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Magazine shines a (sometimes harsh) spotlight on the Gates Foundation

The 800-lb gorilla of philanthropy?

Alliance magazine, a London-based publication focused on philanthropy and social investing, has published a series of articles giving special attention to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The series is called Living with the Gates Foundation. A photo of a gorilla (presumably weighing 800 lbs) is the cover photo for the series.

Editor Caroline Hartnell, in her introductory statement accompanying the series, says the primary reason for shining a (sometimes harsh) spotlight on the Gates Foundation is its size and influence. Says Hartnell:

It’s not that Gates isn’t doing good, or that it is doing harm; it’s more that the resources the foundation brings to bear are so huge and the scale of its ambitions so great that it clearly could do serious harm – by distorting the fields in which it works. (Lancet editor) Richard Horton talks of Bill Gates becoming ‘one of the most – if not the most – powerful voice in setting the research agenda’ for global health.

Hartnell highlights one of the articles in the magazine, which I linked to last week, raising the concern that the Gates Foundation is becoming a benevolent dictatorship in global health and development. She adds that many experts in the world of aid and development contacted for this series expressed great interest, but declined to be interviewed.

Timothy Ogden, co-founder and editor-in-chief of Philanthropy Action, served as editor for the series. Ogden points out that the Gates Foundation is big when it comes to private philanthropy’s (the world’s biggest, in fact) but relatively small when compared to the U.S. government’s role in aid and development — and positively tiny when considered in terms of total economic clout even in poor countries.

Still, Ogden says, the Seattle philanthropy is widely regarded as highly influential in ways not solely measured in dollars — and the level of influence has some folks concerned because of a few worrying trends or characteristics repeated by many of those interviewed.

Here are Ogden’s three main take-aways in his opening article:

  • Truth to Power — “The first is that it is increasingly difficult for anyone to speak truth to power at the Gates Foundation.”
  • Lack of Accountability — “There was also a widely expressed view that the foundation still has a long way to go in terms of openness and accountability.”
  • Intensely Focused, Shifts in Focus  — “No one can dispute that the Gates Foundation has shown extraordinary focus for such a young and large institution. But it also has seen shifting strategies.”

Other articles in the Alliance series include looks at how other donors view the Gates Foundation, the philanthropy’s influence in Europe, its work in financial services for the poor, interviews with Gates Foundation CEO Jeff Raikes, Lancet editor Richard Horton and others.

Many articles are only available to subscribers but some are fully accessible on the Alliance website.

NOTE: In response to the “Benevolent Dictator” concern, Jessica Keralis blogging at IH-Blog (the weblog of the international health section of the American Public Health Association) comes to the Gates Foundation’s defense.

Keralis argues it’s the Gateses money to do what they will and if priorities are being distorted it is up to the global health and aid community to re-set the priorities — rather than simply follow the money.




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] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.