Mega-philanthropy: charitable deeds or monopoly tyranny?

In a time of great expectations and great contestations between and within societies at large, there seem to be as many things keeping people apart as those that bind them together. For every gain represented by the moment that Barak Obama entered the White House it often feels like there have been so many other losses including constant, largely racialised, police brutality, economies that do not seem interested in addressing structural inequalities, the fragmentation of Europe, the radicalisation of youth across the world into insurgent groups, etc. Many of these youth feel dislocated and disenfranchised from the world they inhabit.

It is almost impossible to see how and where we are Living Together, the title of Bill Gates’ lecture at the recent Nelson Mandela Lecture. His remarks touched on the importance of access to education (a nod to #FeesmustFall), youth enterprise particularly in the tech space, food security, access to health care and cultivation of good health and new forms of agriculture which will not do further damage to the fragile earth. (These were very   broad strokes delivered during very challenging times for the world at large.)

Several discussion points emerged before and after Gates’ lecture including the rationale for him as a choice of speaker. The underpinnings of Nelson Mandela Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation seem to occupy different philosophical spaces and yet in many regards this nexus presents us with the opportunity to explore once more the discomfort of philanthropic capitalism and the approaches to philanthropy and its intersection – or not – with the democratic principles that the Mandela Foundation and the Centre of Memory are built on.

This tension is not new. John D Rockefeller’s inroads into the burgeoning petroleum industry were marked by monopoly control. He bought out smaller refineries that rightly feared being crushed. Though a strict Baptist, Rockefeller was not above political bribery to further secure his company interests and to stay ahead of the law. By the turn of the century he had donated more than half of his fortune, and his foundation continues to fund many of the progressive organisations that would naturally balk at any dealings with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

George Soros whose speculative money has funded a lot of sterling and even radical work offers another troubling example.

Bill Gates’ acquisition of wealth and his Rockefeller-like grip monopoly hold over the IT space has been described as the enemy of openness and innovation. That Microsoft is the default computer programme globally, has also been described as the end of chaos by some hardware manufacturers. It might also aptly be called the end of entrepreneurship, the suppression of vibrant competition. Legal battles by smaller competitors have sadly found in favour of Microsoft but do illustrate that not everybody is excited by the monopoly, not least those whose ideas were unethically taken and marked with a Microsoft label.  

Even the BMGF has been the object of lawsuits by doctors in India for the questionable and illegal vaccine trials on minors. In addition to these eugenics, the food sovereignty debate that Bill Gates alluded to is extremely controversial terrain.  As Dr Vandhana Shiva has written:

“As in the case of GMOs, the rush for Gene Drives, and CRISPR-based Gene Editing are linked to patents. Bill Gates is financing the research that is leading to patents. And he with other billionaires has invested $130 million in a company EDITAS to promote these technologies. Bayer, the new face on Monsanto & Co, has invested $35 million in the new GMO Technologies, and committed $300 million over the next 5 years.“Biofortification” has been given the world food prize of 2016, yet biofortification is inferior to the nutrition provided by biodiversity and indigenous knowledge. The same forces promoting biofortification are also promoting the extermination of nutritious crops like amaranth, as well as rich indigenous cultures of food.”

At complete odds with food security.

This approach to ‘doing good’ is in a context of anti-democratic and patently unaccountable business practises warrants close examination for various reasons particularly when it spills over into  philanthropic work. The chestnut that we are over-fed is that states (particularly African states) are failing and that governments (again particularly those in Africa) are corrupt.  Therefore, continues this logic, private companies and markets are better equipped to solve societal and economic problems and bring people closer to ‘living together’. 

These multi-billionaires (Michael Bloomberg, Richard Branson among others) are a disturbingly powerful brand of philanthropist who tightly control and define the work of their foundations. They are extremely significant political funders and while claiming to enhance the cause of global humanity, they are able to exert massive influence in public policy and political agendas far beyond the average citizen. This is a deeply anti-democratic practise and suggests that having more money entitles a few people to determine global health, environment, education, food, medical, housing policies. Essentially this largely white, male minority rule is charitable plutocracy under the veil of doing good whilst in fact enforcing and benefiting from global and economic inequality. And all this replete with tax exemption. No wonder that calls for greater transparency in political and electoral funding is the bastion of many pro- democracy advocates.

As a colleague aptly asked, how can the surplus of inequitable capital, then be utilised to do good deeds? One would add how can entities who have bullied markets, governments and competitors in the most undemocratic ways, now be looked upon to decree on democracy and accountability merely by the size of their bank balances and trust funds? This perhaps is the most insidious form of state capture.

Moments such as the 2008 Wall Street melt down largely caused by Goldman Sachs’ manipulation of gold and sliver prices, shady repo rates reported by the Lehman Brothers and unethical data mining by various financial institutions are among the toxic and blatant reminders of how bizarre it is to presume that the markets are more trustworthy than governments. This is all the more unacceptable given that most of us will never meet these men in grey suits but at least have nominal access to electoral and policy processes no matter how flawed. Rather than removing the State – an agenda of the Bretton Woods crew since Structural Adjustment – it seems more useful to demand more accountable states, governments and transparency. The idea that those with money   should largely shape and – through their political and foundation funding – buy global discourses should keep us all awake in cold sweat.

Companies such as Microsoft, McDonalds, Philips, have used international institutions such as the World Trade Organisation to flout labour and human rights, push for inequitable tariffs which disable the Global South and have boosted their won trade output by 250% over the past 20 years. None of this bodes well for democratic practise. Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook is similarly buying up smaller companies and cannibalising the social media space in ways that bode badly for personal space, cyber democracy and the increased surveillance of private life. Yet he is presented as a poster child of youthful risk taking, the dropouts’ dream to young people across the world. It is a lie. These people all largely emerge from white priviledge (Bill Gates Snr was also philanthropist) and have leveraged capital and government patronage to monopolise markets and crush competitors.

It is difficult to understand how philanthro-capital –particularly from the Global North- can rehabilitate itself. As another colleague noted, even governments are behaving as though governance is a charitable exercise. When local councillors behave as though they are doing constituents a favour, the government announces the delivery of houses, taps, and schoolbooks as though our taxes did not pay for them, we should be concerned. These are not freebies under the seat on the Oprah Winfrey show. They are constitutional entitlements and electoral promises. Another colleague asked another sharp question: has democracy itself been captured? In all this, Mr Gates has been sanitised by his association with the Mandela Lecture and this requires critical and careful enquiry.

Bill Gates’ remarks did not light up any new ideas as he spoke somewhat generically about “Africa“ as a nation and blandly presented islands of excellence in Soweto, Kenya and Nigeria that we already know about.  His visit and the economic system that enabled Microsoft to emerge and create slush funds of sanitised and untouchable wealth presents us with an important departure point on the regressing role of the state globally, whether liberatory democracy has been evacuated, whether the development and philanthropic sector are part of the problem, and how the legacy of the liberation struggle can be redeemed by reforming other forms of giving and of citizen engagement.

* Liepollo Lebohang Pheko is a scholar activist, public intellectual, social and economic commentator. Twitter: #Liepollo99

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