The Gates Foundation and Africa’s Hunger

The Gates Foundation and Africa’s Hunger

The Gates Foundation and Africa’s Hunger

We hear from The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation regarding our September 21 “Ending Africa’s Hunger,” and our authors reply.



At the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we believe an open exchange of ideas is essential to tackling urgent global challenges. Our approach to agricultural development recognizes hunger is a complex challenge with no single solution.

It is unfortunate that the authors of “Ending Africa’s Hunger” chose to mischaracterize the foundation’s strategy, despite our detailed and frank conversations with them.

We support a broad range of solutions. In addition to quality seeds, small farmers need locally appropriate farming practices, access to markets and a policy environment that supports their success. We invest in all of these areas.

Environmental sustainability is critical for long-term impact. That is why we fund projects like microirrigation efforts for efficient water use and planting legumes among other crops to fertilize the soil naturally. We also recently made a grant to the Worldwatch Institute to undertake a comprehensive study of the highly complex intersection between the environment and agriculture.

Women do the majority of the work on farms in Africa, and successful efforts must also take their needs into account. To that end, we have funded a major career development program for sub-Saharan African women in agricultural research, and another to engage women farmers in agricultural policy development.

Our agricultural work is focused on helping small farmers, who make up a majority of the world’s poorest people, to live healthier, more productive lives. The “uniquely African Green Revolution,” called for by African leaders in 2004, recognizes that reducing hunger and poverty begins with such farmers and their families, and that is why we and our partners are continually working to ensure their voices are heard and their needs are met. Ultimately, it will be up to countries and farmers themselves to decide what approaches are right for them.

A detailed overview of our Agricultural Development strategy is available online.

Director of Policy and Advocacy
Global Development Program
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Washington, DC

First, many thanks to The Nation and Food First for alerting readers to the need for increased funding in African agriculture. Investing in agriculture is the single most important way that countries can help alleviate hunger and poverty. And yet, investments in agricultural development by governments, international lenders, and foundations are at historic lows. As more decision makers and funders shift resources back toward agricultural development in the coming years, there is a gaping need for guidance.

Against this backdrop, the Worldwatch Institute is excited to have the opportunity to highlight stories of hope and success in African agriculture over the next two years through our Nourishing the Planet project.

One of the main goals of our work is to put a much-needed spotlight on farmer organizations and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Africa, the very organizations and individuals that Mr. Patel, Mr. Holt-Gimenez and Ms. Shattuck rightfully assert are essential to any meaningful discussion of sustainable agriculture in that region. The culmination of this project will be the report State of the World 2011, with a focus on hunger. We are working directly with farmer organizations and groups on the ground in Africa–as well as African journalists–to use this report to tell the yet-untold stories of triumph in this region.

You ask if the money might have been better spent supporting the dissemination of this proven knowledge within Africa. That is exactly what we hope to do with this project. Through Worldwatch’s worldwide network and its audience of government officials, policymakers, journalists and NGOs, we will share the report with key stakeholders, including local farmers and policymakers. We believe these stories will inspire action and that innovations in sustainable agriculture will consequently be implemented on a larger scale.

We do realize that throughout this project we will be standing on the shoulders of giants, including the International Agricultural Assessment of Science and Technology for Development that was released last year. We envision State of the World 2011 as a continuation of this work that will make IAASTD’s findings more accessible to wider audience and offer concrete recommendations. Two key audiences for this report will be the agricultural funding community, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and farmers and farmer groups on the ground in Africa.

Finally, you expressed concern that the framing of this project has the potential to be skewed. Since its inception in 1974, Worldwatch has maintained a solid reputation as a broker of independent, unbiased research. We bring our unwavering objectivity and dedication to truth to the Nourishing the Planet project. Worldwatch comes to this project without any pre-drawn conclusions or expectations of what the findings will be. And it is worth noting that, although it is too early to share all of our conclusions, there is strong opinion (and good evidence) that farmer-driven work–whether farmer-run seed banks, farmer-run marketing cooperatives or farmer-run research–can be instrumental in reducing poverty and hunger.


BRIAN HALWEIL and DANIELLE NIERENBERG Senior researchers, The Worldwatch Institute Project co-directors of State of World 2011:Nourishing the Planet.

Raj Patel, Eric Holt-Gimenez and Annie Shattuck Reply

San Francisco

Thank you for your response to our article. We agree that an open exchange about Africa’s agricultural development, and the philanthropic interventions to shape it, is tremendously important. We welcome the chance to continue the debate here.

We’re grateful that you made the time to talk with us for over an hour in Seattle, and to respond to our questions in e-mail, but we note that there seems to be nothing specific in our article with which you disagree–for example, the market-oriented approach, the structural issues around gender and the process of “land mobility,” in which Africans will lose their land. You seem unhappy that we didn’t faithfully reproduce your public relations materials, which readers can indeed find on your site, but our job isn’t to simply reproduce your website. Rather, we strove to put your projects in context, revealing the industrial connections that the foundation fails to make evident on that site.

We note that, yes, the Gates Foundation funds the planting of beans and microirrigation. But as a proportion of disbursement, these projects are marginal to the technological investments in the development of genetically modified crops. That is why we couldn’t in good conscience report the more trivial examples as representative of the organization’s broader thrust.

We’re happy to add The WorldWatch Institute to the list of organizations in the United States that the Gates Foundation funds. We’re disappointed, however, that in choosing to fund them, the Gates Foundation did not consult with the farmers’ organizations and NGOs in Africa that for more than twenty years have been doing excellent agroecological work raising production, reducing environmental costs and improving livelihoods on the continent. The complex links between agriculture and the environment have been extensively documented and peer-reviewed. Wouldn’t the money have been better spent supporting the dissemination of this proven knowledge within Africa?

We agree that it will ultimately be up to farmers to decide what is best for them. Our concern continues, however, to be that the choices farmers face is systematically skewed, with some ideas being amplified over others. Any policies that involve redistribution–such as land reform–are off the Gates agenda, despite being a live concern to many African farmers’ movements. This demonstrates our broader point. Despite the foundation’s best efforts to be accountable once the policy has been laid down, the Gates Foundation’s interventions reflect, at heart, the undemocratic vision of a single very powerful and ultimately unaccountable organization.



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