Take Bill Gates’s personal views on patents. He has been adamant that current patent protections don’t hinder access to new technologies and medicines in poor nations. But many global health experts disagree, suggesting the current systems benefits western multinationals at the expense of poor nations, allowing corporations to “expand or maintain their market power in ways that stifle innovation and keep prices high,” as policy experts David Grewal and Amy Kapczynski argued in the New York Times.
At a time when activists are challenging corporate clout, the Gates Foundation is enriching for-profit companies: it has offered tens of millions in non-repayable grants to wealthy corporations such as Mastercard and Vodacom. Gates insists the private sector should play a lead role in poverty reduction – but is he justified in helping to underwrite corporate bottom-lines through tax-advantaged gifts?
Most organisations on a par with the Gates Foundation are fair game for academic and journalistic investigation. When a health catastrophe strikes, many governments and UN organisations such as the World Health Organisation are subjected to sustained internal and external review. The Gates Foundation, while as powerful, rarely faces the same scrutiny.
We need to challenge this silence. We need loudly to ask an uncomfortable question: do foundations narrow wealth inequalities or simply preserve them? Are foundations at their most radical when they exist to serve a benefactor’s hopes and whims – or when they’re emancipated from such an obligation?