What’s So Great about Gates?

This article was recently pointed out to me by a friend who knows of my distaste for the Gates Foundation and all of the “good work” they are doing. I once looked through a long list of all the projects they were funding in ‘developing’ countries and was quite disturbed. One example of something they funded which I think is entirely redundant was mosquito nets drenched in mosquito repellent. I feel very concerned for the kids sleeping in these pesticide tents every night. In some ways giving out these ‘gifts’ of mosquito nets is rather like the gift of small-pox blankets given to the native Americans so many years ago. This article shows other ways in which the Gates Foundation is working with some very money hungry corporations.

You can read the full article here: Market-led Development Aid for Africa. Good For Business, Bad for Farmers. by Richard Jonasse. July 13, 2010.

The mixture of quasi-religious faith in free markets, and their conflation with democracy, perfectly encapsulates current US (World Bank, IMF, USAID …) development philosophy. USAID no longer provides aid through local governments as it did during the Cold War era. In the post-1980 neoliberal era, its primary activity has been farming out aid via contracts to private corporations.

Working alongside USAID, the Gates Foundation is also devoted to market-led solutions: providing seed capital for biotechnology development and access to African markets for agribusiness corporations like Monsanto and DuPont, among others.

The current mantra of the Gates Foundation and USAID is that we need ‘all solutions’ to end Africa’s hunger. But their billions in development dollars are in fact funding a very narrow vision, one that directly undercuts a whole host of proven, low input, farmer-led solutions. The mixing of corporate profits with aid and philanthropy has skewed the field towards development that is technology-heavy, resource intensive, expensive for farmers and potentially profitable for agribusiness. With the aid regime’s entrepreneurial aid, African farmers get micro-loans linked to the purchase patented hybrid and biotech seeds, chemical inputs and a hearty pat on the back. These farmers need all the luck they can get because these turnkey ‘solutions’ prevent them from saving, breeding and sharing locally adapted seeds as they have done for generations.

Entrepreneurial aid promotes a structural transformation for small farmers that systematically pushes sustainable solutions to the margins.

But the purpose of US aid has been to help US companies ‘penetrate’ foreign markets. Development aid is thus an investment subsidised by US taxpayers with high returns for US corporations.

Economic partnership agreements (EPAs), land grabs and the cross-border harmonisation of biotechnology regulations support this ‘green revolution’ and work against traditional farmers. Genetically modified crops contaminate traditional crops through genetic pollution and do not allow saving and replanting seeds. Subsidised fertilizers deplete soils, choke waterways and discourage careful tending of the soil.

What these policies do not do is directly end African hunger by strengthening Africa’s farmers where they stand. This point was underscored recently when, after the Gates Foundation donated US$270m (with a promise of US$1 billion over the next few years) to CGIAR (Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research), Gates’s representatives nixed CGIAR’s agricultural biodiversity mega-programme, saying it was unfocused. This logic represents precisely what is wrong with the Gates/USAID approach. Only an ‘unfocused’ low-tech approach that honours biological and cultural diversity is likely to be successful.

There is no logical reason for the development of biotech agriculture other than the economic pursuit of monopoly control. Biotech crops lack the latitude that evolution and seed-saving provide.

While the introduction of Bt cotton in India has been highly successful for Monsanto, covering nine million hectares in 2009, it has led to health problems and livestock deaths in rural areas and has actually led to increased pesticide usage. Locally adapted, free cotton seeds have all but disappeared over the past few years, leaving genetically modified seeds as the only choice and Monsanto with virtual monopoly control.

Monsanto’s Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA)

The WEMA project began two years ago with a US$47 million grant from the Gates Foundation. The project is coordinated by the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) which is funded by Gates, the Rockefeller Foundation and USAID.

As the third-largest economy in sub-Saharan Africa, Kenya remains ‘strategically important’ for the biotech industry.

In February, KARI, USAID, CIMMYT and the Gates Foundation broke ground on a four-year, US$40 million biotech Improved Maize for African Soils (IMAS) project, involving DuPont and Pioneer Hybrid.

Doug Gurian-Sherman at the Union of Concerned Scientists points out that a single GM crop can cost as much as US$100 million to produce – not including all of the ancillary costs for regulation and biosafety testing – while low-tech solutions can be produced at 1 per cent of the cost.

The push for sustainable solutions to Africa’s hunger is a human rights issue, and farmers need to be allowed a voice in that future. But USAID, the Gates Foundation and CGIAR are not asking farmers what they want. This amounts to a well-financed takeover of African agricultural systems.

Even if turning African countries into industrial consumer societies were a rational goal (a dubious notion on many fronts), the Green Revolution/globalisation approach would not work.

The aid regime is offering weakened government institutions and neocolonialism. In Africa, it is offering rural land grabs that force peasant farmers into urban ghettos in cities where employment is scarce.

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