Another New Year, another Annual Letter from Bill and Melinda Gates in which the richest man in the world tells everybody else how to stop being so bloody poor.
If Bill gave away all his money directly, everybody on earth would get about $10.43 each, but luckily he doesn't rely on that kind of shoddy 'data journalism'. No, the 2016 Letter reveals that Gates Foundation policy is instead based on a single question: If Bill and Melinda could have one superpower, what would it be?
Bill and Melinda, being completely normal people with completely normal lives, make a valiant effort to appear completely normal by suggesting that they struggle like the rest of us to juggle their work and their children's schedules. After I finished crying them a river, I read their answers: their chosen superpowers are “more time!” and “more energy!”
These superpowers are lame. Maybe Bill secretly wants to be SnowFlame, a villain who gained superhuman strength and speed from taking prodigious amounts of cocaine – an actual character published by DC Comics (although in their defense it was the 1980s). Sadly we'll never know for sure, because these are obviously not genuine answers; they were carefully engineered by the Gates Foundation marketing lab as a launchpad for discussing poverty.
Bill correctly establishes that poverty is “not just about a lack of money”, defining it as “the absence of the resources the poor need to realize their potential”. This is where time and energy come into their equation, and the Gateses make a strong case for ending energy poverty and recognising the related problem of time poverty. Melinda even digs into the ways in which women are disadvantaged by cultural norms that condemn them to lives of drudgery, their work unpaid and unrecognised.
Unfortunately the Gates Foundation wants to solve these big social problems while avoiding big political problems. Yet as Duncan Green points out in his book From Poverty to Power, when the poor are asked to define it for themselves, poverty is experienced as “a sense of powerlessness, frustration, exhaustion, and exclusion from decision-making” – in other words, a lack of political power rather than solar power.
Bill aims for an “energy miracle”, but while he graciously concedes that governments have a big role to play in sparking new advances, his advice to readers is to “get educated” and “study hard”, in order to unlock “the human capacity to innovate”. For Melinda, “the goal is to change what we think of as normal” but her approach is exactly the same: “the solution is innovation, and you can help.” Ah, innovation – just like cocaine: if you inhale enough of it, anything seems possible!
The Gateses give no hint that energy poverty is in part due to energy inequality – and inequality is a policy question that can't be addressed by innovation. While Bill agrees that inequality matters, his wealth is a product of a neoliberal capitalist system that helped to generate much of that inequality. However as products of the Silicon Valley mindset, the Gateses’ proposed solutions don’t question the system that made them rich – but instead extend it, “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”.
This neoliberal logic has been gradually applied to the aid industry, subordinating ethics to a technocratic approach that looks more like engineering. Neoliberalism has hollowed out the state and destabilised the economy, neither of which have done most of us any favours, but which have barely affected the super-rich. That so much money should be in the hands of so few seems to go against many of the principles we stand for, but the siren call of cash is too much for the NGO community. We’re usually too busy chasing funding from the Gates Foundation to ask too many questions about whether an unelected, unaccountable and fundamentally undemocratic institution should have such a disproportionate impact on public policy.
Returning to the theme of excessive drug-taking, Aldous Huxley wrote “the Places inhabited by the insane and the exceptionally gifted are so different from the places where ordinary men and women live, that there is little or no... basis for understanding or fellow feeling.” The Gateses aren't insane, but they’re so insanely wealthy that it's hard to think of them as inhabiting the same places as the rest of us.
As of 2015 they had invested $31.5 billion of their personal wealth into the Foundation – yet that still left Bill with a net worth of $76.9 billion. They already have a superpower: they’re so rich they can do anything they want. So while we can applaud them for their vision in raising awareness and mobilising resources to address critical problems, we should also ask why – with all their power – they’re unable to see the problem that impoverishes us all: the political and economic system that gave them that power in the first place?