Bill and Melinda Gates Giving Money to the Rich?

Bill and Melinda Gates are credited with being philanthropists. But one has to look at the full picture before one can be sure what “philanthropy” means for the couple and their foundation.

Bill Gates

I expect there will be some significant pushback on this article in the Guardian, but what it claims is quite plausible.

Most of the $3bn (£1.8bn) that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has given to benefit hungry people in the world’s poorest countries has been spent in the US, Britain and other rich countries, with only around 10% spent in Africa, new research suggests.

Analysis of grants made by the foundation shows that nearly half the money awarded over the past decade went to global agriculture research networks, as well as organisations including the World Bank and UN agencies, and groups that work in Africa to promote hi-tech farming.

The other $1.5bn went to hundreds of research and development organisations across the world, according to Grain, a research group based in Barcelona. “Here, over 80% of the grants were given to organisations in the US and Europe, and only 10% to groups in Africa. By far the main recipient country is the US, followed by the UK, Germany and the Netherlands,” it says in a report published on Tuesday.

Of the $678m given to universities and national research centres, 79% went to the US and Europe, and only 12% to Africa.

“The north-south divide is most shocking, however, when we look at the $669m given to non-government groups for agriculture work. Africa-based groups received just 4%. Over 75% went to organisations based in the US,” says the report.

There may be a rational explanation for some of this, though it may not be something that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation wishes to go public with. It may be that they have decided that far too much of the money will be wasted through corruption in some of these countries. Perhaps not. I’m open to hear that this is not a consideration but I think it is possible.

But, I’d be surprised if there is not some level of corruption in the US and Europe also.

Another possibility is that, while doing good, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is passing on funding to people who are better able to do things for them. They want money to go into the hands of friends. Of course, this too could be given a more positive interpretation: perhaps it is easiest to give money to people you trust. So they are more likely to expect value from those who are culturally and geographically closer to them rather than to those who are more distant.

What does come across strongly in this story is really what we already knew: That Bill and Melinda Gates have a strong conviction that the future will be saved through high tech research and methods (as well as a large reduction in the number of children being born worldwide).

Does the story prove that the Gates Foundation is doing something wrong? Not necessarily. But it should demonstrate to readers that giving money away can be tricky. Even if the Gates aren’t doing so, it is easy for charity to amount to bribery or a way of bypassing local control. You can’t simply demand people’s admiration because you give away billions of dollars. It matters where and how the money is being spent, and for what ends.

This has implications for the welfare state. Are the recipients the real objects of charity? Or are they an excuse for supporting an army of Federal and state employees—the social workers and others—who then lobby and vote for the expansion of state power?