The Bill Gates Problem: Reckoning with the myth of the good billionaire

Reviewed by Deborah Doane, partner at Rights CoLab

Tim Schwab’s forensic expose, The Bill Gates Problem, Reckoning with the Myth of the Good Billionaire makes for very uncomfortable (and gripping) reading.

Schwab reveals Gates’ influence across public health, journalism, vaccinations, the pharmaceutical industry, agriculture and even women’s lives in global majority countries. All of these have one primary thing in common: an ideological adherence to trickle-down economics, controlling markets in a monopolistic fashion and avoiding scrutiny.

Schwab also reveals how Gates, and indeed other billionaire philanthropists, aren’t just avoiding tax, they’re actually being subsidised by the state for their philanthropy through tax breaks and complex organisational accounting practised by the likes of the multinational companies that they once presided over. They have effectively privatised public goods and shaped charity to fit their own world view.

And that world view is one that is rooted in neo-colonialism: ‘We’ll see a foundation with a retrograde colonial gaze that leans hard on high-paid technocrats in Geneva and Washington DC, to solve the problems of poor people living in Kampala and Utter Pradesh.’ (p17)

In chapter 13, Schwab provides the example of Gates’ ambition to introduce GMOs to Africa, and to industrialise farming using western-led technology. He argues that this has largely failed to deliver the promised new Green Revolution (AGRA), a view reflected in a Scientific American article in 2022 which quotes a letter from African organisations with over 200 signatories effectively asking Bill Gates to stop helping. The letter noted that ‘since the onset of AGRA’s program in 2006, the number of undernourished people across these 13 countries [where AGRA works] has increased by 30 per cent’.

After reading this, it’s unsurprising to find that the Gates Foundation is not among the leading 15 philanthropic organisations who have joined a pledge to strengthen locally-led development.

Particularly worrying is the influence Gates wields through donations to newsrooms, international policy forums and lobbyists. One example given is the $12 billion to organisations around Washington DC, more than the amount spent in the whole of Africa.

Statistics like the millions of lives saved as a direct result of Gates’ work are headlined in all of the materials from the foundation and the messages from the media. However, Schwab provides evidence from multiple expert sources that much of the acclaim is based on dubious claims about cause and effect. The problem, says Schwab, is that none of these statistics are verifiable through independent sources because Gates’ staff, affiliates, contractors and grantees all have to sign non-disclosure agreements that threaten anything they say externally, even long after they have left the organisation.

The book is a damning indictment, not just of Bill Gates and his foundation, but of billionaire philanthropy as a whole. Schwab points to the unaccountable nature of philanthropy, noting that of 100,000 foundations in the US, only 200 per year are ever audited. He calls for changes in how philanthropy is regulated, like a requirement to draw down on endowments faster; a new era of transparency; and appointing boards drawn from intended beneficiaries of the foundations. But regulating philanthropy, argues Schwab, isn’t enough. ‘As long as Bill Gates maintains his extreme wealth, he will remain a canker on democracy… if not through his private foundation, then through other means.’

Schwab’s book is a must-read for any of us who are working in this sector and who cares about equality. The question isn’t how to direct Gates’ funding better, says Schwab, it’s not to allow him to have so much wealth and power in the first place. And we’re all complicit, to an extent, in enabling that.

Author: Tim Schwab

Published by: Penguin Books

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