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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38 Responses to “Why Bill Gates’ ‘big bet for the future’ is wrong”

  1. Alasdair

    Does Mr Scrivener think he has presented something which will make Mr Gates change his mind? The kinds of things set out by Mr Scrivener are good, practicable proposals, which, if adopted would very likely bringing significant improvements. However, the point of the article is that Mr Gates should change his approach. Where has Mr Scrivener addressed that matter?

  2. madasafish

    No mention of the effect of war on Africa. Nor of internal policies. Zimbabwe used to export food. Now it imports food. And the cause: well just guess.

  3. Lesmond Nyjacks

    Robert Mugabe ad his ZANU-PF.

  4. Lesmond Nyjacks

    Alex Scrivener needs to pull his socks up and to work much harder, then when he becomes fabulously wealthy, he can decide how to spend his own personal fortune on the betterment of mankind.
    Untill then, he would do more good by refraining writing stupid leftist articles.

  5. j pth

    Stop criticizing Bill and ask yourself if you have done any little helpful thing for the rest of the world…This man has great wealth but he’s been sharing with the world ,,(e.g invented a most efficient toilet can use less water and in the harsh environment…don’t laugh..go to the 3rd world countries and see how that new invented toilet saves many faces over there).

    Lastly, how many riches like Bill could have done like him and his Melinda-Gate foundation!!!

  6. Guest

    Capitalism and it’s buddy, cronyism.

    Your friends.

  7. Leon Wolfeson

    No surprise, LB, you’re demanding censorship of all articles written by the 99% when they disagree with your ideology.

    I disagree with the article, you are demanding it not be written. There’s a difference.

  8. Lesmond Nyjacks

    Wrong, I am not demanding censorship of anyone, that is your MO, as an Ultra Authoritarian.

    Alex ,like yourself, is a deeply misguided fool. I am trying to point out that Bill Gates does not need his stupid advice, and that Alex could make far better use of his time by not churning out leftist boilerplate.

  9. Matt Sharp

    I think you’re right to point out the hypocrisy of subsidising farm production in wealthy nations. But I’m not sure it’s right to imply that the decline in African self-sufficiency is a consequence free markets. Wouldn’t it make more sense to attribute it to an increase in population without an increase in production?

    This increase in population, incidentally, is why “there are now almost double the number of people living on under $2 a day in sub-Saharan Africa than there were in 1981”, but the *proportion* has clearly not doubled (and globally has fallen).

  10. Guest

    And you do it again, LB, blaming me for your views, demanding that I must have your ideology.

    You do it again, demanding that views not be published…oh, I get it, you’re mad that Gates is helping people, that’s the root of your issue here.

  11. Lesmond Nyjacks

    Leon, you are overwhelmed by your own anger and hatefulness, but you simply must accept that Bill Gates will never indulge you in your wicked fantasies.

    Pol Pot is dead, you and your fellow travelers will never be allowed to bring back the killing fields.

    It is over, you have lost, your hateful authoritarianism is of the last century, and it caused unparalled disasters wherever your beloved friends held power.

  12. Kangaface

    So Gates finally sorted the problems recounted in the article, “Bill Gates can’t build a toilet”?

    Unfortunately Gates’ ‘solutions’ for agriculture — hypothetical drought-tolerant GMO monoculture crops and the chemicals they’re grown with — will do more harm than good, and that is emphasised in the article above. They also will not feed people — most such crops are cash crops sold for export and go into animal feed and biofuels in rich countries.

  13. adamjrichards

    I have always had sympathy for the aspirations of the left, and contempt for the poorly-disguised selfishness of the right, but you lose that support from me and from droves of rational people with the hectoring and bullying, as displayed in this article. So much of what the left wants from people is dependent on somehow convincing people to care more about each other and less about themselves, but I’ve never seen any evidence that you can talk people into being a better species. You waste time and energy on such destined-to-lose projects as combatting GMOs and capitalism, while Bill Gates, whom you obviously hate, actually does things for people, other than “educating them” to believe in your patently unrealistic philosophies. Decrying GMOs and capitalism does nothing but alienate the technocrats who do the real work of running the world, and drives them into the hands of the party-package politicians who make everything into “freedom” issues. It doesn’t matter whether you’re right about capitalism or not; when the refugee camps continue to swell and the environment continues to suffer the pains of overpopulation. Get off your self-righteous pedestal and DO SOMETHING. Impress me with actions, instead of trying to change who I am and how I think. Bill Gates has done more in ten years than you will do in your lifetime.

  14. chimpanzoo

    What are these “more sustainable and effective alternatives” to industrial mechanised agriculture? I see them touted all over the place by people who are – quite rightly – opposed to corporate monopolisation of food production, but there’s never any specifics. Also, if these alternatives exist and are viable in Africa – why just there? Why not Europe as well? I mean, industrial mechanised agriculture is a resource-hungry glutton which causes great harm to the environment, so we should bring these alternative methods in over here without delay.

  15. Anne O'Brien

    Look up the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) . Look up Pasture cropping. Look up aquaponics. Look up holistic management. Look up the work of the Soil Food Web Institute. Look up permaculture. It’s right before your eyes if you would just observe what people are already quietly getting on with.

  16. Lynn

    As a person who does not live in USA, I find the comments very scary. The idea that local communities should be able to grow their own food in a way that replenishes rather than exploits the soil and in a way that supports rather than diminishes human health is not a radical concept. Americans are so brainwashed by their own living conditions that they can’t comprehend that something better exists.

  17. swat

    The answer lies in Hydroponics, to grow all that food, and the West reducing their food consumption and waste by two thirds. The West is eating enough food for the rest of the World threefold, and obesity levels and related health problems rising. And robotic farming, so that the agricultural workers can gain employment in factories.
    Basically Gates is right, its about industrialising Agriculture on a massive scale to produce food for mouths of a rising population. But societies will be destroyed in the process.

  18. Theresa2

    https://seattleglobaljustice.org/agra-watch/ – this link might be of interest to some, regarding the debate.
    “AGRA Watch is a grassroots, Seattle-based group
    challenging the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s questionable
    agricultural programs in Africa, including its Alliance for a Green
    Revolution in Africa (AGRA). The Gates Foundation and AGRA claim to be
    “pro-poor” and “pro-environment,” but their approach is closely aligned
    with transnational corporations, such as Monsanto, and foreign policy
    actors like USAID. They take advantage of food and global climate crises
    to promote high-tech, market-based, industrial agriculture and generate
    profits for corporations even while degrading the environment and
    dis-empowering farmers. Their programs are a form of
    philanthrocapitalism based on biopiracy.”

  19. Guest

    Turning people out of the cities for your plans isn’t scary?

    The people you’re talking about are not “American”, they’re “Urban”.

  20. Guest

    Yes, the damage of people being able to buy food. Far better for you they keep on substance farming.

  21. Guest

    Keep blaming me for your issues, as you make up nonsense.

    PolPot, your Hero, is indeed dead, and I am not the one here who is the genocidal authoritarian loon, and I’m not the one demanding ever-more cash be paid to him.

    That’s you. I’m a Mutualist. Not your kind of genocidal anti-pension loon, Lord Blagger. You’re stuck stereotyping people as being like you, when they’re not – stop lying drunk in the gutter.

  22. Guest

    Oh, right, low-yield techniques.
    That’ll fix it.

    (Or things requiring *massive* capital investment, and which don’t produce especially high yields but instead are good for out-of-season growth like hydroponics)

  23. Guest

    Yada yada the poor might be able to feed themselves. Can’t be allowed, gotta blame them all!

  24. Guest

    And where’s the tens of trillions for your hydroponics going to come from?

    Oh, and the Western poor must slash their caloric consumption well below what’s needed to live, I see. Meanwhile, the poor in other countries will be forced off the land into factories.

    That ain’t what Gates said.

  25. Guest

    Yes, good capitalist heros of yours. As ever.

  26. Guest

    Of capitalism, not free markets.

  27. Kangaface

    The record of this kind of cash crop farming regarding solving food security is very poor and the evidence is that such crops have replaced food crops that people used to feed themselves with, in effect creating hunger. One prime example is Argentina, when hunger skyrocketed after food crops were displaced by monocultures of GM soy, which, as the Argentines have said, people do not eat. There are many papers that have been published on this–perhaps you should read them.

  28. huks

    AGRA is the same model used in Asia. Where is Asia now compare to Africa? There must be something of value to what the man is proposing. By the way, I think you meant go back to the past. Problem with some countries in Africa is corruption. Corruption is what impeded Africa’s progress more than anything.

  29. Anne

    Maybe you should think twice before slamming down comments when you have little knowledge of what they are advocating for. And I said aquaponics not hydroponics.

  30. j pth

    All of you, shut up — you guys are just bunch of “keyboard hero” :), just do something, if you don’t have time, contribute your wealth to do something better (which I do, my time is to take care my family, kids , which is being said “you have to take care yourself first before you worry for someone else)..just shut the fck up and do something, no time to physically help then contribute your wealth (..stop paying too much for internet, smartphone and donate $5-10/monthly to charity..at least you are contributing something)

    Otherwise, shut up all of you,,,just keep whining while others do some good – Like Kangaface, it doesn’t matter how people do, you always find the weakness to attack – you stupid – let’s act not just saying!

  31. Kangaface

    Wrong, these methods have massively increased yields in developing countries. Here are just a few studies: http://earthopensource.org/gmomythsandtruths/sample-page/6-feeding-world/6-2-myth-gm-crops-vital-achieve-food-security/
    You might start with the IAASTD report. You need to familiarise yourself with the basic facts before sounding off.

  32. Alejandro De La Vega

    Poverty reduction in Venezuela?? Maybe they have more money because they have nothing to buy. Shortages of every basic commodity.

  33. Guest

    Argentina’s problem is a cult of personality.

    And of course you gotta take the chance to fight against science. Your anti-science pro-poverty campaigners indeed publish a lot of “journals”, alongside the articles on crystal power, anti-nuclear power, the anti-AGCC, etc.

  34. Guest

    Oh right, slashing yields is to you increasing.

    Yes, how dare I not call starvation wonderful.

  35. Lesmond Nyjacks

    A “Mutualist”, well Leon, you are describing your sex life, a mutual masturbator in your marxist jerk circle.
    You have shown yourself time and time again to be a hard left totalitarian.
    You vile monster.

  36. Lesmond Nyjacks

    Totalitarian monsters, just like you Leon.

  37. clouty

    Illegal substance? But seriously, have you understood the article?
    Agri-business, Gates’ answer to African hunger, is ripping the goodness from soils world wide, creating the conditions for dust bowl disasters.

    Small scale solutions are harder to envisage, more complex because they vary from place to place, but are capable of raising food production (73% sounds pretty good to me) and re-inforcing the democratic power of the small farmers

    Bigger farms, owned by multinationals, reliant on artificial fertiliser and genetically modified crops are a short term solution that will disenfranchise the poor.

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