In the eyes of the public foreign aid and development equal altruism, ‘goodness’ and charity. In many ways this popular conception of foreign aid comes from religious beginnings and the exhortation to goodness as a binary response to sin and evil through acts of kindness and charity. Another more cynical assessment would lead me to question altruism’s true motives-do we do good for others or do we do good to feel good about ourselves? There are many contemporary beliefs around poverty and its causes. We blame it on overpopulation and culture, we blame it on bad luck or hard times or as neoliberalism would tell us-blame it on the poor themselves.
You may have recently read Bill Gates (optimistic) annual Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation letter. In it, he makes the extraordinary claim that by 2035, ‘there will be no poor countries’. He goes on to address three myths he believes “block progress for the poor”. The letter itself is not the problem. It is the oversimplification of poverty and our responses to it that make me feel uneasy.
Much of Bill’s assertions have to do with treating poverty as a problem that can be solved with the right formula, much the same as I imagine he does when creating software. The problem with this is that poverty is not just a term, static and simple. It is punctuated by history, class, race, gender, geopolitics and I would argue most significantly capitalism. To try and present it as a clean apolitical concept is to distract from the real players that keep poverty a fixed and continuous feature of our world.
Inspired by Bill’s myth busting, I’ve come up with own three myths I’d like to bust.
Three myths about poverty perpetuated by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
Myth 1 Aid is without politics
Take Polio for example. Polio is once again on the rise in Pakistan whereas in the past, the World Health Organization used it as a standout example of a successful oral vacc campaign. Cases fell from 1155 cases in 1997 to 28 by 2005, the lowest number ever recorded in a single year.
Today Gates lamented that in Pakistan local conspiracy theories were making it hard to get ahead with administering Polio vaccinations. He blamed violence in the Northern areas and the belief that vaccinations were not religiously sanctioned. What he fails to address was the CIA’s use of a fake Polio vaccine drive headed by a Pakistani doctor to gain information and access to Osama Bin Laden in May, 2011. NGO’s and humanitarian workers were appalled at the co-opting of a humanitarian purpose for political and military means.
Predictably, a vulnerable population retreated making it harder than ever to reach those most in need of health attention. In some instances aid and humanitarian workers were kidnapped and killed with many necessary organizations pulling out. An alliance of 200 non-government organizations including well-known names like Care, Mercy Corps and the International Rescue Committee wrote to the CIA Director David Petraus directly linking the growing polio crisis to the tactics used to capture OBL. Aid and development groups have known for a long time that politics and aid are inextricably linked. Often they are cleaning up the mess left by corporations and governments in pursuit of profit and increased geopolitical power.
In turn aid and development organiations are becoming more vocal in their advocacy and criticism of governments using aid and development for political gain.
So in fact geopolitics, a fragile trust disturbed and a communities worst fears confirmed are what has led to the rise in polio cases in Pakistan-not ignorant villagers as benevolent Bill would have you believe.
Myth 2 Think poverty, not inequality
According to Gates, the idea that there will be ‘no more poor countries’ by 2035 is because Mexico City has changed a whole bunch since he and Melinda were there in the late 80’s. Today, Gates is astounded by its high rise buildings, new roads and modern bridges. He uses before and after pics of Mexico City, one from 1987 and another from 2011 to illustrate his point. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that a happy snap from the back of your photo album to illustrate a point about Mexico’s complex development is not a good way to prove a point.
The real picture in Mexico is somewhat different from Gates’s happy-people-in-high-rises analysis. The World Bank itself does not rely on GDP per capita as an analysis of poverty. A countries GDP may rise, but how is that income being distributed? Who gets it and who misses out? OXFAM’s Executive Director Winnie Byanima recently pointed out that “We live in a world where the 85 richest people own the wealth of half of the world’s population.” What we should be looking at is how wealth is distributed.
For arguments sake let’s look at Gates’s Mexico. When measuring the distribution of wealth using the Gini Coefficient found on the World Bank data site, you find that while Mexico’s GDP has increased, it is the top 20% of the population that own most of it-52.8% to be exact. Conversely the lowest 20% own just 4.9%.
The same goes for India, China and Brazil all of which make an appearance as countries who pulled themselves out of poverty-again using GDP as the only measure. In India’s population of 1.2 billion people, the top 20% own 42.8% of GDP while the lowest 10% of the population has a share of just 3.7%. Let’s look at this group a little closer. The percentage of India’s population living on less than $1.25 a day is 32.7%. That means that 404,499,000 (yes you read that right that’s 404 million) people live on less than $1.25 a day while the top 20% enjoy over 40% of the country’s 1.842 trillion dollar GDP- a cool 748 billion.
Of course there is an argument to be made for the increase of the middle class. This is more about drawing attention to the widening gap between the haves and have not’s and selling it publicly as poverty reduction. Same story in China, same story in Brazil.
Myth 3 Aid is always about charity and goodness
No it is not. Sure the foundation is a huge philanthropic organization that gives money to some areas of need in the world. An example being an immunization drive in Nigeria for polio and measles. Good step towards getting rid of these two communicable diseases. But as uncovered by the LA times in 2007, the foundation’s trust was at the same time investing in Royal Dutch Shell, Exxon Mobil Corp, Chevron Corp Total of France and Eni. If you aren’t familiar with these gigantic oil companies they are all responsible for burning oil flares in the Niger Delta, blanketing the area in pollution so severe that doctors have reported an epidemic of bronchitis, asthma and blurring in children’s vision.
It’s important to remember that the Gates Foundation is a philanthropic organization, but this does not mean it is not a for-profit entity. 5% of its worth is given away each year which is common among philanthropic organizations to avoid paying most taxes. 95% of its worth is then reinvested in a broad portfolio of companies ranging from oil, to paper, Coca Cola Amatil to multinational pharmaceutical outfits. Of the latter one was found to be pricing the drugs needed for the treatment of AIDS so high it was unaffordable for many of the patients that the foundation is seeking to treat.
These contradictions aren’t that surprising when you consider the way poverty is approached. To Bill Gates it’s all same same. Poverty is faceless, classless, raceless and genderless. ‘Poor people’ are all lumped in together in a homogenized package. In a baffling simplification he presents his data by “counting people instead of countries”. Which is fine, except that countries matter. Over simplifying and presenting the complex problem of poverty as two lines on one graph with a couple of before and after photos of Mexico City does not make a complex reasoned argument. In fact it all just ends up looking very suspicious.
All of this from the man whose company exploited thousands of Chinese workers making Microsoft peripherals such as keyboards and mice. Workers reported hot and exhausting conditions, a take home wage of just 52 cents a day and sexual harassment of female workers by security guards. What’s this got to do with poverty? Corporations creating conditions in which it flourishes. Power and its concentration and preservation is what creates and sustains poverty.
So Bill’s graphs can break it down into something easy and palatable and achievable and we won’t have to worry about labor rights, structural adjustment of corporate violence. In doing so he creates his own myth that everything is okay and nothing needs to be challenged because there will be no poor countries in 2035. In a way he is right; in the future there will be no poor countries, only unequal ones.
*A correction, the fake vaccine drive used by the CIA was not for Polio but for the Hep B vaccine. Thanks to the eagle eyed reader who pointed this out.