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Bill Gates' foreign aid distorts development work

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is such a major player in international development work, in terms of both financial assets and influence, that it fundamentally alters the conditions for the work. This is creating a democratic problem, according to a PhD student.

What happens when IT billionaire Bill Gates sets out to invest over USD 40 billion in international development? In just a few years, the world's largest private foundation has triggered a major upheaval in international development. This is the conclusion from new research from Roskilde University.

Distorting effect
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has resources of over USD 43 billion and is also supported by prominent personalities such as Bono. Its influence is such that it largely defines the problems that the world's development work focuses on, says PhD student Adam Moe Fejerskov:

"The Gates Foundation supports a narrow range of issues with vast sums of money, and this means that the other players also move to where the money is. This is a democratic problem. Normally, development organizations such as Danida are accountable to the Minister, who in turn is accountable to Parliament, but the Gates Foundation is only answerable to itself and its own criteria for success" explains Adam Moe Fejerskov.

He is currently working on his doctoral thesis, in which he examines what happens to an area such as development work when a new major actor suddenly becomes involved in the field. The Gates Foundation currently spends DKK 20 billion annually on development, which is more than the entire aid budget of e.g. Denmark.

"Within the past 10 years, development work has expanded and diversified, with many new organizations appearing, many of whom have contributed new ideas and working methods. The Gates Foundation is the ultimate expression of this trend, and it is having a distorting effect. If the biggest passenger in the canoe moves, then everyone else moves too" says Adam Moe Fejerskov.

Focus on vaccines
This means that researchers and humanitarian institutions can secure funding by focusing on what the Gates Foundation regards as most important.

"When there is so much money at stake, it is not only important what the money is spent on, but also what the money is not spent on. It is fantastic that Gates has chosen to donate so much money. But if you sincerely want to make life better for the world's poorest, you must work with all the world's actors to ensure that the people and the governments have ownership of the projects" says Adam Moe Fejerskov.

For example, the Gates Foundation is very determined to eradicate polio and it is therefore investing a great deal of money in the efforts to develop vaccines. On the other hand, there is no focus on developing a healthcare infrastructure in Africa in the form of more and better hospitals, doctors and informing people about health issues.

"This means that a boy in Africa can be vaccinated against polio and die on the following day after drinking contaminated water in the village river. The Gates Foundation is extremely focused on what they designate as the most important issues and they ignore everything else. This approach is very different from the traditional holistic approach to development work, where there is a clear realization that it is not possible to promote healthcare systems by only focusing on one small area" says Adam Moe Fejerskov.

Narrow focus on gender equality
The Gates Foundation is not accountable to anyone and it is therefore traditionally very closed. It acts autonomously in the world and pursues its own policies. The foundation therefore conducts very little research. However, during his four months of field work, Adam Moe Fejerskov managed to obtain access to the inner sanctum of Seattle.

"In recent years, Melinda Gates in particular has been very bombastic with regard to gender equality. This means that women's rights and gender equality must be incorporated into every project. This has created some friction, when researchers who are working to develop vaccines are suddenly informed that a special female perspective must also be included in their work. They simply find it difficult to see what women's rights have in common with vaccines" says Adam Moe Fejerskov.

Bill Gates' background as founder of Microsoft means that it is natural for the foundation to have a strong focus on technology as a solution to the major problems in developing countries. Adam Moe Fejerskov compares it with the first experiences with development aid in the 1960s, when efforts were made to provide drinking water to villages by providing wells that the people themselves could assemble. However, the aid workers forgot to explain to the Africans how to assemble the wells, with the result that the wells were left unused. Since then, development work has been based on utilising existing resources and the emphasis has been on establishing a sense of ownership among the local population and helping the Africans to help themselves. It is well-known cliché that it is better to teach someone to fish than to give them a fish.

"In comparison, the Gates Foundation gives them a beautiful big shiny lure, which unfortunately they are unable to use" says Adam Moe Fejerskov.