11 May 2021 – Mukesh Kapila
Growing up in the famine-affected Indian state of Bihar in the 1960s, I recall my mother’s eulogy of gratitude to America for sending us food aid. But my childish mind translated the accompanying sense of national humiliation into a dislike of the foreign donor who I knew only from school geography.
I was too young to figure the geopolitics of that age but l understood later that American food aid was intended not only to preserve our bodies but to save our minds from communism, not least because my school books were a gift of the Soviet Union.
A similar mixed sentiment is stirred by the divorce of Bill and Melinda Gates. The announcement sent anxious tremors through the vast network of dependents of their Foundation, the largest in the world. Equally palpable was the sigh of relief that followed the immediate reassurance that their philanthropy would continue.
A personal disclosure is in order here. Many years ago, I was sleepless in Seattle while considering a high-level job at the Gates Foundation. Negotiations went well until I realised that the well-paid appointment meant complete subjugation to the thoughts of Chairman Bill.
When I raised a modest scientific objection to the policy I was to implement, the head-hunter concluded our discussion, “You forget that the Foundation is his personal money, and he can do what he likes”.
That was that, and I returned to Geneva to continue at the World Health Organization (WHO) where policies were set, not by one man but through the collective wisdom – however flawed by politics – of all nations. But there was no escaping Gates’s tentacles.
A cash-strapped WHO was increasingly dependent on the Foundation which was not backward in dictating policies driven by an ideology of philanthro-capitalism glued to a technology-fixation. Undoubtedly born from the Microsoft mind-set, it postulated that every problem was simply waiting for the right operating system.
Nevertheless, the overwhelming good that the Gates Foundation has done is indisputable. Having spent US$53.8 billion since 2000, its impacts in health, education, agriculture, and gender equality are profound.
There is criticism around its stranglehold over global policy direction, its monopolistic behaviour, its intolerance of dissenting voices, its dis-regard for the collateral costs of its obsessions, and its lack of transparency and accountability beyond a narrow measurement of the metrics of misery and misfortune.
There is also concern over allowing rich individuals so much power and influence – however well-intentioned – over the life and death chances of billions. Our sceptical age also challenges the self-serving methods behind corporatized benevolence and asks if charity can do the work of justice.
Thus, even the momentary possibility that the reign of the aid fraternity’s darling couple may end, sparked an examination of their carefully-curated saintly image.
People who live in glass palaces may anticipate some incoming stones. A recent volley concerns his diehard opposition to intellectual property rights waivers to expand the availability of COVID-19 vaccines. With the US government reversing its policies on patent protection, Gates was wrong-footed. The irony is that although history will credit him with numerous good acts, he could still end up on the wrong side of history.
Why do we appreciate but often begrudge the hand that feeds us? I understood this during my aid career, first, as a donor government official and subsequently in large aid-spending organisations.
From Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, and desperate places in-between, I learnt that giver and receiver are locked in a complex courtship ritual. Each needs the other even as they resent or try to outwit the other. The result is an ever-more complicated aid industry, although the instinct to help others is simple and as old as humanity itself.
So what can we deduce from the Gates saga? For the Bill and Melinda duo, the question is whether a humbler, less messianic Foundation will emerge from their personal drama, that continues to do the right things but cares more about doing them the right way.
That means a lesser focus on quantifiable quick-win results and more engagement with the long-term determinants of poverty and disadvantage, for example, in health and education. It also implies less coyness in dealing with despots and more willingness to confront the wrongs they inflict, such as sexual and gender violence in conflicts.
Philanthropy has existed for centuries. But the outsize importance of Gates has raised a bigger issue for the modern aid industry.
The problem is that unlike my mother’s generation, today’s poor are not grateful enough. They grumble and rebel more. They won’t settle for crumbs from rich people or nations. Solutions to the rising discontent are still work in progress.
First published 11 May 2021 at Thomson Reuters Foundation News