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Gates Foundation rallies the troops to attack UN development goals

Gates Foundation CEO Susan Desmond-Hellman welcomes the crowd attending the 2015 Global Partners Forum at Seattle's Westin Hotel.

Editor’s note: The Gates Foundation’s contends this story misrepresented their position on the SDGs. Please see this May 11 follow-up interview with the philanthropy’s head of advocacy and policy, Mark Suzman.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is hosting its annual Global Partners Forum meeting in Seattle this week, celebrating with more than a thousand attendees and grant recipients their collaborative efforts aimed at reducing poverty, inequity and suffering around the world.

The world’s biggest philanthropy with its nearly $44 billion war chest likes to focus, rhetorically anyway, on positive possibilities and success stories. But amid all the bright-eyed talk of the world getting better through impatient optimism, positive disruption and innovation at this gathering there emerged a seriously cranky (and often snarky) theme:

The Gates Foundation really dislikes what the international community intends to do over the next 15 years to reduce poverty and inequity.

And what the international community intends to do is contained in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, a list of some 17 over-arching goals (and 169 ‘targets’) aimed at reducing poverty and inequity likely to be adopted by member nations at the next UN General Assembly meeting in September. (Editor’s note: Here’s a good SDG explainer by The Guardian since UN documents are often interminable and nearly incomprehensible.)

It’s no news the Gates Foundation does not favor the UN consensus on how to fight poverty and inequity for the next 15 years. Bill Gates has publicly stated he prefers the previous strategy that was used fairly successfully – the so-called Millennium Development Goals, which (somewhat arbitrarily) set simpler goals and emphasized health as perhaps most powerful tool for making progress.

But the SDGs were not just debated and critiqued at the Gates confab; they were downright ridiculed, repeatedly.

Peter Piot

Peter Piot

“They look more like an encyclopedia of development than a useful tool for action,”said Peter Piot, director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (which has received several million dollars in Gates grants). Piot called for everyone in the room to advocate for keeping health at the top of the development agenda and to push against the SDG approach.

“It’s like ‘No targets left behind,’ ” joked Mark Suzman, the Gates Foundation’s chief of policy and advocacy.

And so on and so on, it went – making the SDGs the butt of jokes in speeches and breakout sessions. Accompanying the anti-SDGs theme at the Gates gathering were calls for grant recipients and partners to get more involved in advocating for policy changes.

“We depend upon our partners for each and every bit of what we work on,” Gates Foundation CEO Sue Desmond-Hellman told the crowd gathered for the first day of the forum at the Westin Hotel downtown.

Susan Desmond-Hellmann

Susan Desmond-Hellmann

Desmond-Hellman gave an overview of the foundation’s priorities in global health such as polio eradication, agricultural reform, child and maternal health, better access to financial services for the poor and other programs. But she then emphasized the importance of advocacy and seeking to influence policy.

“There’s an area growing in importance for us … and that’s policy and advocacy,” Desmond-Hellman said. She didn’t identify any specific policy in her opening speech (and declined to be interviewed by Humanosphere afterward), but it would be hard to miss the repeated references throughout the forum critically characterizing the SDGs as too complex, unhelpful and plain wrong.

There were a few folks, apparently in the minority at this meeting, who defended the UN set of goals and seemed a bit, well, put-off by the Gates Foundation’s full-court press for the simpler, health-dominated (and fairly a-political) MDG approach of the previous 15 years.

Amina Mohammed, UN adviser on the Sustainable Development Goals

Amina Mohammed, UN adviser on the Sustainable Development Goals

“These are complex and difficult problems we are trying to solve,” said Amina Mohammed, a Nigerian who worked on gender and education targets within the MDG framework and is now the UN Secretary General Ban ki-Moon’s adviser on the SDGs.

It’s fine for many to wish the root problems of poverty and inequity could be solved with nice, simple and targeted interventions, Mohammed said. But that is the fantasy position, she said.

“The MDGs addressed symptoms, not root causes,” Mohammed said. The SDGs are complex and politically unpalatable to many, she added, precisely because they seek to fix some of the more difficult, politically charged causes of poverty and inequity.

“Yes, this is a political agenda,” acknowledged Mohammed, adding that there are many out there who seem to either have “no appetite” for addressing the political causes of inequity or are downright opposed to the SDGs because they represent a threat to the established order and power structure.

“The SDGs are complex and difficult because what we need to do is complex and difficult,” Mohammed said. “There is no quick and simple fix, never has been, which is why the band-aid keeps coming off … These are about our core values, our humanity.”

Trying to turn this into a laundry list or set of sound-bites is not going to get us too far, she said. Attacking a set of principles or goals already arrived at by a democratic and international dialogue among nations, Mohammed said, is a form of advocacy that appears more about undermining progress than advancing it.


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.