Gates Foundation under the spotlight

Aid groups built this well and supplied the bicycle to a child disabled by polio
Aid groups in Cambodia built this well and supplied the bicycle to a child disabled by polio. Photo by Tinker Ready, 1996

One saying about international aid goes something like this – Give a man a fish and you feed him for one day; teach him how to fish and you feed him forever.

Then there is another point of view – Give the guy the goddamn fish — he’s starving! Then worry about fishing lessons.

Having spent a year covering dysfunctional Cambodia, I learned a bit about international aid. These folks mean well, do a lot of good and face a lot of complicated issues. For example, do you want to hand a new hospital over to the government if you know they are going to turn it into another corrupt fiefdom?

The British journal The Lancet has a piece this week on one of the world’s biggest aid donors – The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Here’s what AP had to say about it.

 SEATTLE (AP) — A new study of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation illustrates its global reach with spending on health issues, but notes a need for accountability on whether the money is being spent in the most effective way.

The world’s largest philanthropic foundation focuses its global health giving on eradicating diseases such as malaria and AIDS. It also works to aid agricultural development in Africa and Asia and improve education in the United States.

”What we have is a private actor with a huge degree of influence, but not really a mechanism by which that influence is held to public account,” said Dr. David McCoy, the primary author of the study.

The Gates foundation was also the subject of a story from the journal Foreign Policy, which I read in the UTNE reader. The title says is all – “The New Colonialists.”

In much the same way European empires once dictated policies across their colonial holdings, the new colonialists—among them international development groups such as Oxfam, humanitarian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) like Doctors Without Borders and Mercy Corps, and mega-philanthropies like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation—direct development strategies and craft government policies for their hosts. But though the new colonialists are the glue holding society together in many weak states, their presence often deepens the dependency of these states on outsiders. They unquestionably fill vital roles, providing lifesaving health care, educating children, and distributing food in countries where the government can’t or won’t. But, as a consequence, many of these states are failing to develop the skills necessary to run their countries effectively, while others fall back on a global safety net to escape accountability.

The issues are well-worth debating. But, I do know that some of the issues the Gates Foundation is dealing with — like malaria — were virtually ignored for years. Plus, they help fund one of the most thoughtful health aid groups around – Boston-based Partners in Health

(Windows Vista turned my computer into an evil demon, but that’s another story.)

So, choose your cliché – 1) The road to hell is paved with good intentions or 2) No good deed goes unpunished.

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