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Bill Gates and the problem with philanthropy

Last week the Wall Street Journal published an interesting story called “Gates rethinks his war on polio”. It tells how polio has spread across Africa, even after Bill Gates had donated $700 million to try to eradicate it. The Journal said the spread “marks a setback for the Microsoft Corp. co-founder’s new career as a full-time philanthropist”.

The article notes that Gates sought to target the elimination of a single disease, polio, rather than support a broader set of health goals. Indeed, it seems that polio could not be addressed in isolation from other problems: for example, in Nigeria, a clinic did not have vaccines “because the government’s system for supplying medicine wasn’t working”. World Health Organization (WHO) officials traveled to various developing countries to evaluate the polio program, and learned that the efforts were undermined by broader social or health issues: “In Africa, a team found that once polio had ended in some countries, weak healthcare systems let it return. In northern India, bad sanitation, malnutrition and other intestinal issues are believed to hurt the oral polio vaccine’s effectiveness.”

The point is that these broader social changes require something that a philanthropist cannot bring about: a strong economy and effective state that addresses the needs of the masses. It needs the support of the many (democracy), and cannot be a simple, top-down fix by the few (a philanthropist). The Journal notes that Gates’ foundation is built on the idea of finding technological solutions. But these are social problems:  “As polio shows, technology can be hampered by political, religious and societal obstacles in the countries where he’s spending his money. He’s still learning how to navigate through those forces.”

In another arena – education – the influence of Gates and other philanthropists is arguably even more debilitating. Diane Ravitch discusses the negative role philanthropists play in educational reform today in her new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System (which is reviewed by E.D. Hirsch in the New York Review of Books here). Ravitch describes how the Gates Foundation backed the “small schools” initiative (that is, schools with smaller student populations and smaller class sizes) beginning in 2000, but by 2009 Gates had to admit that this approach did not work. In that year, he announced that his foundation was now going to support reforms such as charter schools; finding ways to measure teacher effectiveness and to fire ineffective teachers; and others.

Ravitch notes that Gates’ huge donations support a veritable industry of academics, think tanks and advocacy groups that push the Gates line. As Ravitch says, with so many dependent on the Gates largesse, few are willing to challenge him. Other philanthropists, hedge fund managers and others with deep pockets have also been big backers behind charter schools, which have no record of better performance than public schools, but certainly divide communities.

Hoping to “make a difference”, philanthropists’ money is distorting the educational system in the country. But what do they know about education? As with polio in the developing world, philanthropists cannot bring about society-wide changes needed to improve education in America either, and in fact, they often make matters worse.

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