Quis Custodiet Gates?

The need for philanthropy to be accountable to society, as part of a new social contract between the wealthy and the rest of society, is one of the main themes of our book. As we observe in the introduction, “if philanthrocapitalists are to be a legitimate part of the solution to the world’s problems, a new ‘social contract’ is needed to spell out what it means to be a good billionaire… The onus in the social contract should be on the rich to be transparent and accountable.”

So it is with some surprise that we read, in an entry on the Gates Keepers blog, that we are “trying to silence the legitimate voices” of civil society by using the word “attack” in the title of our recent blog entry, “Attacking Gates“. Since when has joining a debate been trying to silence anybody? Unless, of course, silence indicates that there is nothing to say in response to our arguments.

Our blog entry, when we so crushingly use the A-word, concerned a chapter of a new book that, well, attacks the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in various ways. Although we list our response to nine criticisms in the chapter, Gates Keepers addresses only one of these, where we say that it may be no bad thing that the foundation is not accountable to governments of developing countries or the World Health Organisation. As the rest of our comment makes clear, this is because we believe this enables the Gates Foundation to bring much needed innovation and a different perspective to solving global health and development problems, not because we oppose it being accountable in the broader “social contract” sense.

More broadly, in other entries, Gates Keepers suggests we are too cosy with the Gates Foundation (though it confuses us with The Economist: Matthew, who works for the magazine, and Michael, who does not, both wrote the book in a personal capacity; the same goes for this blog). As readers of the book will know, although overall we admire what Bill Gates is trying to do through his foundation, and by encouraging others to become philanthrocapitalists – in many ways, he is the book’s hero – we are not uncritical.

We point out that he faces significant challenges. These include choosing the right partners in the foundation’s work; figuring out how to achieve large scale change; that the foundation may be distorting jobs markets in developing countries; that progress in improving America’s schools has been slow; that so far there is not much to show for its efforts in terms of new drugs; that delivering new drugs to those who need them will not be easy; that it will be hard to find sensible ways to use the increasing sums of money it is planning to give away; that getting bigger may make the foundation more bureaucratic; that its opposition to “mission-related investing” may be “one respect in which the Gates Foundation reflects philanthropy’s past, not its future”; that its recruitment choices have sometimes been questionable; and that managing well the foundation’s relationships with other foundations and organisations, including governments and multilateral bodies, will be crucial.

As we write, in a discussion of a memo circulated within the World Health Organisation expressing concern that Gates might be creating a “cartel” in health research, “if the power of the Gates Foundation is enough to worry a UN agency, its effect on other philanthropists may be even greater.” We conclude that “Gates will help himself, and other philanthrocapitalists, by ensuring that his foundation is as transparent as possible and subjecting its activities to rigorous public performance analysis.”

Of course, we welcome the creation of the Gates Keepers website, which seems to be dedicated to criticising the Gates Foundation (although the lack of any information on the website about its mission or who is writing or funding it is somewhat troubling, especially given its frequent calls for the Gates Foundation to be more transparent). We will certainly be regular readers.