Private foundations are the new plutocracy

Development Policy20 Sep 2011Claudio Schuftan

Claudio Shuftan argues that development professionals need to become more aware of where philanthropic stakeholders are coming from and why.

It is no surprise that private philanthropic foundations are part of the ongoing privatization drive in health and of the erosion of public goods. They are the new plutocracy. They represent the antithesis of the human rights based approach to health. They have got the whole world in their hands. They have become a powerful and insidious presence in our midst. Ventilating this topic now is timely, in the month of the UN Summit on prevention and control of non-communicable diseases. Why? Because they are deeply involved in this global pandemic. Soon, they will enter big-time, into the prevention of non-communicable diseases arena—and it is no secret that the pharmaceutical houses have a profit to make on chronic disease. Guess then what policies they will back.

When we consider the significance and impact of the fast rising star of global philanthropies, it is fair and reasonable to think of Bill and Melinda Gates and their foundation, because of its scale and of Gates’ presence. The foundation’s main interest is population health. It has become devoted to the UN Millennium Development Goals looking at their challenge from a merely technocratic angle. But there are other growing global philanthropies looking from the same angle. Have you ever wondered where they and their officers come from? And whether their intentions are really altruistic?

The funders and directors of these foundations may well express altruistic motives, but it is also true that there are ulterior financial intentions in setting up such foundations. It stands to reason that the policies of any such foundation will support or at least be consistent with the corporate policies and personal ideology of the people who control the original funding source. The bad thing is that through their financial contributions these tax-exempt private foundations, as much as for-profit transnational corporations, are increasingly expecting and de-facto engaging in relationships that put them in positions that can influence global health policies and governance. The example of WHO is paramount.

Few, if any, studies have examined private foundations. It is almost as if analysts feel that foundations are beyond criticism or even appraisal. Bill Gates certainly thinks so. The ultimate intentions and the policies the directors of foundations back are rarely scrutinized in the open. This simply must begin to change.

There are many similarities between these types of foundations. Corporations set up or fund foundations that directly or indirectly support the corporation’s tactical and strategic outlook or road map. Foundations that are historically or constitutionally distant from their original funders still work within an ideology that is consistent with big business, particularly as seen by US and European industrialists. They rarely transfer money and resources to organizations that are independent, democratic, and accountable to their grassroots members. Hence, it is not about corporate social responsibility, it is about corporate social accountability!

At the very least, then, we professionals—and The Broker blog readers—need to become more aware of and proactive towards what is going on, aware of where philanthropic stakeholders are coming from, and why. What for? To actively come out and defend our public space, our WHO in independence, people living in poverty, and ultimately the whole ethics of development work.