This is a very important article, which touches on a central point of left wing thought, the right to life, which is not something that can depend on charity. I suggest an open thread to discuss it at length:
It’s strange that at this week’s World Economic Forum the designated voice of the world’s poor has been Bill Gates, who has pledged £478m to the Global Fund to fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria, telling Davos that the world economic crisis was no excuse for cutting aid.
It reminds me of that dark hour when Al Gore, despite being a shareholder in Occidental Petroleum, was the voice of climate change action – because Gates does not speak with the voice of the world’s poor, of course, but with the voice of its rich. It’s a loud voice, but the model of development it proclaims is the wrong one because philanthropy is the enemy of justice.
Am I saying that philanthropy has never done good? No, it has achieved many wonderful things. Would I rather people didn’t have polio vaccines than get them from a plutocrat? No, give them the vaccines. But beware the havoc that power without oversight and democratic control can wreak.
The biotech agriculture that Lord Sainsbury was unable to push through democratically he can now implement unilaterally, through his Gatsby Foundation. We are told that Gatsby’s biotech project aims to provide food security for the global south. But if you listen to southern groups such as the Karnataka State Farmers of India, food security is precisely the reason they campaign against GM, because biotech crops are monocrops which are more vulnerable to disease and so need lashings of petrochemical pesticides, insecticides and fungicides – none of them cheap – and whose ruinous costs will rise with the price of oil, bankrupting small family farms first. Crop diseases mutate, meanwhile, and all the chemical inputs in the world can’t stop disease wiping out whole harvests of genetically engineered single strands.
Both the Gatsby and the Bill and Melinda Gates foundations are keen to get deeper into agriculture, especially in Africa. But top-down nostrums for the rural poor don’t end well.(…) Free marketeers will spring to the defence of billionaire philanthropists with a remark like: “Oh, so you’d rather they spent all their money selfishly on golf courses and mansions, would you?” To which I reply: “Oh, you mean that trickle-down doesn’t work, after all?” But the point is that the poor are not begging us for charity, they are demanding justice. And when, on the occasion of his birthday, a sultan or emperor reprieved one thousand prisoners sentenced to death, no one ever called those pardons justice. Nor is it justice when a plutocrat decides to reprieve untold thousands from malaria. Human beings should not have to depend upon a rich man’s whim for the right to life.