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March 17, 2020; The Nation

Bill Gates has a very clear vision for making the world a better place and of the ways responsible philanthropists can best use their resources. His charitable foundation, powered by its $50 billion in assets, translates this perspective into action on a global scale. His charitable investments are large and influential, often overshadowing government efforts. A new generation of mega-donors has followed a path laid down by the philanthropic model he has set. In a recent article in the Nation, Tim Schwab examines the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the serious questions it raises about accountability and balancing public and private interests.

For a clear view of how Bill Gates sees the world, or at least how he did a decade ago, one might turn to his speech to the World Economic Forum in 2008. Gates saw a capitalist system that left too many on the outside looking in. “The great advances in the world have often aggravated the inequities in the world. The least needy see the most improvement, and the most needy see the least.” He blamed “market incentives” for this disparity, and he prescribed turning to “creative capitalism” as a fix, “an approach where governments, businesses, and nonprofits work together to stretch the reach of market forces so that more people can make a profit, or gain recognition, doing work that eases the world’s inequities.”

From this perspective, the skill, experience, and wisdom of a philanthropist is as important as the wealth they bring. So too, as Bill Gates explains in a 2014 Gates Notes blog post, is the ability to operate outside existing government and philanthropic systems: “We fill the function that government cannot—making a lot of risky bets with the expectation that at least a few of them will show some success. At that point, governments can invest in innovations that have some track record, a much more comfortable role for them.”

With little oversight to mitigate a rich donor’s personal privilege, left out from this formula is the public’s interest. The scale of Gates’s generosity makes it hard to question his wisdom or his ethics. As Schwab writes, billions of dollars of grants annually have “created a blinding halo effect around his philanthropic work, as many of the institutions best placed to scrutinize his foundation are now funded by Gates, including academic think tanks that churn out uncritical reviews of its charitable efforts and news outlets that praise its giving or pass on investigating its influence.”