BBC looks at “secretive” and powerful Gates Foundation

News analysis

Bill and Melinda Gates speak at Malaria Forum, with moderator ABC News' Richard Besser

The BBC has done an extensive (40 min) report on the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation titled “Fortress Bill.” It is available for six more days online and will be rebroadcast on Sunday, Jan. 8.

The BBC introduces the Gates Foundation as the world’s largest philanthropy aimed at helping the poor:

“Yet it remains an often secretive and hard to penetrate organization, which arouses suspicion on some sectors of the aid community.”

My friend and colleague Laurie Garrett, with the Council on Foreign Relations, is interviewed by the BBC and notes that the influence of private philanthropy in global health and development is on the increase — which means policy is often set behind closed doors by a select group of people:

“What we think is global health, how we define this mission, is increasingly decided by a relatively small number of Americans living in Seattle, Washington.”

The dominance of the Gates Foundation has led to a bias toward scientific, technological and private-sector solutions, says Garrett. Science and technological improvements are needed, she says, but this focus ends up crowding out all of the other — social, political and economic — changes necessary to defeat the diseases of poverty.

One example of the Gates Foundation’s approach featured by the BBC report is Seattle Biomed, a local organization which is now one of the leaders in malaria vaccine research. Arguably, malaria research had been stagnant until the Gates funding started pouring in a decade ago. Seattle Biomed (aka Seattle Biomedical Research Institute) had struggled to survive, focused as it was on neglected diseases in poor counties, before the world’s richest couple took on global health.

The BBC report is a nice overview of how the Seattle philanthropy, in the last decade-and-a-half, has emerged to dominate the humanitarian arena. But it doesn’t really break much new ground and follows on a number of similar, or harder-hitting reports, such as this much-cited series done last fall by Alliance magazine called Living with the Gates Foundation.

The 800-lb gorilla of philanthropy?

The Alliance series features a photo of a gorilla, the implication being that the Seattle philanthropy is the 800-lb. alpha male (and/or female, to be fair) on the humanitarian landscape.

A more recent example is Robin Rogers at Yale University who focused on the Gates Foundation in an op-ed for the Washington Post describing what she sees as the “hidden costs” of the super-rich and elite setting public policy by virtue of their philanthropic influence.

As someone who has spent more than a decade covering the Gates Foundation here in Seattle, I would say they are much less secretive, more transparent and penetrable than they used to be (e.g. Last May, I snuck in to get an earlier look at their new digs  … ). Transparent? No, but much less opaque.

Secretive? I don’t think this is the intention. I just think they got really big, really fast, and are way less internally organized or as strategically focused as they want outsiders to believe. I could point to any number of major program shifts or reorganizations to make that case.

More important perhaps than transparency is influence and accountability.

There’s no question today that the Gates Foundation is one of the leading agenda-setters — if not THE leader — in global health. The Seattle philanthropy is also quite powerful on a number of other fronts, like agriculture, in the aid and development world.

The humanitarian goals of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have the potential to change the world, truly. Since we all live in this world and share many of the same concerns, some apparently think that we all should have more say in which goals we set and what strategies we take to reach them.

Is the Gates Foundation approach to improving agriculture in Africa going to help or hurt poor, smallholder farmers? That’s one example of a very open — and hotly debated — question. There are other examples in global health.

Perhaps the BBC report indicates the mainstream media is poised to take a more critical tack examining the nature of philanthropy and global health. As a journalist, I admit that most of our stories tend to be focused on describing the plight of the poor — or the presumed noble intentions of rich philanthropists.

What’s needed is a more open and realistic dialogue about how best to fight inequity and poverty — one that can simultaneously hold the powerful to account while also accepting that some of the super-rich may actually also want to make the world a better place.

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About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.

  • Philippeboucher2

    Transparency is key if you want accountability. My own experience is that the Foundation remains very secretive, refusing to answer questions that I asked. More details in my little e-book, Honest Feedback, advocating for transparency (10 ideas to improve the Gates Foundation’s performance)
    http://www.amazon.com/Feedback-Advocating-transparency-2007-2011-ebook/dp/B006R9ZFUI

  • Digglahhh

    This discussion certainly isn’t new, and while it shouldn’t be dismissed without appropriate consideration, it continues to ignore the greater context regarding BMGF’s gorilla status. BMGF is a private entity, a philanthropic organization started by a man and his wife – an obscenely wealthy man, but a man nonetheless. If BMGF is really the gorilla in the room – then who is to “blame” for such a scenario? Perhaps if governments, other major corportations’ CSR initiatives, and other entities able to play the financial major leagues would invest their fair share in global health, their shares would help to counterbalance the influence of BMGF.

    It’s fine to discuss the projects BMGF chooses to pursue and to analyze their strategies, etc., but whether they are being most effecive, impactful, or even transparent is a different question from that of their level of influence. As a matter of discussion among advocates, there’s much to discuss. As a matter of discussion among policymakers, if you want to be a stronger voice put your money where your mouth is.

  • VanessaHylande

    Finally productive insight that generates forward motion on the issue Robin Roger’s raised in her Washington Post article…

  • To be perfectly transparent, I am an ex-Bill & Melinda Gates Scholar. As such, I was deeply involved with representing their organization on many fronts a few years ago (2007-2009). With this bias being revealed, I can honestly say there was no “secretiveness” in any of what their funding, in my example at least, in any of their aims of assisting macro-level issues around the globe. Comparatively speaking, allow me to make the informed hypothesis that many government entities and other Foundations around the world are far more “secretive” and “shielded” in terms of hidden motives, aims, and endeavors compared to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

    To counter the claims that this article suggests in an even comparison, why don’t we select 3-4 other global philanthropies of similar size and scope? I will make the honest intelligent assumption that the other entities chosen will be equal or possibly more “secretive” in terms of goals, aims, and endeavors on a macro-level global level. It is far easier to select one Foundation out of the thousands that exist due to their vast size and funding allocations than it is to make a side by side comparison of a similar organization. On this note, there are several former nonprofit organizations that now are “psuedo-nonprofit” in terms of their integration of the profit sector blurring the line of transparency and direct economic impact towards the cause allegedly being assisted. I, for one at least, can join thousands of other Bill & Melinda Gates Scholars in saying that without their financial assistance and correlative direct funding for helping combat global issues with tangible solutions, my pursuit of a PhD in the nonprofit sector would not be possible.