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Bill Gates’ Silver-Bullet Misfiring at the Mandela Memorial Lecture

On July 17, Bill Gates delivered the annual Mandela Lecture in Johannesburg, justifying his philosophy of market-orieted, technology-centric philanthropy. Last year, French economist Thomas Piketty’s speech on inequality attracted healthy debate, with even business notables endorsing his concerns, given South Africa’s intense social conflict.

To illustrate, South Africa’s Gini Coefficient measuring inequality is the world’s highest (at 0.77 on a scale of 0 to 1, in terms of income inequality from employment). Since 2000, social protests have numbered an average of 11 per day. From 2012-16 the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report category measuring worker militancy ranked South Africa’s proletariat as the angriest on earth, while PricewaterhouseCoopers Economic Crime surveys awarded the gold medal for world corruption to the Johannesburg bourgeoisie in 2014 and 2016.

In this context, Gates, who is worth $80 billion (up $24 billion from 2011), will expound on redistribution. And to be sure, many of his projects have been vital to human progress. But compare what can be termed Gates’ ‘philanthro-capitalism’ with Ford Foundation President Darren Walker’s proposal for a more appropriate approach to giving in the 21st century: “We foundations need to reject inherited, assumed, paternalist instincts… We need to interrogate the fundamental root causes of inequality, even, and especially, when it means that we ourselves will be implicated.”

In contrast, Gates specialises in top-down technicist quick-fixes – ‘silver bullets’ – which often backfire on the economic shooting range of extreme corporate influence and neoliberal policies. As Global Justice Now’s Polly Jones complained in a report last month, Gates’ “influence is so pervasive that many actors in international development, which would otherwise critique the policy and practice of the foundation, are unable to speak out independently as a result of its funding and patronage.”

Amongst the few exceptions are Katharyne Mitchell and Matthew Sparke, whose research critiques Gates’ “highly targeted investments, market-mediated partnerships, rapid technological fixes, constant assessment, quick exits, and the use of competition, benchmarking and rankings to set funding priorities.”

Bad examples can be drawn across the vast sphere of Gates Foundation activities:

* Gates’ power threatens African food in part due to his advocacy of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), which benefit agro-corporates such as Monsanto but wipe out local seeds. In Kenya, Gates’ people and US AID appear to have succeeded in reversing a GMO-seed ban (only four African states allow GMOs). The Gates-supported Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa “advised and lobbied the governments of Ghana, Tanzania, and Malawi, among others, to adopt pro-business seed and land policy reforms,” according to a critique by a progressive food-sovereignty NGO, Oakland Institute.

* To address species-threatening climate change, a rather confused Gates favours ‘Terrapower’ nuclear, a dangerous distraction from the urgent need to both expand renewable energy and radically reduce fossil-fuel abuse. As Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson bragged about Gates at his recent AGM, “there’s no space between he and I.”

* Privatised health and education are Gates’ speciality but in India, a Gates-funded trial on the genital cancer-causing disease Human papillomavirus was cancelled by the government because thousands of girls aged 10-14 were victims of ethics violations such as forged consent forms and lack of health insurance; seven died. The case is now in the country’s Supreme Court.

In South Africa, the techie-fix fascination is controversial in Durban’s peri-urban settlements where Gates-backed ‘Urine Diversion’ toilets imposed by the municipality on nearly 100 000 poor black households are considered a new version of the hated ‘bucket system.’ Higher-income residents of Durban – including in the nearby, traditionally-white western suburbs – don’t suffer this discriminatory indignity.

As an interesting aside, not only does Durban’s retired water director now offer sanitation consulting to Gates, so too is the top Gates Foundation policy official, Geoffrey Lamb, a South African. Once a hard-core Marxist (and son-in-law of ‘colonialism of a special type’ inventor Michael Harmel), Lamb’s work once included pathbreaking class analysis of the Tanzanian peasantry, and he was a PhD advisor when SA trade and industry minister Rob Davies wrote his Marxist thesis at Sussex University.

After an ideological U-turn, Lamb was central to developing a ‘homegrown’ structural adjustment strategy working at the highest levels of the World Bank during the 1980s, and especially in its application inside the African National Congress during the early 1990s.

But the most damage done within South Africa was Gates’ promotion of intellectual property (IP) rights. Long-term monopoly patents were granted not only to Gates for his Microsoft software, but for life-saving medicines.

IP became a fatal barrier to millions of HIV+ people who, thanks to Big Pharma’s profiteering, were denied AIDS medicines which cost R150 000/year fifteen years ago. The Gates Foundation was part of the problem by insisting on Merck-branded drugs in its Botswana AIDS clinics, complained Zackie Achmat of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) in 2001.

With TAC instead demanding and finally – in the wake of at least 330 000 avoidable AIDS deaths – winning access to generic medicines made locally, the cost to African governments became negligible and today nearly four million people in South Africa alone get the drugs, which has raised life expectancy from 52 in 2004 to 62 today.

Self-interest was perhaps a factor, because Gates got rich from IP illegitimately acquired thanks to blatantly anti-competitive practices, such as bundling Windows with the slow, security flaw-ridden Internet Explorer web-browser, according to US prosecutors. The emails that Gates and his colleagues sent each other unveiled their cutthroat, illegal approach to IT (and Gates’ own slipperiness), notwithstanding the internet’s massive government subsidies.

And as Edward Snowden showed, Microsoft is in league with the United States National Security Agency’s Prism snoop service to hack your computer, Outlook, Hotmail and Skype accounts.

Speaking of secrecy, Microsoft’s offshore tax-avoidance policies today earn the company more money than Gates gives annually in donations (less than $4 billion/year).

Next Sunday, Gates will get even richer, in terms of the moral legitimacy bestowed by the Mandela lecture. But to explain this, perhaps more context is useful.

The 1990s witnessed a series of debilitating concessions to multinational corporations by Mandela’s African National Congress. Mandela Foundation director Verne Harris acknowledges, “Under Madiba’s leadership the ANC embraced a neoliberal agenda with unseemly haste and we’re paying a terrible price for that now.”

Added Harris, “We’re only beginning to understand the nature of this phenomenon. From the late 1980s, a huge seduction was underway, of the liberation movement by capital and it’s playing out in all kinds of destructive ways now, from arms deals to corruption.”

Gates has apparently not (yet) reached the stage of philanthro-seduction of radical social movements, trade unions, feminists, Black Lives Matter activists, LGBTI scene, environmentalists, Occupiers, anti-imperialists, youth and progressive political parties which do so much to withstand the inequality, state surveillance, racism and other features of contemporary economic tyranny.

These forces show, objectively, that the world urgently needs far less corporate power – including in the hands of Bill Gates and Microsoft – and many more bottom-up activist initiatives to achieve thorough-going wealth redistribution.

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Patrick Bond (pbond@mail.ngo.za) is professor of political economy at the University of the Witwatersrand School of Governance in Johannesburg. He is co-editor (with Ana Garcia) of BRICS: An Anti-Capitalist Critique, published by Pluto (London), Haymarket (Chicago), Jacana (Joburg) and Aakar (Delhi).

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