Putting Gates in perspective

Diana Leat

Thank you for another great issue. Alliance just keeps getting better and better!

My only quibble with the interesting views expressed concerning the Gates Foundation was the general lack of historical understanding of foundations. I realize that foundations – and indeed the non-profit sector more generally – tend to avoid ‘wasting time’ on academic pursuits such as looking back; but not doing so runs the risk of failing to see where we have been before and what we might learn from experience.

Viewed in a longer historical context, Gates is really not ‘unique’ – by many measures (eg relative to GDP or state spending on, say, health). The Rockefeller Foundation, for example, was much, much bigger than Gates. The Rockefeller Foundation too worked globally – at a time when that was far more difficult than it is today – and, interestingly, worked on global health through the International Health Board. Rockefeller’s entrée to governments was huge. For example, when the president and senior staff visited Washington to talk about a health commission for Europe in the late 1930s, the doors of all government departments and relevant embassies were immediately opened. In Europe during the war, foundation staff requested and were given diplomatic passports. So perhaps Gates is not quite so unusual.

Of course, foundations like Rockefeller and Carnegie created anxiety in Congress and the Senate about the power of wealth to influence policy. So the question of Gates’ ability to buy power is not new either. Perhaps, as one contributor suggests, Gates’ greatest contribution will be to stimulate (or renew) debate about the role of foundations in democracies. This question, of course, applies not only to the Gates Foundation. More money does not necessarily buy more policy influence: much smaller amounts of money in the right place at the right time may have a similar effect to much larger sums. And money is not the only resource foundations possess.

But is the potential power of foundations necessarily a bad thing? As Helmut Anheier and I argued in Creative Philanthropy, independent foundations may fulfil an important and unique function in challenging the orthodoxies and powers of the day. At a time when governments, business and the non-profit sector all seem increasingly to speak the language and values of the market, the capacity of foundations to provide alternative viewpoints may never be more important.

Diana Leat

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