Gates Foundation – Doing Good or Causing Harm?

When talking about actors in development, NGOs are usually the first thing people think about.  They are seen as a ‘development alternative’ (Banks and Hulme, 2012 p.8) to official development actors due to their ability to work independently of the state and work from a grassroots level.  But how effective is the work of NGOs?  And how accountable are they to the people they aim to help?

Melinda Gates meets children in Zambia

Bill Gates is one of the world’s richest men.  In 2000 he founded the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (Gates Foundation) to use his wealth to help people in developing and developed countries.  The endowment of the Foundation is greater than the GDP of most sub-Saharan nations and it bestows more foreign aid than medium-sized countries (Turner, 2012).  With all that money, surely the Gates Foundation should be able to do some good?

However, the Foundation has had many criticisms.  A programme funded by the Foundation, the Global Fund, pays for salary increases for doctors and nurses providing antiretroviral drug therapy for HIV/AIDS (Piller and Smith, 2007).  This has caused large numbers of healthcare workers in developing countries to move into AIDS care, creating a lack of clinicians working in basic care.  By targeting only high profile diseases such as HIV/AIDS, the Foundation is ignoring the basic needs of people such as lack of food.  For example, many patients are given drugs as AIDS treatment but don’t have enough food so find themselves unable to take the treatment (Piller and Smith, 2007).  The Gates Foundation has also been criticised for its choices of firms to invest in.  It has invested more than $400 million in oil firms in the Niger Delta which are responsible for pollution that many blame for respiratory problems among the local population (Democracy Now, 2007).  The Foundation also has investments in sixty-nine of the worst polluting companies in the United States and Canada (Democracy Now, 2007).  This shows that although the Foundation may be investing lots of money in health in developing countries, it may be inadvertently making things worse.

This raises the question of accountability and highlights the difference between the Gates Foundation and more conventional NGOs such as Oxfam or Save the Children.  By acting as a philanthro-capitalist – using money from business to help people – the Foundation can choose exactly where to invest money.  Conventional NGOs have a high dependency on donors (Banks and Hulme, 2012) who can have some say in where the money goes and potentially stop money being given to organisations which are causing harm.  However, this dependency on donors has skewed accountability away from beneficiaries (Banks and Hulme, 2012).  With a lack of dependency on the wishes of donors, the Gates Foundation may be able to focus more on what people in developing countries want.

Overall, I think that while the Gates Foundation is clearly going to help lots of people with the money it has available, it needs to be more careful about some of the companies it has investments in.  I also believe it should not only focus on high profile diseases such as HIV/AIDS and instead focus on overall health.  In my opinion, NGOs are a very important development actor as the high profile they can have is important in raising awareness, and they are able to take a more grassroots approach to development than other development actors.


Banks, N. and Hulme, D. (2012), The role of NGOs and civil society in development and poverty reduction. Brooks World Poverty Institute, University of Manchester

Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Available from: (accessed 29/11/2012)

Democracy Now (2007), Report: Gates Foundation Causing Harm With the Same Money It Uses to Do Good.  Available from: (accessed 29/11/2012)

Piller, C. and Smith, D. (2007), Unintended victims of Gates Foundation generosity. Available from:,1,7781791.story (accessed 29/11/2012)

Turner, J. (2012) ‘Is Melinda Gates the world’s most influential woman?’, The Times Magazine, 13/10/2012, pp. 28-34

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4 Responses to Gates Foundation – Doing Good or Causing Harm?

  1. This is really interesting as I havent looked at the Gates foundation before and discussing a very different kind of development actor. You can tell that you have done your research. To improve, maybe be a bit more critical of the foundation, and compare it to an NGO with an example of why one works better than the other. I really like your conclusion as there is a strong personal response and it shows your thoughts on how good the gates foundation really is.

  2. You have done a lot of research into the the Gates Foundation, it is all very interesting, but maybe you have to many facts and figures clustered together. However the last paragraph improves this as you give your own opinion, it would be a good idea maybe to start with your own opinion too, to make it more of a personal response to how you see NGOs.

  3. I think this piece is so much stronger than last week as each paragraph is more developed as you have obviously done a lot of research into the workings of the foundation. I thought the part about the criticisms was especially interesting as showed the deeper issues and shortfalls. I agree with Tesni that to improve the piece it would be better to include personal opinion in every paragraph rather than saving it for the end as it shows more analysis rather than the writing coming across as a fact sheet. Overall this piece is enjoyable to read and shows so much improvement from last week.

  4. Interesting piece. You show what a significant actor Gates are becoming, given the power of their money and their impact on certain fields, such as HIV. Your classmates have left you very good advice for improvement. I’d start by making the first few paragraphs your own: they have a feel of being borrowed from Gates’ promotional literature (and one paragraph looks like bullet points turned into a sentence, and doesn’t scan, check the sentence structure). I like the fact that you come on to look at the criticisms, drawing on your research, and here we hear your voice a little more. What’s interesting about Gates is that it takes a business approach to development issues and pours vast sums of money into investing in strategies that they think are going to crack a problem, and is in this respect quite different from the more conventional NGOs like ActionAid or Save the Children. It might be interesting to reflect on this.

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