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.