Laura Freschi

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A close, hard look at the 8,000-lb gorilla, the Gates Foundation | 

Tom Paulson

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is the world’s largest philanthropy and today perhaps the most influential player in global health — and certainly a leading voice across the entire aid and development sphere.

Some think the Gates Foundation is a bit too big and influential, and not accountable enough. Critics say it is driving the agenda on many fronts in the fight against poverty and disease — and driving out dissenting voices. The Seattle philanthropy, even if well-intended, does favor certain strategies. Not everyone agrees with them.

Earlier this week, the Hudson Institute held a forum called Living with the Gates Foundation, based on an earlier set of articles for Alliance magazine gathered under the same headline.

Caroline Preston at The Chronicle of Philanthropy covered the forum and wrote about it at Confronting the Gates Foundation’s ‘Brass Knuckle’ Dominance. (The headline may seem a bit over the top, but the article provides a great overview of the lengthy forum.) Writes Preston:

Tim Ogden, editor of Philanthropy Action, and Laura Freschi, of New York University’s Development Research Institute, described the extent of Gates’s dominance and how its vast resources can squelch dissent. While other philanthropies are trying to help get the ball across the goal line on issues they care about, Mr. Ogden said, Gates is “creating the ball, building the team, hiring the referees,” and “funding the instant replay.”

To its credit, the Gates Foundation sent a representative, Darin McKeever, deputy director of charitable sector support, who participated in the discussion.

Generally speaking, the concern many at this forum have with the Gates Foundation is not that the philanthropy is pursuing some hidden, sinister objective (though that would be a lot more entertaining). The concern is that they have become so powerful and influential on these critically important matters — yet remain somewhat inscrutable, aloof and relatively unaccountable.

If you want to watch the whole forum, here’s the Hudson Institute’s video:

Is the Gates Foundation a “benevolent dictator” of global health? | 

Tom Paulson

That’s the provocative question addressed by two knowledgeable aid experts, Laura Freschi and Alanna Shaikh, in this article for Alliance magazine, a publication focused on philanthropy and social investing.

They start out by emphasizing the clearly benevolent side to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation:

Today, the foundation’s annual spending on global public health – about $1.8 billion – is larger than the WHO’s yearly budget. Donors have started thinking about global health as a broad and important discipline once again. With the launch of Gates’ Grand Challenges Initiative in 2003, some of the world’s best scientific minds turned their efforts to solving the problems of the world’s poorest.

Gates has devoted hundreds of millions of dollars to proven, effective technologies – vaccines and medicines – delivered through partners like GAVI (Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization), the Measles Initiative, and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. According to the Gates Foundation, GAVI alone has vaccinated more than 300 million children.

But then Freschi and Shaikh begin to take a harder look, noting the Gates Foundation’s emphasis on technological solutions: Continue reading

Does doing “research” aimed at helping Africa hurt it? | 

Laura Freschi at AidWatch has posted a link to an interesting talk given by a Ugandan academic and raised a question with respect to African scientific research in her post “African Universities: Creating True Researchers or ‘Native Informers’ to NGOs?

There’s a lot of discussion out there today about how to create “sustainable” health system improvements in many African nations with regard to preventing disease and providing health care — as opposed to just flying in Western do-gooders to come in with a campaign targeted at combating a single illness or fixing a specific problem.

The same problem exists with respect to efforts aimed at building up Africa’s scientific research base.

Freschi’s post is based on a recent speech given by a Ugandan academic, Mahmood Mamdani, which you should read for a more in-depth and on-the-ground perspective.

Mamdani claims Western NGOs like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (which he singles out for its approach to malaria research) have been pushing African universities to adopt a “consultancy culture” focused on supporting mostly market-driven initiatives rather than creating a truly independent academic culture:

Today, the market-driven model is dominant in African universities. The consultancy culture it has nurtured has had negative consequences for postgraduate education and research. Consultants presume that research is all about finding answers to problems defined by a client. They think of research as finding answers, not as formulating a problem.

I question Mamdani’s singular focus on the Gates Foundation, and am not sure I agree with what he says is wrong with its malaria research strategy, but I think he and Freschi raise some very important issues and concerns here.

On a related note, Seth Berkley (outgoing AIDS vaccine champion CEO at IAVI and incoming CEO for children’s vaccine at GAVI) makes the case in SciDev.net for how boosting African R&D can assist in the fight against poverty.