Analysis & Comment

Opinion | Why Billionaires Like Bill Gates Can’t Fix the Problems They Helped Create

Bill Gates hasn’t changed. His public image has. Mr. Gates’s personal behavior and his troubling comanagement of the Gates Foundation are being reported more openly. The question is why it took so long.

For years, the Gates Foundation has been steered by an unusually small board of trustees, made up of Bill, his estranged wife, Melinda, and the billionaire investor Warren Buffett.

The foundation was created in 2000, merging two charitable organizations that had been established in 1994, the year Bill and Melinda married. Its size roughly doubled in 2006, to $60 billion from $30 billion, when Mr. Buffett announced he would give most of his Berkshire Hathaway fortune to the organization, saying that he trusted Bill and Melinda’s expertise to use the money for good.

A paradox emerged. The larger the foundation became, the less anyone seemed willing to ask tough questions about its secretive management structure or its penchant for giving money to lucrative pharmaceutical and credit card companies such as Mastercard, despite the fact that giving away billions to wealthy corporations set an unusual and troubling precedent in the philanthropic sector.

I first reported this pattern of showering money on private corporations while researching my 2015 book, “No Such Thing as a Free Gift: The Gates Foundation and the Price of Philanthropy.” The main argument of the book was that billionaires who make their fortunes through corporate practices that undercut workers and deepen inequality — like corporate tax avoidance, insufficient sick pay and the immoral gap in pay between executives and low-paid workers — are not the solution to problems they generate.

I put it this way: Asking Bill Gates to fix inequality is like asking an arsonist to hose down your house after he just set it on fire. Philanthropists might have the deep pockets to fund the fire engine and water hose, but the money is coming from making our houses unlivable in the first place.

It wasn’t until five years later that the mainstream media took much interest in criticizing the Gates Foundation, sparked by investigative journalist Tim Schwab’s important reporting on conflicts of interest there.

Before then there was mostly silence. If large investment banks were seen as “too big to fail” in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, mega-foundations were too big to scrutinize. Especially in the post-2008 recession, the need for charity was more pronounced then ever, and so it seemed churlish, even Scrooge-like, to question whether the Gateses really knew as much about solving the world’s problems as they claimed.

Anand Giridharadas’s 2018 book, “Winners Take All,” coined a new term for the market-led, corporate-friendly approach to philanthropy that donors like the Gateses have championed for years: “marketworld.” He sees it as misplaced faith in the ability of more markets to resolve poverty, when the richer investors in the market get, the poorer the rest of us become.

Both of the Gateses live in marketworld, even though it’s sometimes conveniently forgotten that Melinda has prime property there too. In media coverage after the divorce announcement, she has been upheld as the more “humane” brake on Bill’s techno-solutionist approach to global health and development. But I don’t think there’s much evidence of any deep divide between them when it comes to seeing the market as a panacea.

The best evidence that we do have is the observable track record of the foundation, both good and bad. Ultimately, any organization’s most senior management is responsible for its operations — and that includes Melinda. So when the foundation pours nonrepayable, tax-privileged grants on the world’s wealthiest pharmaceutical companies, or when it defends a global patent system that makes lifesaving medicines needlessly expensive in both poor and rich nations, the buck doesn’t just stop with Bill, but with Melinda too.

In April last year, the University of Oxford was reportedly considering offering a Covid vaccine developed by its scientists on a nonexclusive basis, which would have made it possible for manufacturers across the world to produce it more cheaply and widely. But then, as reported in Kaiser Health News, “Oxford — urged on by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation — reversed course. It signed an exclusive vaccine deal with AstraZeneca that gave the pharmaceutical giant sole rights and no guarantee of low prices.”

This deal-making left many people aghast. It seemed to conflict with the Gates Foundation’s stated mission to improve global access to medicines, but it’s not surprising to those who’ve long followed the foundation’s proclivity to lend big pharma a helping hand. Recently, Melinda told The Times that vaccine makers like Pfizer and AstraZeneca “should make a small profit, because we want them to stay in business.”

Define small. AstraZeneca paid nothing toward Oxford’s basic research on the vaccine, yet the company now has exclusive distribution rights, standing to make billions from the deal brokered by the Gates Foundation.

Both of the Gateses seem to be feasting at the same table at big pharma, swallowing a core fallacy perpetuated for years. That’s the insistence that companies need to “charge astronomical prices to pay for research and development,” as Representative Katie Porter put it recently, even though “the amount they spend on manipulating the market to enrich shareholders completely eclipses what’s spent on R&D.”

The best thing to come out of a sad event like this divorce is recognition that today’s global problems are ours to tackle, we the people — interdependent, global members of the public — through solidarity and shared science. We can’t relinquish this task to unaccountable philanthropists. The age of deference to them is over, and it’s about time.

Linsey McGoey is a professor of sociology and director of the Center for Research in Economic Sociology and Innovation at the University of Essex. She is the author of “No Such Thing as a Free Gift: The Gates Foundation and the Price of Philanthropy.”

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