As wealthy individuals funnel money into global development, what "solutions" are they pursuing? From Warren Buffett to Bill Gates, it is no secret that the ultra-rich philanthropist class are shaping global politics and policies. And a study (pdf) just out from the Global Policy Forum, an international watchdog group, makes the case that powerful philanthropic foundations—under the control of wealthy individuals—are actively undermining governments and inappropriately setting the agenda for international bodies like the United Nations.
The top 27 largest foundations together possess assets of over $360 billion, notes the study, authored by Jens Martens and Karolin Seitz. Nineteen of those foundations are based in the United States and, across the board, they are expanding their influence and in so doing, they are undermining democracy and local sovereignty. Their spending on global development is skyrocketing, jumping from $3 billion per year over a decade ago to $10 billion today. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation leads the way, giving $2.6 billion in 2012, the report notes. In addition, the Gates Foundation is the largest non-state funder of the World Health Organization. 137 billionaires from 14 countries last year pledged large sums to philanthropy. Some like former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, have been criticized for abusing their power and influence in pursuit of questionable policies. The increase in philanthropic giving is just the other side of the coin of growing inequality between rich and poor. As Peter Buffet (Warren Buffet's son) has argued, philanthropy is largely about letting billionaires feel better about themselves, a form of 'conscience laundering' that simultaneously functions to 'keep the existing system of inequality in place...' by shaping the culture.
The risks of "philanthrocapitalism" are manifold, the researchers argue, including: "fragmentation and weakening of global governance"; "unstable financing"; and "lack of monitoring and accountability mechanisms…What is the impact of framing the problems and defining development solutions by applying the business logic of profit-making institutions to philanthropic activities, for instance by results-based management or the focus on technological quick-win solutions in the sectors of health and agriculture?" the report poses. The Rockefeller and Gates foundations have been very successful in promoting their market-based and bio-medical approaches towards global health challenges in the research and health policy community—and beyond. There is a revolving door between the Gates Foundation and pharmaceutical corporations. Many of the Foundation's staff had held positions at pharmaceutical companies such as Merck, GSK, Novartis, Bayer HealthCare Services and Sanofi Pasteur."
Looking at agriculture and farming, meanwhile, the Gates Foundation is undermining self-determination and local solutions in measurable ways. "The vast majority of the Gates Foundation's agricultural development grants focus on Africa," the report notes. "However, over 80 percent of the U.S. $669 million to NGOs went to organizations based in the U.S. and Europe, with only 4 percent going to Africa-based NGOs. Similarly, of the U.S. $678 million grants to universities and research centers, 79 percent went to grantees in the U.S. and Europe and only 12 percent to recipients in Africa." Both the Gates and Rockefeller Foundations have been slammed by international grassroots groups, including the global peasant movement La Via Campesina, for their international role in exporting big agricultural models, privatizing food policies, and expanding the power of companies like Monsanto.
Whenever a powerful philanthropist piously proclaim, “I just wanted to give something back,” the reaction should be “Why not give it all back?” because “giving back” is all about first taking away. Immense fortunes are derived from random luck, class background, tax avoidance schemes, off-shoring jobs, publically-funded research, inheritance, a low-federal minimum wage, and especially, from the labor of countless men and women who produced it. Behind every great fortune is a great crime.
Martin Luther King, Jr. stressed, “Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice that make philanthropy necessary.”
According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, in New York State not one of the top 49 gifts of at least $1million went toward improving the lives of needy people. More typical was a gift of $190 million for Columbia University’s business school and another of $40 million for an indoor cycling track.
Private philanthropic mega-foundations are tax exempt which means 40 percent of their wealth has been siphoned off. The top seventy foundations have assets in excess of seven hundred billion dollars and in one recent year the tax subsidies amounted to a loss of $53.7 billion dollars to the U.S. treasury (Robert Reich, Boston Review, 2013). For example, as recounted in Mark Dowie’s book American Foundations, billionaire financier George Soros was conducting an executive session of his foundation when a spirited exchange occurred about grant-making priorities. Soros allegedly declared “This is my money. We will do it my way.” At that, a junior staffer pointed out that half the money didn’t belong to Soros because if not placed in the foundation “it would be in the Treasury.” The staffer’s employment was short-lived.
Philanthro-capitalists believe and want us to believe they’re indispensable, that only their market system can save us. Socialists expose the root causes and structural conditions that result in hunger or lack of access to education in the first place.