proverbial hook. It should be evident that philanthropic foundations, being extensions of capitalism and of the financial and political dominance of capitalists, operate according to the rules of profit-maximization and continued accumulation by dispossession. Far from being passive entities in this process, they are often its active architects and thus deserve to be regarded and scrutinized in the same way any for-profit corporation performing similar roles should be.
Birn, Anne-Emmanuelle, 2014. “Philanthrocapitalism, past and present: The Rockefeller Foundation, the Gates Foundation, and the setting(s) of the international/ global health agenda.” Hypothesis Vol. 12, no.1: 1-27.
Connett, David. 19 February 2016. “Gates Foundation accused of ‘dangerously skewing’ aid priorities by promoting ‘corporate globalisation‘” Independent.
D’Souza, Dinesh. 2016. “How the Clinton Foundation got rich off poor Haitians” National Review.
Edwards, Michael. 2009. “Why ‘philanthrocapitalism’ is not the answer: private initiatives and international development” in M. Kremer et al., eds., Doing Good or Doing Better: Development Policies in a Globalising World, 237-250.
Forte, Maximillian. 2012. Slouching Towards Sirte: NATO’s War on Africa and Libya. Montreal, QC: Baraka Books.
Foucault, Michel. 1976. The History of Sexuality Vol. 1. Paris, FR: Editions Gallimard.
Global Justice Now. 2016. Gated Development: Is the Gates Foundation always a force for good?
Greenwald, Glenn. 2016. “Why Did the Saudi Regime and Other Gulf Tyrannies Donate Millions to the Clinton Foundation?” The Intercept.
McElwee, Sean, Brian Schaffner and Jesse Rhodes. 1 March 2017. “How Wealthy Donors Drive Aggressive Foreign Policy” in The Nation.
McGoey, Linsey. 2012. “Philanthropcapitalism and its critics.” Poetics Vol. 40, no.2: 185-199.
Morgan, Wesley and Bryan Bender. 10 December 2017. “America’s Shadow War in Africa.” Politico
Nomani, Asra. 2017. “Billionaire George Soros has ties to more than 50 ‘partners’ of the Women’s March on Washington.” Women in the World. Retrieved from:
St-Pierre, Emile. 2014. “Iatrogenic Imperialism: NGOs and CROs as Agents of Questionable Care” in Maximilian C. Forte, ed. The New Imperialism, Volume 4. Good Intentions: The Norms and Practices of Imperial Humanitarianism. Montreal, QC: Alert Press, 37-55.
Youde, Jeremy. 2013. “The Rockefeller and Gates Foundations in Global Health Governance.” Global Society Vol. 27, no. 2: 139-158.