Even Chester Finn is feeling a little uneasy about Bill Gates' influence on the national education front. Perhaps a new voice of consciousness is whispering in Finn's ear.
In his Education Gadfly post today, he writes:
In the world of education policy and education reform, recent months have seen the relationship between government and private philanthropy grow entirely too intimate. Many of our major foundations, including some for which I generally have high regard (and occasional gratitude for their help with Fordham's work), have, with the best of intentions, acted as if their foremost mission were to instruct federal and state officials on what to do, tug the strings of public policy in directions that they favor, and spend their own money in ways that compliment (or foreshadow) outlays of government funds. What's more, the flow of active human traffic between foundation and government offices--in both directions--suggests not only that there's much overlap between private and public agendas but also that some of the same folks are working both sides of that street in alternate months……Perhaps in retrospect we'll conclude that the intimacy even did some good and produced some healthy progeny. But there's a problem here, too: the possibility of a Faustian bargain that, in the throes of short-term passion, fails to note the long-term risk.
Deep parallel concerns about the Gates Foundation’s role as a player in world health are expressed in a 2008 report by Global Health Watch (Global Health Watch 2, Chapter DI-3, "The Gates Foundation.")* In other words, US education is not alone.
The chapter about the Gates Foundation “…draws on interviews with global health experts from around the world all of whom requested anonymity or indicated a preference to speak off the record. Several who recounted specific incidents or experiences asked that these not be described so as to protect their identity.” In other words, they are fearful of the consequences if they are publicly honest. Here are some excerpts (italics are mine):
- “But it is vital in today’s world of immense wealth and enduring poverty to question the mainstream portrayal of philanthropy as being entirely benign.”
- “The Gates Foundation is governed by the Gates family. There is no board of trustees; nor any formal parliamentary or legislative scrutiny. There is no answerability to the governments of low-income countries, nor to the WHO. Little more than the court of public opinion exists to hold it accountable.”
- “According to one [expert], ‘They dominate the global health agenda and there is a lack of accountability because they do not have to implement all the checks and balances of other organizations or the bilaterals.’”
- “In addition to the fundamental lack of democratic or public accountability, there was little in the way of accountability to global public health institutions or to other actors in the health field. The fact that the Gates Foundation is [both] a funder and board member of the various new Global Health Initiatives (e.g. the Global Fund; GAVI, Stop TB Partnership; and Roll Back Malaria) means that other global health actors are accountable to the Gates Foundation, but not the other way round.”
- “In reality, there is surprisingly little written about the pattern and effectiveness of grant-making by the Gates Foundation. Limited information is available on the Foundation’s website.”
- “Several interviewees also felt that the way grant proposals are solicited, reviewed and funded is opaque. Many grants appear to be made on the basis of personal contacts and informal networking.”
- “The absence of robust systems of accountability becomes particularly pertinent in light of the Foundation’s extensive influence. As mentioned above, it has power over most of the major global health partnerships, as well as over the WHO, of which it is the third-equal biggest single funder. Many global health research institutions and international health opinion formers are recipients of Gates money. Through this system of patronage, the Foundation has become the dominant actor in setting the frames of reference for international health policy.”
- “Not only is the Foundation a dominant actor within the global health landscape; it is said to be ‘domineering’ and ‘controlling’. According to one interviewee, ‘they monopolise agendas. And it is a vicious circle. The more they spend, the more people look to them for money and the more they dominate.’”
- “The Foundation’s corporate background and its demand for demonstrable returns on its investment appear to have resulted in a bias towards biomedical and technological solutions. In the words of one interviewee: ‘The Gates Foundation is only interested in magic bullets – they came straight out and said this to me.’”
- “The ties between the Foundation and the pharmaceuticals industry, as well as its emphasis on medical technology, have led some health activists to question if the Foundation is converting global health problems into business opportunities. Others worry about the Foundation’s position with regard to intellectual property (IP) rights and the effect this has on the price of essential medicines.”
- “The Foundation has done much, and it will be doing even more as its level of spending sets to increase. But there are problems with what is happening. The Foundation is too dominant. It is unaccountable. It is not transparent. It is dangerously powerful and influential.”
- “The Gates Foundation needs to consider its relationships with other actors. While it should preserve its catalytic, innovative and bold approach to global health, it needs to learn to know when it should follow and not lead.”
Since he's only human, Gates may be having trouble managing his unprecedented wealth in a manner which is wise, and that's with a capital W. It’s much too easy for him to utterly override the input of everyone else, even if his intent is to do something "good." (Just to be nice, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt on that.)
Anyone who can drop $4 million to buy whatever he wants (for instance, extensive public-relations, media and lobbying efforts to Learn NY for pushing mayoral control) needs to be closely watched. That's the amount of a really inexpensive sandwich to the average US citizen.
And as I like to remind readers (just so they can get an inkling of this unfathomable wealth), to Gates that $4 million which helped pay for propaganda and a fake grassroots movement (commonly referred to as "astroturf") had the relative value of $5 to someone with a net worth of $50,000 (the pre-recession US average). For Gates, such a paltry amount can buy as much influence as 800,000 average people could buy if they pooled all their money together. And that number of Americans is nearly as many people as the number that makes up the population of San Francisco, CA (12th largest US city at 808,976) or Jacksonville, FL (807,815 at 13th).
* Thanks to reader Laura for this link.