Why Bill Gates’ ‘big bet for the future’ is wrong

The world's richest man has a solution to Africa's hunger problem - and it's not a good one

He’s done it again. Bill Gates has saved the world.

At least, he has put out his annual letter in which the world’s richest man tells us how well things are going in the world and how a whole host of serious global problems are going to be ‘solved’ soon.

Last year, he devoted his letter to busting three ‘myths that block progress for the poor’. In it, he expounded the triumphalist argument that ‘the world is better than it has ever been’, the implication being that it is aid, alongside the benevolent hand of the market, that has helped people out of poverty.

Unfortunately, the world is not doing as well as he says. In our recently released report – The Poor are Getting Richer and Other Dangerous Delusions – we showed that there are now almost double the number of people living on under $2 a day in sub-Saharan Africa than there were in 1981.

And the countries, like Venezuela and China, where there has been significant poverty reduction have actually received very little aid and have often ignored many of the economic policies advocated by the World Bank, IMF and big business moguls like Gates.

In his new letter, Gates has turned his attention to a more specific set of problems, but the same triumphalist tone dominates.

His ‘big bet’ is that the lives of people in poor countries will improve faster in the next 15 years than at any other time in history. Child deaths will fall by half, Africa will be able to feed itself, mobile banking and better software will radically improve the lives of the poor.

I can only hope that he’s right. But if there’s one thing for sure, it’s that if we want to attain these goals, we shouldn’t follow some of the policies that he advocates.

For one of his targets, halving child deaths, Gates doesn’t even say how he sees this happening. Although the reference to pharmaceutical companies donating drugs suggests that he sees the answer in charity by the very companies that are killing many poor people by denying them cheap generic drugs. Suffice to say, I don’t share his optimism on this.

But it is his proposed solution to Africa’s hunger problem which is potentially the most dangerous.

As with pretty much every global problem one could care to mention, Gates’ answer to the problem of African hunger involves business, charity and that wonderfully vague concept of ‘innovation’.

Gates compares crop yields in Africa to those of the USA and concludes that the problem would be solved if only Africa used more intensive farming methods and introduced new strains of corn and wheat.

What he doesn’t say explicitly in the letter, is that these new grains and ‘innovative’ farming methods will come as part of a corporate takeover of African agriculture. Gates’ charitable foundation is a major backer of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), a scheme that has been criticized because of the involvement of huge agribusiness corporation Monsanto.

AGRA is based on a similar green revolution in Asia, which raised crop yields at the cost of bringing increased rural inequality and decreased biodiversity. Asia’s green revolution certainly made the food production statistics look better, but the intensive industrial farming methods it favoured were often actually quite damaging for the rural communities the project was theoretically helping.

This is the model that Gates wants in Africa. Out with the inefficient peasant farmers, in with corporate, large-scale, intensive farms.

But if food production increases, isn’t it worth getting rid of peasant farming and replacing it with large-scale farms, despite the negative side-effects?

This argument makes sense on a superficial level. However, while industrial agriculture can increase crop yields, there are other more sustainable ways of achieving the same result.

In fact, the alternatives to industrial agriculture can be more effective in combating hunger. Small-scale sustainable agriculture (agroecology) can, by cutting out the corporates and their fat profit margins, feed more people, more sustainably, than any large-scale farm using patented seed to produce food for export. Indeed, a recent study (using data from 57 developing counties) showed that farmers switching to sustainable methods on average increased their yields by 73 per cent.

Instead of trying to fight African farmers into submission and turning them into a disenfranchised corporate labour force, Gates should be promoting their freedom to adopt practices that help improve their livelihoods.

Another part of the answer may lie in allowing Africa to go back to the future – the continent was self-sufficient in food in the 1960s. Since then, African countries have been forced to open their markets to foreign imports by countries that hypocritically preach the gospel of free markets while heavily protecting their own agricultural industries with subsidies and tariffs. Unravelling this unfair state of affairs could help African producers compete.

Bill Gates probably genuinely believes he is a force for progress. But until he wakes up to the reality that more sustainable and effective alternatives exist to the mainstream corporate solutions, he could end up doing more harm than good.

Alex Scrivener is policy officer at Global Justice Now. Follow him on Twitter

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