The Gates Foundation in Africa
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 as a complex challenge with no single solution. It is unfortunate that Raj Patel et al., the authors of “Ending Africa’s Hunger” [Sept. 21], chose to mischaracterize the foundation’s strategy despite our detailed and frank conversations.
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 these areas. Environmental sustainability is critical for long-term impact, which is why we fund projects like micro-irrigation for efficient water use and planting legumes among other crops to fertilize the soil naturally. We also recently made a grant to Worldwatch Institute to undertake a comprehensive study of the highly complex intersection between the environment and agriculture.
Women do the majority of the farm work in Africa, so we have funded a major career development program for sub-Saharan women in agricultural research, and another to engage women farmers in agricultural policy development.
Our agricultural work is focused on helping small farmers 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 working to ensure that 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. (See gatesfoundation.org/agriculturaldevelopment/Pages/default.aspx for a detailed overview of our agricultural development strategy.)
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Patel et al. Reply
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 the Gates Foundation talked with us for over an hour in Seattle and responded to our questions on e-mail, but we note that there is nothing specific in our article with which it disagrees. Mark Suzman seems unhappy that we didn’t faithfully reproduce the foundation’s public relations materials, but that’s not our job. Rather, we strove to put its projects in context, revealing the industrial connections the foundation fails to make evident on its website.
Yes, the Gates Foundation funds the planting of beans and micro-irrigation. 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 Worldwatch Institute to the list of organizations the foundation funds. We’re disappointed, however, that in choosing to fund it, the foundation did not consult with the farmers’ organizations and NGOs in Africa, which for years have been doing excellent agro-ecological work raising production, reducing environmental costs and improving livelihoods. The complex links between agriculture and the environment have been extensively documented and peer-reviewed. Wouldn’t the money have been better spent on 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, however, is that farmers’ choices are systematically skewed, with some ideas amplified over others. Policies that involve redistribution–such as land reform–are off the foundation’s agenda, despite being a live concern to many African farmers’ movements. This demonstrates our broader point. Despite its best efforts to be accountable, the Gates Foundation’s interventions reflect the undemocratic vision of a single very powerful and unaccountable organization.
Hunger Hurts, at Home and Abroad
As an anti-hunger activist, I was disappointed to find not a single reference to domestic hunger in your “Food for All” issue. According to the USDA, 36.2 million Americans live in households facing hunger. Most of these families are not particularly interested in the nutritional value of CSAs, school gardens or “food justice.” They are interested in putting something–anything–on the table tonight so their children go to bed with food in their bellies. They worry about making it through the weekend without the help of school meals, or through the month with the food stamps they have left.
House Food Bill Is Rotten
I was disappointed to read John Nichols’s “Food Without Fear” with an endorsement of the House food safety bill. One of the biggest impediments to local, sustainable food production is the regulatory structure. We have two food systems. One depletes topsoil, pollutes waterways, tortures animals, eats up fossil fuel, then processes everything in huge facilities that smear pathogens and toxins around and turn out the denatured food that lines supermarket aisles. The other system builds topsoil, maintains balanced ecosystems, treats animals humanely, supports rural communities and produces healthy food.
The trouble with the bill is that it takes the industrial system as a universal given, doing nothing to address unsustainable practices, and applies its regulations to both the industrial and the small, local producer, making it so expensive and onerous to comply with that it will either drive the small producer out of business or force her to become part of the industrial system. The bill will keep sustainable food output low and prices high.
Regrets: Hijacked History
On page 27 of “Food for All,” our illustrator took a historic photograph out of context to make a food-related collage. The woman in the photo is Barbara Gittings, a pioneer in the lesbian and gay rights movement. In 1958 Gittings founded the New York chapter of the first US lesbian organization, the Daughters of Bilitis. She also helped organize gay rights demos in the years before Stonewall, challenged the American Psychiatric Association’s antigay views and headed the American Library Association’s Gay Task Force. The photo, of a 1966 demonstration in Philadelphia, was taken by Kay Tobin Lahusen, Gittings’s lifetime partner and a key player in the movement as the first openly gay photojournalist. Lahusen helped found the Gay Activists Alliance and has had her work featured in several exhibits, including “Standing Tall Before Stonewall” in 2000 in Philadelphia, which she curated.
In last week’s “Goldstone Reports” [“Noted”], the second sentence of the second paragraph should have said, “The mainstream media here [not in Israel] have downplayed the report’s significance.”