Social justice organization Global Justice Now released a report earlier this week that laid out a compelling argument critiquing the Gates Foundation's outsized influence on international aid. Timed to be released while Bill Gates and world leaders are meeting in Davos, the report argues that the Gates Foundation's brand of "philanthrocapitalism" primarily serves to reinforce status quo inequities rather than empower communities abroad.
It's a hefty indictment against the Gates Foundation, which in 2014 controlled some $44.3 billion and dispensed more than $4 billion in grants and charitable giving. While report authors acknowledge that the Gates Foundation has funded a number of laudable projects, they also criticize the way the Gates Foundation has pushed technological fixes in places racked by social and structural ills. Among the report's criticisms: the Gates Foundation trust's investments in energy and the foundation's work on climate change.
By investing $2 billion in early-stage clean-energy research, Bill Gates has argued that one way to combat climate change is to develop cheap sources of energy with zero carbon footprints. However: "In this view, technology is king, and it is largely a question of getting that technology to poor people," the Global Justice Now report reads. "Yet addressing climate change is not simply – or even mainly – a matter of inventing new technologies, but of major changes in lifestyle, public policies and corporate behaviour."
The report echoed a sentiment that local Seattle protesters—including former Seattle mayor Mike McGinn—have been saying for months. In 2015, the Guardian newspaper called out the Gates Foundation's trust for its investments in major oil companies, including BP and Anadarko Petroleum, which recently was made to pay out $5 billion for environmental cleanup. Building on international pressure, the local Gates Divest movement has asked the Gates Foundation to divest from fossil fuels, but they've been met with silence.
In 2007, the Los Angeles Times published a similar critique: While the Gates Foundation had been investing in polio and measles immunizations in the Niger Delta, its endowment had also invested $423 million in the oil companies choking the Niger Delta with pollution and health problems for locals.
As for the new report, Nick Dearden, director of Global Justice Now, told me that Gates's stance on climate is a perfect "case study" on why offering technological fixes without dismantling the powers causing harm in the first place only perpetuates the problem.
"The idea that you're profiting from the destruction of the environment and then somehow using some of the profits of that money to help climate change by coming up with new technology so that some of those companies won't damage the environment in the first place... It's just crazy to be supporting the very companies that are doing the things you say you're against," Dearden said.
Deaden also pointed out that much of the Gates's wealth has been boosted through major corporate tax breaks. Those tax breaks are a problem keenly felt in Washington's state budget, which doesn't collect an income tax.
"We live in an age of such tiny tax takes from the elite, which is why they're so rich in the first place," Dearden said. "We need frameworks to tax wealthy individuals and big business so we can redistribute the money for things we need in the world."
The Global Justice Now report calls out the Gates Foundation for its peerless influence in the international giving scene, but also for the fact that, as a private foundation, its investments aren't democratically governed by the communities it aims to help.
The Gates Foundation, in a response to Global Justice Now, wrote that they believe the report "misrepresents the foundation, our work and our partnerships."
"Governments are uniquely positioned to provide the leadership and resources necessary to address structural inequalities and ensure that the right solutions reach those most in need," the statement continued. "The private sector has access to innovations – for example, in science, medicine and technology – that can save lives. And we believe that the role of philanthropy is to take risks where others can’t or won’t."
Read the rest of the report here.