Philanthrocapitalism: A Self-Love Story

Philanthrocapitalism: A Self-Love Story

Philanthrocapitalism: A Self-Love Story

Why do super-rich activists mock their critics instead of listening to them?


In 1961, two and a half years after taking power, Fidel Castro gave a celebrated speech to the Cuban artistic and cultural elite that came to be known as “Words to the Intellectuals.” “What are the rights of revolutionary or nonrevolutionary writers and artists?” he demanded. Then, answering his own question with a particular focus on nonrevolutionary writers, he declared: “Intellectuals who are not genuinely revolutionary [must be allowed to] find a place to work and to create within the Revolution.” But even this freedom had its limits. “Within the Revolution,” Castro thundered, “everything goes; against the Revolution, nothing…no rights at all.”

Bill Gates couldn’t be more different, temperamentally or politically, from Fidel Castro. He once characterized anyone who challenged the current intellectual-property laws—specifically those guaranteeing software patents—as a “new modern-day sort of communist.” But when it comes to those who criticize the philosophy underlying the work of the foundation he runs with his wife, Melinda, Gates has shown the same steely moralistic dualism as Castro, the same insistence that those who don’t agree with him don’t deserve to be listened to.

Consider his attack on Dambisa Moyo, the Zambian economist whose Dead Aid, published in 2009, is a prosecutor’s brief for the argument that development aid to Africa has done more harm than good. Asked about the book on the Australian television show Q&A in May 2013, Gates replied that Moyo “didn’t know much about aid and what aid was doing” in Africa. This was a harsh statement, though one that Gates had every right to express. But he didn’t stop there. “She is an aid critic,” he said. “There’s not many [of them], because it’s moralistically a tough position to take, given what aid has been able to do. But if you look objectively at what aid has been able to do, you would never accuse it of creating dependency. Having children not die is not creating a dependency. Having children not be so sick they can’t go to school, not having enough nutrition so their brains don’t develop—that is not a dependency. That’s an evil thing. And books like that are promoting evil”—a judgment that, in its own context, is every bit as totalitarian as Castro’s.

As they say in the military: In war, the enemy gets a vote. And the reality is that there are a great many aid critics, from across the political spectrum. They range from such figures as Walden Bello, Susan George, and Jonathan Glennie on the antiglobalization left, to Moyo herself and William Easterly on the Hayekian free-market side. Whether or not Gates would acknowledge the point, there is a pressing problem for those who believe, with him, that development aid as presently constituted has already accomplished a great deal and stands poised to deliver a great deal more: There are too many such aid critics, who too often are able to secure too much of a hearing. Best, then, to mock them. Within the revolution, everything goes; against the revolution, nothing.

* * *

We’ve all taken our wishes for realities at some point in our lives. And for an activist multibillionaire, be it Gates, or George Soros, or Charles and David Koch, the temptation must be far greater than for those who will never be in a position to found powerful institutions dedicated to making their wishes come true. Gates, ­Soros, and the Kochs are what Matthew Bishop and Michael Green, in their 2009 book Philanthrocapitalism: How Giving Can Save the World, describe as “hyperagents”: “individuals who can do what it would otherwise take a social movement to do.” For hyperagents, Bishop and Green add, “richesse oblige” is “a driving spirit of philanthrocapitalism.”

But “richesse” doesn’t just expect to oblige; it expects to be obliged as well. One of the more cringe-inducing experiences with regard to Bill Gates is to go online and read the encomia to him being produced by organizations whose institutional survival depends in large measure on his financial grace and favor. The ONE Campaign, a group cofounded by the U2 singer Bono, describes itself as “an international campaigning and advocacy organization of nearly 7 million people taking action to end extreme poverty and preventable disease, particularly in Africa.” In its financial statement, ONE declares itself “especially grateful for the long-time partnership with and major support from our friends at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for our 501(c)3 operations.” One form that gratitude has taken is the group posting “Fascinating Facts About Bill Gates,” such as his having “saved over five million lives by bringing vaccines and improved healthcare to children internationally.”

This is the kind of homage traditionally accorded kings and dictators. While Gates and his fellow philanthro­capitalists are neither, the philanthrocapitalist project is irreducibly undemocratic, if not indeed antidemocratic. Even its most fervent boosters concede this, though they often do so in ways that skirt the essential issue of accountability in the name of efficiency. Bishop and Green’s version of this two-step evasion is emblematic: “As hyperagents,” they write, “the superrich can do things to help solve the world’s problems that the traditional power elites in and around government cannot. They are free from the usual pressures that bear down on politicians and activists and company bosses with shareholders to please.” This democracy deficit is the ghost at the banquet of philanthrocapitalism.

Gates has pointed this out himself on many occasions, though his remedy for, as he puts it, not having “to worry about being voted out at the next election or board meeting” is to “work hard to get lots of feedback.” And Melinda Gates has said that she and her husband “learn from their mistakes.” Even if this is the case, their “learning” takes place wholly on their own terms—and an accountability that’s entirely self-imposed and unenforceable by anyone else is not accountability in any serious sense of the term. Unlike government development aid, there is literally no check on what Bill and Melinda Gates can do, except their own resources and desires, and no way of making this learning process—when and if it happens—anything more than a voluntary act on their part. Nor is their self-criticism likely to be systemic. That would require the Gates Foundation to be open to the idea that its fundamental assumptions on a given issue—most obviously, that sustainable growth is feasible and is not, for the obvious environmental reasons, a contradiction in terms—are wrong. This is something the Gateses and their senior staff have never shown the slightest evidence of taking seriously, even as a remote possibility.

If the Gates Foundation decides, say, to “double down” on a commitment, as it has in the case of the second Green Revolution—not just through funding, but through actively lobbying both African governments like Ethiopia’s and the major Western donors—it is difficult to see what can stop them. In fairness, as the food-rights activist Raj Patel has pointed out, the reason that the Gates Foundation could be “playing God” in the way it has with regard to global food policy and African agriculture in particular, is that until relatively recently, “almost no one else was trying to help.” Still, he said, “there has to be something problematic about a few big brains in Washington State making decisions about an entire continent. At the very least, shouldn’t this make any small-‘d’ democrat queasy?”

This question is not exclusive to Gates, but to all major private philanthropies that are committed to using their money to effect social, economic, or political change. For example, one could fairly describe the activities of the Soros Foundation as trying to engineer democratic outcomes in some of the countries in which it operates through the undemocratic means of George Soros’s money, influence, and access to policy-makers in the major Western capitals, as well as his ability to enlist many of the best and the brightest in the countries in which he chooses to be active to run his national foundations. Some of his more florid critics, like the Columbia University free-market economist Jagdish Bhagwati, have tried to draw a line between Soros’s supposed intrusion into the politics of the nations in which his foundations work and Gates’s supposed lack of a political agenda, but this distinction is as specious as the Fox News Channel’s claim to be “fair and balanced.” To accept it would require one to believe that free-market capitalism was not a form of politics—something that might even give pause to Bill Gates himself.

* * *

Then again, perhaps it wouldn’t. When I visited the Gates Foundation’s Seattle headquarters in 2009, I noticed that the default screen saver on the staff computers was a slide show of the organization’s 15 guiding principles. Some of these make refreshingly modest claims about what even the Gates Foundation can accomplish. “Philanthropy,” reads one, “plays a vital but limited role.” Others are almost admonitory, both on the internal workplace level—“We treat each other as valued colleagues” and “We demand ethical behavior of ourselves”—and in terms of how the foundation must pursue its goals: “We advocate vigorously but responsibly in our areas of focus.” But one is steelier and more revealing. It reads simply, “This is a family foundation driven by the interests and passions of the Gates family.”

When I inquired about it, several senior officials of the Gates Foundation pointed out that it was rarely, if ever, the majority funder of any of the efforts it supported, from education in the United States to global health, to a second Green Revolution for Africa. But this response occludes the fact that, just as a minority shareholding in a company gives a person or institution a disproportionate say in its governance, the Gates Foundation’s involvement has been decisive time and time again.

For example, the foundation’s role with regard to vaccine research has often been dispositive. It would be unjust to blame Gates for underwriting programs and research initiatives that looked promising but in the end did not pan out. The question—and it was one that was raised about what many regarded as Gates’s predatory and monopolistic practices when he was still running Microsoft—is whether or not monopolizing the research agenda in the way that the Gates Foundation does, at least to some extent, in whatever field it enters risks a situation in which Gresham’s Law (the economic theory that bad money drives out good) is going to apply. For all the hype about scientific nonconformity, researchers go where the money is, as they have since the days of Oppenheimer and his team at Los Alamos working on the atomic bomb. And by now, Gates’s influence is so pervasive that it would probably be an act of professional or institutional suicide not to sign on.

* * *

Although Bill Gates is passionately interested in human welfare, the issue of human rights has not been an important subject for him. Consider the annual foundation letter that he and Melinda have written since 2009, the purpose of which Bill has described as an effort to “share in a frank way what our goals are and where progress is being made and where it is not.” The term “human rights” isn’t mentioned in the first Gates Foundation letter, in 2009; nor does it appear until 2015, when it is mentioned once, and even then only in passing.

Bishop and Green have followed up their work on philanthrocapitalism (in which human rights are mentioned only twice, and then very much in passing) by developing, in collaboration with Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter, what they call a “Social Progress Index,” intended to be independent of economic indicators. The results are intriguing. As the development commentator Tom Paulson noted, “Rwanda—which is often considered the development community’s big African success story—ranked near the bottom of the list. Mozambique, Uganda, Nigeria and Ethiopia were the only nations with lower scores.”

To Gates’s critics, this comes as no surprise. It’s impossible for anyone not in his confidence to know for certain whether Gates is personally indifferent to human rights, or whether it’s simply that the political character of the regimes he supports is of secondary importance to him when compared with the degree of progress made in tackling poverty, disease, and hunger, or in attaining various quantifiable development goals. But it is unimaginable that the graphic in the 2013 annual Gates Foundation letter titled “Bringing Health Care to the People: Ethiopia’s Success Story” would have been accompanied by another that would have read, just as accurately, “Taking Human Rights Away From the People: Ethiopia’s Shame.”

Geoffrey Lamb is the foundation’s chief economic and policy adviser. His response to the attack by William Easterly, in The Tyranny of Experts, on Gates’s “technocratic illusion” suggests that neither Gates nor the senior staff at the foundation take such criticism seriously. In a breezy dismissal of Easterly published on the foundation’s “Impatient Optimists” blog in 2014, Lamb referred to the US Agency for International Development’s “support for democratic movements” as an undeniable fact—one that obviated any need on his part to address a core element in Easterly’s argument, which was that supporting democratic movements was precisely what USAID was not doing in Ethiopia.

Lamb’s blithe confusion speaks to the confidence of the new status quo. Garry W. Jenkins, a professor of law at Ohio State University, has written: “With its emphasis on superrich hyperagents solving social problems, philanthrocapitalism” has amplified “the voice of those who already wield substantial influence, access, and power.” What this means is that, for the first time in modern history, it has become the conventional wisdom that private business—the most politically influential, undertaxed, and underregulated sector among those groups that dispose of real power and wealth in the world, as well as the least democratically accountable—should be entrusted with the welfare and fate of the powerless and the hungry. No revolution, not even Fidel’s, could be more radical, and no expectation, no matter how much it was the product of ceaseless promotion in both old and new media, could be more counterintuitive, more antihistorical, or require a greater leap of faith.

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