News and analysis
November 04, 2015

Of Billionaires and Hunger: Lambasting Rich Donors’ Approach to Feeding the World

Thomas Koehler, Photothek, Getty Images

Author David Rieff says philanthropists like Bill Gates focus too much attention on science and technology as solutions to a food crisis, ignoring the political and economic roots of the problem.

As some of the world’s wealthiest tycoons — including Bill Gates — have turned their philanthropy toward ending global hunger, they have co-opted international aid agencies and government leaders, advanced the interests of corporations, and sold their proposals with the help of sunny public-relations campaigns.

So accuses David Rieff, a longtime policy journalist, in his new book, The Reproach of Hunger: Food, Justice, and Money in the Twenty-First Century. Ultra-rich donors and other members of what he calls a "development elite" have focused too much on solutions based wholly on science and technology. They fail to understand that the food crisis is the result of "current relations of force between haves and have-nots, of how world markets work," Mr. Rieff writes.

In an interview with The Chronicle, Mr. Rieff said he wrote the book to shine a light on the current drive to improve nutrition among the world’s poorest people — the 2 billion who each earn less than $2 a day.

A lot has already been written about the "technocratic" approaches to solving big problems favored by today’s billionaire technology leaders, such as Bill Gates. How is this dangerous to campaigns that attempt to fight hunger?

It’s transforming the way we think we can deal with big problems. If you can reduce every solution to a measurable, technical answer, you’ve likely done so without considering the cultural, humanistic, and political sides of the equation, which of course is an inadequate way of doing things.

It’s what happens when concentrated power decides to make its own rules. If you have a situation in which the leading philanthropists make a huge commitment to international development, form their own programs, run their own PR machine, it changes everything.

I’m a critic of this kind of philanthrocapitalism. We’ve gone from state-centered programs and international financial institutions running development programs to something else entirely. The idea that government should set the regulatory environment and then the business sector should get on with the real work of development with some help from civil society seems quaint. Now we have philanthropists calling the shots, along with interlocking institutions like the United Nations, the World Bank, and the State Department falling in line with them. The game has changed regarding hunger. I wanted to make people aware of how much that’s true.

Still, is there anything wrong with very wealthy and powerful people targeting an intractable problem like hunger? Surely not everything about that is bad.

Look, do I have more respect for Bill Gates than someone like [Oracle Corporation chief executive] Larry Ellison, who appears to spend a lot of his money on things like yachts? Of course I do. It still doesn’t mean this is the right way to do development work. Billionaires are accountable to no one. I’ve been very critical of George Soros, whose vision I generally share. He tries to bring about democratic outcomes but often uses undemocratic means. As far as hunger goes, just because people want to do good things, it’s not the end of the story.

You note that corporate influence in the global food equation is outsized, pointing out that three companies — DuPont, Monsanto, and Syngenta — control more than half of the seed market and are poised to make deeper inroads in Africa. Given the need to feed people, how much should we worry about this?

I believe that multinational agricultural corporations getting more of a share of the world supply of the seed business, which Gates seems to support, is a problem. That’s not a system we should have, and philanthropy has no place pushing us toward that. It’s a sign that what we’re seeing is much more about oligarchy than philanthropy.

Philanthropy has a mixed record at best at tackling the world’s largest problems. One success story it touts is the Green Revolution, which was backed by the Rockefeller Foundation and is often credited with saving as many as 1 billion people last century from starvation in the developing world. Given that improved agricultural technology played a major role in that, are today’s donors wrong for thinking innovation can save lives again?

It’s very clear, as even the current defenders of the Green Revolution can see, that the environmental costs of it were very steep indeed. It was an excellent stopgap measure. In the long term, I don’t think we can apply it. And I’m not persuaded that technology is the prominent issue. The food riots of 2007 and 2008 showed us that food affordability is paramount. A lot of that has to do with how markets are run and who runs them as well as how we use the food we grow.

There are two narratives to the food crisis. One says we’ll have 2 to 4 billion more people by 2100 and there’s no way we can grow enough food. Under that scenario, classic pessimists like [the 19th-century British demographer Thomas Robert] Malthus, who said we'd overpopulate our way into starvation, will be proven right. The other says we need to distribute food better and grow less grain for meat animals to eat. I’m more on that side.

For all your critiques of capitalism in this book, in the end you come down on the side of the money changers. Is there some hopelessness in that?

Locally, great things can be done, which gives me some hope. We’ve seen some wonderful local battles against the privatization of water — battles that have been won. Every local victory is great and important. And some states, such as Brazil, have had great success making fighting poverty a priority.

The landscape has changed, yet it hasn’t. Is capitalism going to be replaced by a fairer system in my lifetime? No. My heart is with the radicals, but we need to do something that recognizes that capitalism is as strong as it ever was. We have to find a solution in the middle if we’re going to save lives. I’m not happy with that answer, but it’s the best one I’ve got.