News: GJN asks – is the Gates Foundation always a force for good?

If you’ve read the blog, you might be aware that I’m not exactly the greatest supporter of The Gates Foundation. Our team at The Rules criticised their ‘Narrative Project’, which invested much in pushing foreign aid as a solution to global poverty and inequality; and I have called them out on here for Melinda’s use of patriarchal language to talk about ‘development‘ and the organisation’s neoliberal agenda – I just don’t think they’re good news.

So it was really good to see UK organisation Global Justice Now releasing an important research project today: ‘Gated Development – is the Gates Foundation always a force for good?’, which examines how it is pushing a corporate vision of development features.

The report demonstrates that the trend to involve business in addressing poverty and inequality is central to the priorities and funding of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and argues that this is far from a “neutral charitable strategy but instead an ideological commitment to promote neoliberal economic policies and corporate globalisation. Big business is directly benefitting, in particular in the fields of agriculture and health, as a result of the foundation’s activities, despite evidence to show that business solutions are not the most effective.”

Global Justice Now suggests that, for the foundation in particular, there is an overt focus on technological solutions to poverty. They argue that while technology should have a role in addressing poverty and inequality, long term solutions require social and economic justice which “cannot be given by donors in the form of a climate resilient crop or cheaper smartphone, but must be about systemic social, economic and political change – issues not represented in the foundation’s funding priorities.”

One of the most poignant parts of the report for me is where it highlights the fact that despite the Gates Foundation’s aggressive corporate strategy and extraordinary influence across governments, academics and the media, there is an absence of critical voices. Global Justice Now is concerned that the foundation’s influence is so pervasive that many actors in international development, which would otherwise critique the policy and practice of the foundation, are unable to speak out independently as a result of its funding and patronage – this is something I certainly have witnessed explicitly speaking to organisations and people working within the development sector.

Specifically, the report calls on the OECD to undertake an independent international review and evaluation of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; and the UK’s International Development Select Committee to conduct an inquiry into the relationship between DFID and the foundation and the impact and effectiveness of any joint activity in addressing poverty and inequality.

Read the full report here >> www.globaljustice.org.uk/gateddeveloped

It’s also been featured in the UK’s Independent newspaper, which you can read here.

Let me know what you think – is the Gates Foundation a force for good or an exercise in rampant neoliberalism…?
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Video

Mallence Bart-Williams on Sierra Leone – the richest country in the world and Western dependency on Africa

THIS.

Mallence Bart-Williams talks to Berlin about Sierra Leone – the richest country in the world, in nature, people, culture, treasures, minerals…and stamps.

“Of course the West needs Africa’s resources, most desperately. To power aeroplanes, cellphones, computers and engines. And the gold and diamonds of course. A status symbol to determine their powers by decor and to give value to their currencies.

One thing that keeps me puzzled, despite having studied finance and economics at the world’s best universities, the following question remains unanswered. Why is it that 5,000 units of our currency is worth 1 unit of your currency, where we are the ones with actual gold reserves?

It’s quite evident that the aid is in fact not coming from the West to Africa, but from Africa to the Western world. The Western world depends on Africa in every possible way, since alternative resources are scarce out here.

So how does the West ensure that the free aid keeps coming? By systematically destabilising the wealthiest African nations and their systems, and all that backed by huge PR campaigns, leaving the entire world under the impression that Africa is poor and dying and merely surviving on the mercy of the West. Well done Oxfam, UNICEF, Red Cross, Live Aid and all the other organisations that continuously run multimillion dollar advertising campaigns depicting charity porn to sustain that image of Africa globally.”

NGOs losing the war against poverty and climate change, says Civicus head

Back in August, Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah wrote an article for the Guardian, entitled: NGOs losing the war agains poverty and climate change, says Civicus head. The piece focussed on answering the question: “Charities are no longer drivers of social change; for many saving the world has become big business. How did we lose our way?”

In my opinion Sriskandarajah is spot on with his evaluation of civil society. The ‘commercialisation’ of charities is something that I have become increasingly aware of and it is a concern of mine.

In the ‘more beautiful world our hearts know is possible’, I hope that charities cease to exist because they are no longer needed. But until that point it worries me that even ‘charity’ has been subjected to our modern culture of immediacy and instant gratification. If charity means ‘big business’ there is less of an incentive for those who become disillusioned and lose their way to put themselves out of a job, which is what the majority (not all) of people working for a charity should be trying to do. As Sriskandarajah notes: “And so we find ourselves reinforcing the social, economic and political systems we once set out to transform. We have become part of the problem, rather than the solution.”

I have reposted the article text here. The original article can be found here.

I’d be really interested to hear what you think about this. I’d like to write about this issue in more depth another time. But I found this piece thought-provoking and wise and thought it was important to share before I forget to.

In the last 40 years, we have witnessed an explosion of growth in civil society. There are now up to 4 million charities in India (pdf), 1.5 million in the US and 81,000 international NGOs and networks, 90% of them launched since 1975.

This should be music to my ears. The organisation I lead exists to strengthen civil society and citizen action around the world. So why am I worried? Because this exponential growth, and the institutionalisation and professionalisation that has accompanied it, has some serious downsides.

Sure, we’re winning battles here and there, but we’re losing the war; the war against poverty, inequality, exclusion and climate change. Too many of us who work in organised bits of civil society – including myself – have become removed from the forces that drive deep social change; from the causes that first inspired us. In devoting our energies to designing log-frames and reporting to donors, we’ve become mired in bureaucracy.

For better or worse, the biggest NGOs today look and act like multinational corporations. The largest of them employ thousands of workers around the world and their annual budgets reach hundreds of millions. They have corporate-style hierarchies and brands worth millions. Saving the world has become big business.

And big isn’t always bad; just as small isn’t necessarily beautiful. But it’s the effect of these trends on global citizen action that should unsettle us. We – civil society – have been co-opted into economic and institutional processes in which we are being outwitted and out-manoeuvred. Our conception of what is possible has narrowed dramatically. Since demonstrating bang for your buck has become all-important, we divide our work into neat projects, taking on only those endeavours that can produce easily quantifiable outcomes. Reliant on funding to service our own sizeable organisations, we avoid approaches or issues that might threaten our brand or upset our donors. We trade in incremental change.

And so we find ourselves reinforcing the social, economic and political systems we once set out to transform. We have become part of the problem, rather than the solution. Our corporatisation has steered us towards activism-lite, a version of our work rendered palatable to big business and capitalist states. Not only does this approach threaten no one in power, but it stifles grassroots activism with its weighty monoculturalism.

To bring about radical political change, we need to build from below. We need to help communities organise and drive change. We need more Arab Springs, but we need them to endure. Organised civil society must prioritise meeting the challenge of how we can build upon these sudden upsurges of social energy without suffocating them. When peaks of protest are connected to long-term action, temporary shifts in power have a far greater chance of becoming permanent gains in democracy, equality and freedom.

How can civil society reform and re-energise itself to meet this critical challenge? On 6 August we published an open letter, endorsed by some leading figures in global civil society, calling on all of those who have the privilege of working in this sphere – getting paid to do the things we believe in – to engage in this debate.

We believe we need to find better ways to put the voices and actions of people back at the heart of our work. Our primary accountability must be not to donors but to all those struggling for social justice. We must fight corporatism in our own ranks, recognise the power of informal networks, tap into the wisdom of the street and re-balance our resources. We must promote and protect civic spaces, and strive to build global people-to-people solidarity from the grassroots up. And this should not be about abandoning the civil society organisations we have created, but rather we must evolve these NGOs to be more open, agile and accountable to those they seek to serve.

All this will be not be easy to do – especially for those of us who have to keep an eye on donor deliverables and balancing the budget. But it will be worth it. Civil society needs to offer a new set of global organising principles, a new paradigm, an alternative model. No-one else is going to do it. And, if we can – if we can turn the tide of corporatisation and technocratic management that threatens to overwhelm us – we will rediscover our understanding of civil society as a deeply human construct, as a facilitator of empowering social relationships. And it is these relationships, history teaches us, that can truly change the world.

Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah is secretary-general of Civicus, a global network of civil society organisations and activists. Follow @civicussg on Twitter