Gates Foundation Should Match Its Massive Global Giving With a Massive Commitment to Accountability
In his recent annual letter, Mark Suzman, CEO of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, announced that the organization would spend a record $8.3 billion to respond to the compounding crises of war, climate change, stumbling economies, and infectious disease. Unfortunately, this increased spending has not been accompanied by an increased commitment to accountability.
Despite its growing role in setting the global development agenda, the Gates Foundation seems intent on proceeding without the crucial environmental and social safeguards and public accountability mechanisms expected of the development institutions that traditionally lead such work.
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In his recent annual letter, Mark Suzman, CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, announced that the organization would spend a record $8.3 billion to respond to the compounding crises of war, climate change, stumbling economies, and infectious disease. Unfortunately, this increased spending has not been accompanied by an increased commitment to accountability.
Despite its growing role in setting the global development agenda, the Gates Foundation seems intent on proceeding without the crucial environmental and social safeguards and public-accountability mechanisms expected of the development institutions that traditionally lead such work.
While the foundation has taken some recent strides toward greater accountability — including expanding its board of directors and creating a channel through which people can report fraudulent use of the Gates Foundation name — those efforts don’t go nearly far enough.
Most significantly, the foundation lacks a formal accountability system that allows people and communities to raise concerns about and seek remedy for unintended adverse environmental and social consequences. Until the Gates Foundation — the nation’s largest with more than $53 billion in assets — commits to operating with these basic standards of accountability, it will have little understanding of the net impact of its investments and will risk causing real harm. It will also continue to be a poor model for other grant makers engaged in international development work.
In his annual letter, Suzman heralded the upsides to the foundation’s footprint, scope, and sheer size of its philanthropic investments, writing that it is well positioned to make “high-risk bets on novel solutions” to global problems because it is liberated from funding limitations experienced by nongovernmental organizations, the profit incentives of corporations, and the rigid timelines on governments to achieve results.
Notably absent from Suzman’s list are strong environmental and social commitments and policies to hold the foundation accountable to the people and planet it affects. Suzman’s letter is an example of a troubling trend: Private finance, including foundations and social-impact investors, believe they are successful because they aren’t limited by bureaucratic red tape. What they fail to recognize is the value of that bureaucracy in safeguarding the people and communities where investments flow.
Economic and Physical Harm
With the Gates Foundation’s substantial influence comes substantial responsibility, especially given that it has received criticism for the adverse effects of several of its investments, including agribusiness and climate finance projects. For example, civil-society organizations have criticized the foundation’s agriculture interventions in Africa as subsidizing large industrial initiatives to the detriment of traditional agroecological farming practices and the food sovereignty of small farm communities. Without local input and independent oversight, projects in these and other areas can have devastating consequences, including physical or economic displacement, on the very communities they aim to help.
Development work is difficult, and unintended harm can occur even when safeguards are in place. Shockingly, the Gates Foundation hasn’t learned that lesson from other development finance actors. Most of the major multilateral banks, many development financial institutions, some private banks and investors, and some foundations have accountability mechanisms that allow individuals, communities, or other stakeholders to raise concerns and seek remedy for environmental and human-rights abuses.
Such mechanisms are critical to effective philanthropy, especially when charitable funds involve direct interventions into the lives and livelihoods of people and the places they dwell. For example, the Worldwide Fund for Nature, formerly known as the World Wildlife Fund, created an independent ombudsperson office to strengthen the human-rights component of its conservation projects. This accountability effort affirms the group’s respect for the rights of local and Indigenous communities, acts as a guardrail against wrong-doing, and helps ensure the effectiveness and sustainability of its work.
The Accountability Console, which tracks complaints filed to the independent accountability mechanisms, has identified more than 1,600 complaints involving major development finance institutions during the past nearly three decades. Complaints have included issues such as seizing land without adequate compensation, sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment of workers, and retaliation against those who sound an alarm about risks and harm. These accountability systems allow investors to hear directly from the people they aim to help and respond to concerns quickly and effectively.
They also enforce internal compliance. Strong accountability systems not only bring together both sides to address harms, but also include a compliance review to ensure that the organization did not violate its own environmental, social, or other ethical standards, and that processes are in place to reduce the risk of future problems.
Fortunately for the Gates Foundation, decades of experience and research into accountability practices have produced guidelines that the foundation can follow to establish its own system.
The most effective accountability efforts function independently from operational staff and report to the highest levels of the organization — typically the board of directors. They also have dedicated staff to conduct outreach with affected communities and to handle any complaints. This could involve facilitating a dialogue between parties or conducting an independent investigation. Importantly, the accountability staff can make recommendations for fully remedying harms and guarding against more.
Creating an accountability mechanism is an obvious and important step to guarantee that the vast resources of the Gates Foundation are put to their best and highest purpose and do not hurt or create new challenges for the communities it seeks to help. By embracing accountability as an essential condition for successful philanthropy, the foundation would set an example for all grant makers who want their activities to achieve their intended result: changing lives for the better.