Opinion
October 13, 2015

Power and Money Don’t Necessarily Buy Smart Philanthropy

Tim Foley, for The Chronicle

Most people probably don’t think of university teaching as a dangerous job, but it is at times.

The institution where I work has a large criminology division, so I have learned this from my colleagues. While researching organized crime in Michoacán, Mexico, one of our PhD students, Falko Ernst, attended a graduation dance for a small rural community school. During months of fieldwork in the region, Mr. Ernst had heard rumors that Nazario Moreno González, an infamous cartel leader purportedly killed by federal forces, wasn’t actually dead. Mr. Ernst confirmed the rumor when Mr. Moreno suddenly appeared at the school dance — and casually walked up to him to ask what "whitey" was doing in his territory.

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Mr. Ernst escaped unharmed, but he was at real risk. That’s why it surprises me when people comment on the dangers I faced while researching a rather more prosaic topic: the rise and influence of "mega-philanthropies," with a focus on the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

I’m constantly told how "risky" this research is. During a workshop at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, I spoke with a lecturer in medical anthropology, a woman who had recently moved from her home nation of Zimbabwe to London. I told her I was exploring external perceptions of the Gates foundation.

She stared at me. "You’ll never get funding again."

I said I had never received Gates funding — and wasn’t planning on applying in future.

She nodded slowly. "He may still track you down. And try and silence you."

I laughed. She didn’t crack a smile: It wasn’t a joking matter.

Her comments echoed a senior policy maker in global-health circles I spoke with during a workshop on neglected disease research in Geneva.

"You’ll never get anyone on the record," he said. You might get a muttered remark in the corridor at conferences, he went on, but never an interview. When it comes to the Gates foundation "the people who could criticize it are trying to dip into it."

Then he turned his thoughts to Warren Buffett.

Mr. Buffett’s $30-billion gift to the Gates foundation was a boon to global health, he said, but it was unfortunate that Mr. Buffett didn’t disburse the money to the legions of organizations that could have benefited directly.

"For a good investor, it’s a shame Buffett didn’t hedge his risks a little more."

His comment resonates with an irony that I explore in my research: the curious way that large, overcapitalized philanthropic foundations might be stifling competition rather than engendering it.

Something remarkable about the new, more muscular philanthropy espoused by a new generation of donors is how often they appeal to the writings of scholars such as Friedrich Hayek to justify giving trends that in reality entrench the very ills that Mr. Hayek warned of: the creation of central authorities who lack access to dispersed information that could enable them to plan growth in an effective manner.

Even as they harness the language of the market to characterize their philanthropic approach, the reality of their size saddles organizations such as the Gates foundation with the same challenges faced by government bureaucracies: cumbersome decision-making processes; disconnection from local communities; weak feedback mechanisms.

I’m hardly the first to make this point. Timothy Ogden, managing director of the Financial Access Initiative at New York University, has pointed to Seeing Like a State, by Yale University professor James C. Scott, as a cautionary analogy for the Gates foundation, noting that everything Mr. Scott laments about large governmental institutions — the tendency to overestimate present scientific knowledge and its universal applicability; to ignore or suppress local opposition; to underestimate unforeseen effects — applies equally to private actors with endowments larger than the GDP of many nations.

What my study adds is an examination of why large grant makers might resist understanding and acknowledging the challenge of what strikes most casual observers as their best asset: their enormous endowments. I argue that it’s partly a result of an accident not of their devising: the bigger they become, the greater the likelihood that large philanthropies are inevitably shielded from well-considered concerns about their influence. The perception of how much there is to lose personally grows in proportion to how powerful a grant maker appears;

And that connects to another point the senior policy maker made to me: that I would never get anybody on the record.

He was wrong. A number of people who know about the Gates foundation engaged with me openly. Mitchell Kapor, the billionaire founder of Lotus, a software company, and himself a serious philanthropist, reiterated something to me that tends to be aired more often by far-left critics of the Gates foundation: that a portion of Gates’s fortune was earned through business practices deemed illegal by the U.S. Department of Justice.

"The verdict history has rendered on John D. Rockefeller, the great and greatly ruthless businessman-turned-philanthropist of an earlier era, is the one I believe Gates will also enjoy. Gates has opened the door, however, to taking more responsibility than Rockefeller did by more recently espousing a capitalism which is more concerned with the social good," Mr. Kapor wrote in an email interview. "Walking through that door would require him to say something he has not yet said, which is that he regrets he did not operate to that standard during his tenure at Microsoft. We can always hope that he might say this."

But the policy maker in Geneva was also partially right. The higher up the social and economic pecking order I went, the more people were willing to speak freely with me: Those with power; those with wealth of their own, seemed unperturbed about voicing constructive criticism of the foundation. The whispered, nervous, off-the-record conversations took place with individuals in more precarious employment, from staff at the World Health Organization to small nonprofit leaders who feared their jobs would be compromised if they spoke on the record.

An article in Vox this summer pointed out there’s been relatively little negative press attention about the Gates foundation in the United States and internationally, an absence sometimes taken as proof of the organization’s effectiveness and positive reputation. But as Sophie Harman, an international-relations scholar at Queen Mary, University of London, argues in a forthcoming article in the journal Global Governance, the exact opposite conclusion may be true. A marked lack of criticism doesn’t indicate that an organization’s actions are unimpeachable. It suggests an organization so powerful that few dare reproach it. Ms. Harman points out that a flourishing of critical voices signals an institution’s political legitimacy and credibility and not the reverse.

When one’s fieldwork is not particularly exciting — when it often takes you into anodyne realms such as the offices of the World Economic Forum or the WHO in Geneva — it’s almost flattering to be told your research is dangerous. But the real danger is how widespread this belief is, insulating large philanthropy from access to critical information that their size tends to thwart.

Linsey McGoey teaches sociology at the University of Essex. Her book, "No Such Thing as a Free Gift: the Gates Foundation and the Price of Philanthropy," was published this month by Verso Books.