Sunday, August 8, 2010

Why Isn't Bill Gates a Businessman in Africa?

Over at Ratio Magazine, Nairobi Star's Andrea Bohnstedt can't shake her unease about the Gates Foundation.

The Gates Foundation, in contrast [to aid agencies], is subject to no controls, and the article tellingly describes a meeting of Gates with some of the richest individuals who allegedly refer to themselves as the Good Club and muse how to fix the world. The article also raised the issue that the foundation sometimes invested its endowment in industries and sectors that were seen as detrimental to the poor who the foundation aims to help. The only sector that the endowment cannot be invested in is the tobacco industry, but apart from that it seeks to maximize returns.

I was mulling this ‘venture philanthropy’ with the niggling feeling that I had overlooked something. Eventually, I realized what it was: That Bill Gates, a man clearly so talented in doing business, in earning money, decides that The Poor must be helped through charity. This bifurcation has preoccupied me for a while: People who have been wildly successful in their career in the north will not bring that talent to developing countries. Instead, they bring charity, turning Africa into a theme park for good intentions.
Bono and Geldof don’t play African concert tours. They collect donations for Africa, but don’t seem to invest in plain old boring regular companies around here. Bono’s wife runs an ethical clothing company that will get Kibera school kids (because it’s gotta be Kibera, right?) design t-shirts. Why doesn’t she invest in mass production of regular t-shirts? After he sold Celtel to MTC, Mo Ibrahim has set up a private equity fund, Satya Capital, but makes more headlines with his Mo Ibrahim foundation. Why can’t Bill Gates bring his immense business talent to, well, business?
If the Gates Foundation prides itself on doing things a different way, it still does not challenge the aid industry as such: it gives grants to intermediary foundation, many of whom represent the business-as-usual of the aid industry and the illusion of the fixability of single issues.

Here's my calculus.

I don't think the Gates Foundation is completely unencumbered. It could potentially deal a blow to aid agencies, the calculus goes, for the word to get out that African countries also present economic opportunities. With the PR machine having done such a good job of telling people how messed up things are, it would now be hard to be seen as making money from a land where everyone is poor. It'll be hard to spin that, because it'll involve a counter-narrative, one that could potentially be harmful to all the efforts to generate aid for projects all over the continent. Too many images of happy, smiling, not-emaciated children eating cheeseburgers and playing basketball after schools not in clay huts, and next thing you know the Western audience breathes a sigh of relief and thinks, "Oh, good! They're not basket cases anymore! Now we don't have to care since they can take care of themselves!" Folks would stop buying baskets from Africa with proceeds to go to the One Campaign's efforts in some random village. And the US will then feel more comfortable relaxing its 0.7% of GDP aid commitment to African countries (which they already don't meet anyway), and reducing for PEPFAR (Which, even as good as the PR machine is, they're currently doing). Funds slip. HIV rages on. Malaria stays on. Diseases we think we've gotten rid of like Ring Worm re-surface with no funds to fight them. And all because people decided to do what they wanted to all along - look away. It's just easier, the calculus goes, to fall in line with the narrative that already exists.

The sad fact is that reality in African countries is more complex than many give it credit for, but the media - in the U.S. especially - doesn't work with nuances. And when one does the calculus, aid agencies think it's better for folks to see Africa as totally helpless so as to gain attention to their cause. This has a nice tangent to the Kristof brouhaha. A decision on how to represent Africa has been made, and I bet if you were to ask people in aid agencies off the record and in their quieter moments, they will tell you it's for Africa's own good.

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