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The Gates Foundation is becoming an oligarchy

Gates's initiatives have extended into public health, education and technology. Credit: Getty

May 16, 2024 - 1:00pm

Melinda French Gates has this week further distanced herself from ex-husband Bill Gates, stepping down from the foundation the power couple built together over 25 years. It’s a major shake-up that signals growing instability in the world’s most influential charitable organisation, which spends $8 billion a year trying to remake how we feed, educate and medicate children around the world.

At the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation — soon to be renamed the Gates Foundation — Melinda served as the face of nearly $12 billion in spending on “gender equality” initiatives, including work on family planning and contraceptive access. Hundreds of organisations, which employ thousands of people and in turn serve hundreds of millions of poor women around the globe, now face uncertainty around whether the Gates Foundation’s funding and priorities will change. It’s this kind of global reverberation, or liability, that has long raised questions about whether the foundation, with its $75 billion endowment, is simply too big or powerful for the greater good.

While Melinda French Gates has made empowering women her philanthropic focus, under her leadership the Gates Foundation struggled internally with institutional inequality. The foundation’s board of directors, for example, has been dominated by men since its formation. When Melinda officially departs next month, only two out of seven board members will be women.

If this imbalance is corrected, it seems unlikely it will be because the foundation cares about equality. Despite fierce PR efforts over the years to present Bill and Melinda as equivalent “co-chairs” of the foundation, they were never equal partners. Following their divorce in 2021, the foundation announced that if the two decided they could no longer work together, Melinda, not Bill, would step down.

Multi-billionaire investor Warren Buffett also stepped away from a top leadership position at the foundation in 2021, distancing himself from the scandals that engulfed Bill Gates in the aftermath of his divorce. The news media, though normally quite friendly to Gates, has taken a keen interest in unearthing the details of his association with sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, while also investigating allegations of Gates’s misconduct toward women. Gates denies any wrongdoing, but the allegations nevertheless diminished his moral authority around the world. And they invariably made Melinda French Gates’s work — trying to present the foundation as a champion for women — very difficult.

While French Gates and Buffett never were true equals with Bill Gates at the foundation, they nevertheless had significant influence — and were positioned to provide at least some level of checks and balances against the Microsoft founder. In the years ahead, we should expect the Gates Foundation, with two of its three top leaders gone, to operate in an increasingly unilateral manner, with a risk that Bill surrounds himself with people who depend on his wealth and who are terrified to challenge him. These are the makings of an emperor-has-no-clothes narrative — a storyline from which many critics are already reading.

Though Bill and Melinda Gates have long insisted that their foundation is a vital force for positive change, and though it generously funds academics and journalists who amplify this narrative, a growing body of independent experts, and some of the foundation’s own intended beneficiaries, argue that their philanthropy is doing more harm than good. Across the African continent, for example, farmer organisations are petitioning the foundation to stop its charitable crusade because it hasn’t delivered the yield increases and hunger reduction promised, and because it has crowded out better solutions. Over the past two decades, the foundation’s efforts to shape other fields, from public health to the pandemic to public education, have generated similar criticism: just because the Gates Foundation is giving away large sums of money does not mean it is helping the world.

It is a criticism that will follow Melinda French Gates as she embarks on her independent philanthropic career. Her separation agreement from the foundation entitles her to a $12.5-billion philanthropic fund of her own, which she will likely spend in ways that are indistinguishable from the Gates Foundation: namely, using charity to buy a seat at the decision-making table, to make her voice heard above others, and to exercise her influence over all manner of public policy. The word we should use to describe such activities is not philanthropy — it’s oligarchy.


Tim Schwab is an investigative journalist based in Washington DC and author of The Bill Gates Problem: Reckoning with the Myth of the Good Billionaire.

TimothyWSchwab

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Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
4 days ago

Why on earth must the board be branded with “inequality” simply because only 2 out of 7 are female? How about it’s just a happenstance, with no deliberate design and the right people are in the right positions? Would “inequality” be cited if Melinda headed a board with 2 out of 7 males? She’d be lauded for it.

Rob N
Rob N
4 days ago
Reply to  Lancashire Lad

Absolutely, and while she was there it was 3 out of 7 so as close to half as can be obtained. So not ‘dominated’ by men. And so what if it had been?

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
3 days ago
Reply to  Lancashire Lad

Would that be the Melinda French Gates whose sole achievement of note was marrying Bill

Last edited 3 days ago by Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Mike Michaels
Mike Michaels
4 days ago

“The news media, though normally quite friendly to Gates, has taken a keen interest in unearthing the details of his association with sex offender Jeffrey Epstein”. Have they? I must have missed that.

J Bryant
J Bryant
4 days ago
Reply to  Mike Michaels

Yes, that was my reaction too. I think Bill Gates has got off very lightly.

Derek Smith
Derek Smith
4 days ago
Reply to  J Bryant

They all got off lightly. All attention has been focused on two foreigners – Prince Andrew and Ghislaine Maxwell – who became the scapegoats to draw attention away from Epstein’s US associates.

A D Kent
A D Kent
4 days ago

So Gates invests $55M in Pfizer prior to the pandemic, uses his massive funding of the WHO to get their experimental gene therapies accepted everywhere, sells those shares after a 10 fold increase in price and then suddenly starts to criticise the injections he’s been championing. Corruption is what that is no matter how many board members did or did not have winkles. An oligarchy, on the other hand, is what the US has been for decades.

Last edited 4 days ago by A D Kent
Vesselina Zaitzeva
Vesselina Zaitzeva
4 days ago

With philanthropists like this, who needs enemies?

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
4 days ago

So, let me get this straight. A nominally charitable foundation and de facto political activist group started by a man whose fortune was built upon industrial espionage, IP theft, and the use of monopolization tactics to extract ever increasing prices for a stale product, is turning into an oligarchy. You further describe how the man himself is behaving like a modern day Caligula, filling boards with yes men while hiding who knows how many skeletons in how many closets. What a shocking and unexpected development this is. Who could possibly see it coming? *sarcasm off*
Bill Gates is an awful human being, a thief, an opportunist, and a grasping tyrant to boot. He’s the sort of person who, if he turned up missing, probably wouldn’t be missed, even by much of his own family, his subordinates, or even his collaborators.. He seems to have finally driven off his wife, who is doubtless no saint herself, willing and eager as she was to use her husband’s fortune to push her own political causes. He can’t have very many real allies left, just sycophants hovering about him like the pilot fish that follow in the wake of a shark simply to collect scraps.
Fortunately, he’s only one man and as mortal as the rest of us. When he’s no longer around to use his fortune to defend himself, I doubt anybody else will, and we’ll find out just how bad he was.

Last edited 4 days ago by Steve Jolly
Martin M
Martin M
4 days ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

Seems a bit over the top. Didn’t Caligula appoint his horse as a Consul? There doesn’t seem a suggestion that Gates is going to appoint a horse (or any other quadruped) to the Board of the Foundation.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
3 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

Well it’s the principles really. Caligula appointed his horse because he valued loyalty over intelligence. I am willing to bet whoever Gates appointed was as loyal as the horse was and chosen for the same reason.

Martin M
Martin M
1 day ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

Loyalty is one thing, but you need a level of competence. I doubt the horse (however clever) could have discharged the duties of Consul.

Vesselina Zaitzeva
Vesselina Zaitzeva
4 days ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

Very true!

Tessa B
Tessa B
4 days ago

List of organisations supporting AGRA Watch
https://cagj.org/agra-watch/allies/
About AGRA WatchAGRA Watch is a campaign of Community Alliance for Global Justice. The mission of AGRA Watch is to challenge the dominant development ideology pushed by governments, corporations, and “private” philanthropic actors as they try to expand our corporate-driven, industrial model of agriculture into Africa. Chief among these “private” actors are the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) and their subsidiary, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).
https://www.tni.org/en/article/global-coup-detat
“We should also note the World Economic Forum is a very well funded launch pad. As power points from The Great Takeover webinar put it corporations do not pay tax but “donate” to multi-stakeholder institutions. The WEF of course is funded by powerful corporations and business leaders. The power points also noted the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is of the main funders of multi-stakeholder institutions”.

Last edited 4 days ago by Tessa B
Tessa B
Tessa B
4 days ago
Reply to  Tessa B
Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
4 days ago

Becoming an oligarchy? If the billions spent annually produced empirically verifiable good results, articles like this would not exist.

Edward De Beukelaer
Edward De Beukelaer
3 days ago

…yes but he does so well vaccinating children in Africa that they…. do less well than non vaccinated children… https://www.thelancet.com/journals/ebiom/article/PIIS2352-3964(17)30046-4/fulltext
(This is when people who have no understanding of health and the fact we are very complex systems living within complex systems, see vaccines as making ways to promote health. Silly Billy.)
Fightng disease has nothing to do with promoting and fostering health and resilience. He would have done better providing sanitation and education. Not as glamorous but very effective https://rootsofprogress.org/draining-the-swamp
this probably does not come in the news…

Carmel Shortall
Carmel Shortall
3 days ago

“The word we should use to describe such activities is not philanthropy — it’s oligarchy.”

What about philantropathy?

Alan Gore
Alan Gore
3 days ago

Did an AI write this vague article? Who are the actual opponents to the idea of reproductive rights and relieving hunger in Africa? Let me guess: the abortion Taliban, the antivaxers, and the anti-GMO Luddites. May Bill Gates use his $75 billion to crush them all.

Francis Twyman
Francis Twyman
4 days ago

Be wary of billionaire oligarchs with agendas, Gates may seem ok, but would anyone trust Musk the philanthropist? If they would pay their fair share of taxes, maybe we wouldn’t need them.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
4 days ago
Reply to  Francis Twyman

How much of someone else’s money rightly belongs to you? The tired “fair share” talking point has been thoroughly debunked in the US where the top 1, 10, and 25% pay a very disproportionate share of the taxes. Maybe the problem, just maybe, is govt spending in areas where the public sector has no expertise. Meanwhile, its core duties of public safety, infrastructure, criminal justice, and education are floundering.

Peter B
Peter B
4 days ago
Reply to  Francis Twyman

Please provide some evidence for your claim that Bill Gates hasn’t paid his “fair share of taxes”. Facts please.

Martin M
Martin M
4 days ago
Reply to  Francis Twyman

I wouldn’t trust Musk the Anything.

Peter B
Peter B
4 days ago

I’m no fan of Bill Gates. But this is ridiculous.
Even if he were to be doing something good, there are still people who’d never be satisfied.
How is giving money away “oligarchy” ? Absurd.
No one is forced to take Gates’ money.
There are no real substantiated claims made against Bill Gates here – just a serious of links to critical articles, mainly from people and organisations with their own agendas to push.
Take the Scientific American article cited. This claims that “In contrast, the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA), which represents more than 200 million farmers, fishers, pastoralists, indigenous peoples, women, consumers and others across all but five African countries, holds that agroecology is what our continent needs.”
In what sense exactly does this organisation “represent” more than 200 million people ? Have they all been consulted ? Voted ? Are paid up members ? This is really little better than claiming that all Chinese people have the same view of the West.
I’ll say one thing for Bill Gates though. Like Donald Trump, he seems to be winding up all the right people.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
3 days ago

It’s an oligarchy? So what? It’s his money and he didn’t have give away any of it.

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
3 days ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

The point is that he’s spending that money in ways that are not good for the 99.9% of the human race who don’t have the wealth to protect themselves from his ambitions.

Kirk Susong
Kirk Susong
2 days ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

Exactly – complaining that the guy who made the money gets to decide what to do with it is first class Marxism. I disagree with Gates on most everything, but I don’t begrudge his right to control his property as he sees fit.

Robbie K
Robbie K
4 days ago

Horribly cynical, the audience here will lap it up.

Andrew R
Andrew R
4 days ago
Reply to  Robbie K

Real change comes from the bottom up, not top down and not by writing large cheques.

Robbie K
Robbie K
4 days ago
Reply to  Andrew R

Solve poverty, diseases and healthcare from the bottom up? Ok, good luck with that.

Andrew R
Andrew R
4 days ago
Reply to  Robbie K

With assistance obviously but the current NGO philanthropy model is open to corruption/wastage. A lot of those problems could well be down to the action of multi-national business in the first. A realignment of priorities would be more beneficial to those people/communities.

They may have started out with good intentions but most of those NGOs are now parasitic.

Robbie K
Robbie K
4 days ago
Reply to  Andrew R

Certainly seems plausible, no doubt because of the scale and sums involved. Not sure that provides a case to criticise the Gates foundation though.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
4 days ago
Reply to  Robbie K

You need both. Top-down initiatives, without bottom-up consensus, eventually fail.

Robbie K
Robbie K
4 days ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

For sure. It’s too easy to be cynical on these matters and go with wild eyed conspiracies – the Gates Foundation may have problems with delivery and cause unforeseen dilemmas, it is however well intentioned and a force for good. The author and his material is scraping the bottom of the barrel.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
4 days ago
Reply to  Robbie K

If you can solve these problems that have been with mankind since forever, why stop there. We could also use a propulsion system that doesn’t use propellant, a usable FTL drive, a working fusion reactor, and maybe those flying cars we were promised by the cartoons and movies we watched as kids. Do any of these things and you’d be worshiped. If you could demonstrate anything practical that hasn’t already been tried, you certainly wouldn’t have to argue with skeptics in the comments section of an Internet publication.

Last edited 4 days ago by Steve Jolly
Peter B
Peter B
4 days ago
Reply to  Andrew R

It also comes through taking politics out of the equation and focusing on actual problem solving.
Here you’d need to persuade me that an actual problem solver like Bill Gates will be less successful than “problem talkers” like governments and NGOs. I’m not saying that everything he does will work, but other things being equal, I’d give him better odds of actually getting stuff done. It’s hard to argue that the government aid/NGO/charity route has been a spectacular success over the past 40 odd years.

Andrew R
Andrew R
4 days ago
Reply to  Peter B

Agreed Peter

Last edited 4 days ago by Andrew R