In the name of charity (16/7/2006)

Last week a regulatory committee in South Africa turned down an application to conduct laboratory and greenhouse experiments as part of the much hyped GM sorghum project backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, not to mention a subsidiary of the GM giant DuPont. The application was refused on biosafety grounds, because of concerns that GM sorghum will lead to the destruction of the sorghum varieties prevalent throughout Africa.

Some of the things the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is getting up to seem neither desirable nor charitable.

In the Name of Charity
Lorna Haynes 1

There is something about multi-billionaire Warren Buffet's philanthropic donation to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that makes me feel uneasy.

Why make one of the world's richest foundations "richer"? What makes Buffet think that Bill Gates is the most appropriate person to spend this donation for the good of society? After all, Bill Gates is mainly known as being a whiz-kid at creating software who, through his company Microsoft, became one of the world's richest men. But this does not mean he is wise. In fact, from what I have read, many sages consider that material wealth is an obstacle to achieving wisdom. Perhaps Buffet chose Gates because he feels better about giving 30 billion dollars worth of stock to "one of the boys" to manage rather than giving it directly to committed activists like Greenpeace, or to those unspectacular silent workers who faithfully, over the years, are the first on the scene of every human calamity - like Oxfam, Medecins sans Frontieres, to name just two - which have records of proven sustained public service.

There appears to be an underlying presumption that all acts of "giving to charity" are noble and worthy of our respect and perhaps gratitude. But I feel that there are questions we should be asking. For instance, concerning the values and fairness of a system that allows one person to accumulate so much personal wealth; about the amount of power this is concentrating in the foundation which hopes to "change the world" - the world according to Bill Gates criteria? Will any of this money be ploughed back into groups or institutions that challenge the system that allowed these men to accrue this enormous personal wealth? After all, wealth accumulates in the hands of one person by being transferred from other sources: other people, or by the irreversible exploitation of the earth's unique endowment of resources which, being limited must satisfy the needs not only of the present but of all future generations too. Will / can these "victims" be compensated by such charity?

Let me give an example of what I consider misguided "benevolence" and misuse of charity by the Gates Foundation. Notoriously, Foundations have played a key role in both destroying and then "saving" the world's plant genetic resources. The Rockefeller Foundation and Kellogg Foundation both supported the Green Revolution which concentrated power over the food supply in the hands of a few transnational corporations, initiated the privatisation of the world's genetic resources and led to the loss of agricultural crop varieties world wide as well as to the destruction and erosion of soils, the environment and the livelihoods of millions of farmers worldwide through pesticide based agriculture with concomitant affects on their health. Transgenic agriculture follows this same unsustainable model of production and introduces new, uncontrollable and irreversible risks for the environment, health and biodiversity.

In the press conference following the announcement of the donation, replying to a question on agricultural problems, Bill Gates said that they were looking at "what has held back agriculture and who can we back?" He then mentioned investing in "new types of seeds with the Rockefeller Foundation in Africa." Recently the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave US$ 3.3 million dollars to support the Biocassava Project led by the Ohio State University. Its objective is to develop "nutritionally enhanced" transgenic cassava and, included among its 10 institutional collaborators is the Danforth Plant Centre which was co-founded by Monsanto, infamous for being the producer of over 90% of transgenic seeds world wide, also the world's largest seed company and fifth producer of pesticides. The Gates Foundation also donated $16.9 million dollars to the Wambugu Consortium of Africa to genetically manipulate sorghum in a project that involves another US genetic engineering company, Pioneer Hi-Breed, a subsidiary of DuPont, (world's number 2 seed company).

Far from visionary and philanthropic, the fact that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is supporting the genetic engineering of crops means that it is promoting seeds of famine which have potentially devastating impacts on the environment, society and the world's food security.

No doubt some of the Foundation's money will support activities that will genuinely help many people around the world. But all this publicity hype selling us the image of Buffet-Gates as society's super benefactors is distracting the public from the fundamental issues underlying the social crises which cannot be solved by spending money and is sanctioning the idea that, with a dose of what is being called "philanthropy", business can be carried on as usual. Gates has stressed the need for the Foundation to support the use of market oriented mechanisms to address many of the issues. Furthermore, the Foundation needs to examine critically the problems it aims to help solve since, in the case of its approach to agriculture and hunger, it is using its money and influence to exacerbate the problems and support the goals of corporate agribusiness which, by aiming to control the world's food supply, is risking the very future of food and agriculture and so of humanity too.

"The road to Hell is paved with good intentions."

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