Episode 46: The Not-So-Benevolent Billionaire (Part II) — Bill Gates in Africa

Citations Needed | August 1, 2018 | Transcript


Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.

Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Thanks everyone for listening this week. This will be part two of our billionaire knows best or the not so benevolent billionaire trope in the media that we started last week. And we urge you to listen to the first episode and then come back to this one if you have not already. Um, that would probably be best. But thanks everyone for listening. Of course, you can follow us on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, help the show out at Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast and that’s with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. So thanks everyone for listening.

Adam: Yeah. And um, any help through Patreon makes it so we don’t have to go and ask the Gates Foundation for money, which keeps us independent and allows us to do programs where we, um, piss off, you know, the sort of richest, most powerful people in the world.

Nima: And if we don’t have that support, I’m just going to click send on this grant proposal.

Adam: It’s true, and we try to do it in a way that’s meaningfully subversive, which I think is somewhat hard to do. So.

Nima: Yeah. So, kind of drafting off last week’s episode, we will, this week, be speaking with Mariam Mayet, Executive Director of the African Center for Biodiversity, a food sovereignty advocacy group that works in Southern and East Africa.

[Begin Clip]

Mariam Mayet: So we’re campaigning for radical transformation of our systems whereas the Gates Foundation and others are coming from the opposite direction, trying to deepen structural inequalities and create more space in our food systems for the corporate sector.

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Adam: Economist Stephanie Kelton, who we had on the show a few months ago, she, I think she kind of put it best, she said, quote, “The problem is not that the wealthy don’t pay their fair share, the problem is that they’re taking more of their fair share — that’s why they’re so damn rich… You don’t want to let that continue and then take back taxes and redistribute to the bottom. You want to pre-distribute, not redistribute.”

Nima: Yeah.

Adam: The general idea is that it’s not benevolent to give back money that is not in any meaningful way. rightfully yours. To achieve that level of wealth is done on the backs of others and at the expense of the public good in that you don’t get brownie points for giving back money, to the extent they actually do give money, which you know is highly debatable. It’s not benevolence to give back money that was never yours in the first place. Just in the most basic moral level.

Nima: This has been an issue in philanthropy really just just having to do with the super rich since the kind of advent of this big philanthropy, uh, at the end of the 19th, early 20th century, I mentioned the Andrew Carnegie essay Wealth from 1889 and in it kind of expounding on his ideas of how the super rich need to give back Carnegie writes, “Not evil but good has come to the race from the accumulation of wealth by those who have the ability and energy that produce it.” So again, it’s that the super rich are the ones who are doing the making and the producing in their own minds, which obviously is is not actually the case and yet hand in hand that goes along with the super wealthy then being the arbiters of where their wealth goes with no accountability. Obviously no democracy involved, they get to decide and their foundations then get to decide either the board members or the program officers, but it’s all kind of have a piece under that foundation and therefore under that multi-millionaire or billionaire. So again, Carnegie actually mentioned this, he said, quote, “The millionaire will be but a trustee for the poor entrusted for a season with a great part of the increased wealth of the community, but administering it for the community far better than it could or would have done for itself.” End quote. So it’s this notion that the rich knows best.

Adam: That by definition, that they’re rich because they’re the best of the best and that Bill Gates is rich because he’s so goddamn brilliant.

Nima: Because he’s the best because he’s so smart because he knows where to invest and etcetera, etcetera, and kind of taking the idea of business and bringing it over to agriculture, moving it over to environment, moving it over to education, moving it over to human rights and social rights and civil rights, justice reform, that kind of stuff, um, that it’s always kind of billionaire knows best and they’re taking merely they’re successful entrepreneurial model and bringing it to society as a whole because government can’t do it themselves. Government is, is never equipped to do as good as a billionaire. So the idea that Carnegie brought to the fore the idea that billionaire knows best did not die with him. We have seen that now ever since. In 2007, billionaire businessman, Eli Broad, uh, told The New York Times, quote, “I believe the public benefit is significantly greater than the tax benefit an individual receives. I think there’s a multiplier effect. What smart, entrepreneurial philanthropists and their foundations do is get greater value for how they invest their money than if the government were doing it.” End quote. There it all is.

Adam: Yeah. And, and the, the general idea is that it’s a fundamentally anti democratic belief and that’s really how you need to look at this I think. I think, I think that even if you think all we’re saying is poppycock, that he’s actually good or that he really means well, the question I think that is not really in contention here is that no one elected Bill Gates, no one voted for Bill Gates. He has no democratic authority, no one’s voted for these forces. Um, and I think that’s really what is at the heart of this, that when people say, ‘oh, big government gets in the way, or government gets in the way, or government is incompetent,’ really what they’re saying is that the institutions controlled by the people are bad and that these handful of select billionaires, and we talked about this with Reed Hastings’ attitude towards charter schools and his attitude towards school boards, right? He wants to get rid of school boards because rich white billionaires don’t like people telling them no. And they consider democratic institutions to be just getting in the way. Right? So I wanna get a sense of scale here about how rich Bill Gates really is, just so we can in the context of Africa, because this episode is about his relationship with Africa and I really think that it’s sort of viewed as one guy helping out this massive continent, but in many ways, power wise he’s on par with entire countries if not confederations of countries.

Nima: Exactly. So to really get a sense of scale in terms of Bill Gates’ wealth, his personal net worth of $93.3 billion is currently greater than the GDP of 23 African countries combined. Those include Rwanda, Congo, Niger, Somalia, Malawi, Eritrea, Mauritania, Togo, Swaziland, Sierra Leone, Burundi, Liberia, South Sudan, Lesotho, Djibouti, Central African Republic, Cape Verde, Seychelles, Guinea Bissau, The Gambia, Comoros and São Tomé and Príncipe. So all of those combined, the GDPs of those countries are not as much as Bill Gates’ personal net worth of over $93 billion, that’s covering, you know, populations of over 130 million people do not add up to one Bill Gates in this bank account sense. All of those countries combined have a total GDP of $86.2 billion, substantially less than $93.3 billion, which is what Gates has.

Adam: The Gates Foundation itself is greater than the GDP of 41 out of 54 African countries. If the Gates Foundation were its own country in Africa, it would be the thirteenth wealthiest on the continent of fifty four. If Bill Gates himself was a country, he would be the seventh biggest economy in Africa out of fifty four, just above Ethiopia’s $80.3 billion and below Morocco’s $109 billion GDP. Now this is just a general scale. We’re gonna have some, some nitpickers who say it’s cash flow versus net worth. But to be clear, these are both nominal figures, but they represent real world power and influence. And if anything, we would argue that Gates’ influence and several Fortune 100 companies and his massive network of investments and his relationship to US centers of power in politics probably means that nominal net worth undervalues his relative power in relation to Africa.

Nima: Right. Exactly.

Adam: So Gates is in effect with its political power and its financial power and it’s a more importantly above all, which we’ll get into later, is its ability to write checks creates power in and of itself because everyone wants to suck up to it and flatter it because they all want some of those huge checks that they write every year.

Nima: So it kind of changes the idea of what’s being reported on of the, the work that’s being done, how that work is being proposed and then what organizations will do in order to get funding which they desperately, desperately need.

Adam: Yeah. There is a kind of fundamentally patronizing approach, right? There’s a kind of bum fights where it’s, ‘I’m going to throw this money and you’re all going to fight for it but you have to do, as I say,’ and you know, he may not view it as that, but that’s how it manifestly exists and we, we spent a great amount of time in episode one talking about how Gates did this to the Department of Education under Obama where he, according to writers at The Washington Post, they basically said he took over the Department of Education, that he was kind of the shadow Department of Education head because Gates had his Race to the Top, which he states that if you accept adopt Common Core and adopt this certain criteria for education, I will match funds or I will grant this much funds to subsidize your state’s Department of Education. This creates, of course in an, in an Orwellian fashion, not a race to the top but a race to the bottom where people are scrambling for crumbs to even go back to the episode we did on lottery-ism where we’re kind of fighting over this money. And this is done in Africa, I think on a much greater and I think more gross, uh, and more cynical scale.

Nima: Again, in terms of the amount of money that is being spent by the Gates Foundation on, let’s say specifically global health, we can look at the numbers and kind of see where this influence lies. So according to the Global Policy Forum in 2012 and 2013, the amount spent by the Gates Foundation on global health was basically half of the World Health Organization, the WHO’s total biennial budget. So the Gates Foundation spent $1.98 billion while WHO spent $3.96 billion. So exactly half. The Gates Foundation was the second largest donor of development assistance to health in those years, 2012 to 2013, behind the government of the United States itself. Gates was the second largest donor.

Adam: Um, and another thing is that, this is not, that the money that he donates to Africa, it’s super important to note this, that the vast majority of it doesn’t go to Africans. Um, it goes to western NGOs that operate within Africa, but they’re not controlled or run by Africans. Seventy nine percent of the $669 million the Gates Foundation, uh, according to this study gave to African agriculture and African development went to American or European NGOs. Only four percent went to African run NGOs, a great percentage of which are run by white South Africans. So only a fraction of it’s actually going to people who, Africans themselves. Now Gates would say they don’t have the infrastructure, they don’t have this, they don’t have that. But the reality is these are still kind of quasi-colonial enterprises that are still being run by westerners, namely white westerners.

Nima: Gates’ influence over nominal liberal spaces is one of his kind of main talents. Take for example a particularly kind of creepy write up in The Guardian in late August of 2006 on education in the country of Liberia, which at the time was handing over the reigns of 120 primary schools to a consortium of private education companies and NGOs in a pilot program that was exploring privatization of west African nation schools. So one passage from this, from this Guardian piece in particular was very glowing, very, very positive. So here it is, quote, “The deputy minister [of education], Aagon Tingba, is reading The Bee Eater, a biography of Michele Rhee, a polarizing educational reformist and former chancellor of Washington, DC, public schools. [And here’s a quote] ‘She changed the lives of children in Washington, but people complained her methods were controversial. But she made a difference. So why can’t we do that here?’” Tingba says.

Adam: Right, so there’s a lot going on here. But what the piece failed to note was, Bill Gates, who funds the entire vertical, The Guardian’s global development vertical, where this was published, that he has, he personally, not even the Gates Foundation, but he personally is a major investor in Bridge Academies International, which is a for profit education firm that is taking over Liberia’s education along with Mark Zuckerberg and eBay co-founder and Intercept publisher Pierre Omidyar. So this is, this is sort of a glaring conflict of interest that The Guardian doesn’t disclose. And then when I asked at the time why the writer didn’t disclose it, she just ignored me. Um, but the whole thing is that basically an infomercial for Bill Gates, and this is not uncommon in The Guardian, which again receives several million dollars a year from the Gates Foundation. I’m going to read you some choice, uh, some system choice headlines here from The Guardian over the past few years. “Gates Foundation Annual Letter: What Do You Think of Their Vision?” It’s just, it just publishes the Gates Foundation, their yearly letter at the, in the global development vertical. And here’s another headline, “Melinda Gates Hits Out at ‘War on Women’ on Eve of Summit,” which is sort of a puffy write up of the women’s summit. And here’s another headline, “Bill Gates: Digital Learning Will Revolutionize Education in the Global South.” Another puffy write up in the global development vertical that he funds and has since 2011. Um, quote “How Bill Gates aims to clean up the planet.” Quote, “Bill Gates gives a book to every US student graduating in 2018.” That was from this year. Quote, “How Bill and Melinda Gates helped save 122m lives — and what they want to solve next.” And in several of these, The Guardian doesn’t disclose that Gates is a funder, there’s a thing that says that the vertical’s funded by Bill and Melinda Gates, but other articles in The Guardian that are not in the global development vertical that run these puff pieces for Gates don’t disclose anything.

Nima: Don’t necessarily disclose that, right.

Adam: Well that Bill Gates is, is a, is a major funder of The Guardian, you know, four, five, six, seven million dollars goes a long way when you run a publication. Anyone who works in media knows this.

Nima: Right.

Adam: And then in 2010 when it was revealed that the Gates Foundation had a heavy investment in Monsanto because in 2010 it was revealed in their tax filings that they had invested 500,000 shares in Monsanto worth about $23 million and the best that the Bill and Melinda Gates subsidized Guardian global development vertical could come up with was “Why is the Gates Foundation investing in GM giant Monsanto?” And then it sort of has these kind of very pollyannaish questions. And there’s one sentence that struck me, it says “The two incidents raise a host of questions for the foundation. Few people doubt GM has a place in Africa, but is Gates being hopelessly naive by backing two of the world’s most aggressive agri-giants?”So he’s sort of mildly chided in a kind of friendly way.

Nima: Like, ‘eh’ shoulder shrug. I guess we’ll find out never.

Adam: Yeah. But if you look for negative coverage in the global development vertical about Gates, you, you just really can’t find it. This is sort of the closest you can get to it. And it’s almost, um, it’s almost eight years old. And again, there is no investigations. There’s no sort of dot-connecting. There’s no attempt to kind of ask should Bill Gates have this power? You know, that really kind of gets to what we keep talking about, which is this idea that there is no democratic control of any of these massive wealth and massive influence regime.

Nima: It actually winds up being kind of this fundamentally American notion that if you’re successful in one thing and what — however you define success — but successful in one area, that that automatically translates into that you are a serious person who should be listened to about other things.

Adam: Yeah.

Nima: It’s how Donald Trump being like this phony, successful businessman, like playing a successful businessman on TV, translated into, like, ‘Well, then obviously he can do other things if he did that,’ and like similarly Gates being like the richest person in the world for many, many, many, many, many years automatically translates into, ‘well then obviously he knows how best to invest in other people’s lives.’ So what he did for himself, he will then do for the world because somehow he’s this superman, magnanimous benevolent billionaire who after you know, reaping the rewards of his massive innovations in tech and business will then distribute wealth unto the people in a way that obviously the people could not have done for themselves.

Adam: So there’s a quote from a Polly Jones at Global Justice Now, which is an organization that kind of studies the impact of the Gates Foundation and is somewhat critical of them where she kind of talks about the way that ideology defines the way we look at this and that you can’t sort of separate ideology from that, capitalist ideology from how these things operate, quote, “The Gates Foundation has rapidly become the most influential actor in the world of global health and agricultural policies, but there’s no oversight or accountability in how that influence is managed. This concentration of power and influence is even more problematic when you consider that the philanthropic vision of the Gates Foundation seems to be largely based on the values of corporate America. The foundation is relentlessly promoting big business-based initiatives such as industrial agriculture, private health care and education. But these are all potentially exacerbating the problems of poverty and lack of access to basic resources that the foundation is supposed to be alleviating.” And the way, unquote, and the way Gates does this, as he, you know, like that Guardian headline, he saved 122 million people, well according to whom, um, and based on what metric? And is that any kind of progress that takes place in the world he kind of implicitly takes credit for. And, you know, this why it’s so important that the core of the, of the, uh, of the capitalist ideology and this is why Vox also promotes Steven Pinker all the time. Vox does a write up of Steven Pinker once every three months, these kind of glowing, flattering, the world’s getting better, the world’s great.

Nima: Probably part of their Gates grant agreement.

Adam: We’ll call it synergy, how’s that?

Nima: (Laughs)

Adam: But that part of the whole positive, the optimism porn and that everything’s going great is that the people in charge want you to think that everything’s going great, right?

Nima: Because things are going great for them.

Adam: Well they need moral legitimacy, right? There’s no democratic input. You know, Bill Gates doesn’t have to run for anything. He doesn’t have to campaign. He doesn’t have to like, he’s not given any kind of moral authority, so he has to assert moral authority and the way they do that is by constantly telling people who, you know, again, wages are suppressed. Wages are down. There’s still massive poverty, massive inequality, that any kind of improvement in people’s daily lives is actually not chalked up to public investment in science or technology or any kind of just general inertia of of technology, but it’s actually that the Gates and neoliberal managed capitalism that’s brought you it. That capitalism as, as, as New York Times opinion editor James Bennett said, ‘is the greatest antipoverty program in history,’ and that’s a hugely contestable ideological assertion that is just taken for granted and pretty much 99 percent of the coverage of Bill Gates, you know, because people say, ‘Oh, why would you criticize Gates? You know, he’s doing what he can, he’s trying to help out.’ It’s like that’s not really the issue and we talked about this with Linsey, but the issue is not whether or not he’s a good person or not. That’s irrelevant to the equation because his ideology is capitalist ideology is not good fundamentally, and whether or not he has good intentions is irrelevant because you know, the intentions, if you honestly believe that unions are what make people poor and that not having proper IP protection from Monsanto is what makes people poor and that all these kind of dubious or sinister things are what make people poor. Then his good faith is irrelevant.

Nima: Right.

Adam: And this is what people have a really hard time getting their heads around because people, I think people naturally want to believe people are good people. I understand why that is, but whether or not people are good is irrelevant. What matters is what their antecedent ideology is, what, what are they starting with, and if they’re starting with something that’s fundamentally flawed, it doesn’t matter how fucking good they are.

Nima: Well, and since they have benefited so much from that ideology —

Adam: Conveniently enough, yeah.

Nima: Right. What they then do is put this money back into the philanthropic model and as we’ve discussed in large part that is good PR and it helps them stave off the torches and pitchforks when people realize that how much money they have, that the people don’t have. And so then you get kind of this philanthropic laundering of wealth. When again, Bill Gates’ wealth is not actually decreasing because he’s putting so much money into Africa, it keeps going up. Like, he’s not running out of money because he keeps putting it back into the people like that’s not happening.

Adam: Yeah.

Nima: So with that, we will turn our attention to our guest, Mariam Mayet, Executive Director of the African Center for Biodiversity. Stay with us.


Nima: We are joined now by Mariam Mayet. Mariam, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Mriam Mayet: Thank you very much for inviting me. It’s a great honor to be on your show.

Adam: Thank you so much. Uh, so in this episode we are generally talking about the ways in which the media treats the Gates Foundation, which we sort of show is kind of overwhelmingly and uniformly flattering and not very critical. Um, can you give us a sense of what you feel like is the biggest misconception about what Bill Gates does versus the reality?

Mariam Mayet: Well, I think that for us in Africa we have great concerns about what we call a very neocolonial approach to two checks of Gates funding. One is in regard to funding our transformation of agriculture systems in Africa through a project called Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa, which was launched 10 years ago. And the second is Gates funding directed towards various genetic engineering, all food belonging to, um, indigenous and local communities and then more recently the funding of Gates’ Target Malaria project, aimed at releasing genetically modified mosquitoes in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Uganda. But the objective in the longer run to releasing gene drive mosquitoes. And these are mosquitoes genetically engineered with new technologies called CRISPR/Cas9 to extinct wildlife in general and target the female enough anopheles mosquitoes in particular. So I think the misconception is that Gates is benevolent, that Gates is a savior, he’s brought us 21st century technologies and enabled to us to make huge strides technologically speaking. And that Gates can do no wrong. However, we have found that through the Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa Gates has successfully lobbied African governments in terms of changes in regional and national agriculture policy to embrace an antiquated, discredited, ecologically unsustainable and socially just agriculture policies based on the idea that pharmacy systems are inferior, backward and that the path to advancement is to embrace improve seed, particularly corporate seed, the use of chemical fertilizers, agricultural chemicals, and basically to create an elite class of commercial farmers at the expense of the majority of peasant farmers on the continent. And with that will come, ecological damage, erosion of genetic diversity, marginalization of peasant communities, particularly women and so Gates has funded a program called Program for Agriculture Seeds Systems in Africa. And this program coordinates a lot of transformation of African seed systems towards the embracing of a US type corporate seed model. Where large multinational companies in particular now the newly merged Bayer and Monsanto, Dow DuPont, Syngenta, ChemChina, the big multinational companies are the main beneficiaries, both of the sale of improved seed and in some cases genetically modified seed and the sale of agricultural chemicals. So that’s a major concern for us. And then a lot of research being funded to genetically engineer indigenous food. And then the most recent project we are extremely concerned about is the Target Malaria project, uh, which is geared towards releasing 10,000 genetically modified mosquitoes in a village called Bana west of Bobo in Burkina Faso. And this is a project funded by Gates in collaboration with Imperial College in London. It’s strongly supported by the pro-biotech industry, Cornell University, and at the scientist on their own version say that there will be no benefit from the release of these 10,000 mosquitoes. All they’re doing is testing the biosafety system. So we, we’re kind of feeling like new technologies are being tested in Africa as if we treated Africans as yet more, you know, you know, guinea pigs for technologies that even the US military is interested in, which is the gene drive technologies, the US military is funding this Target Malaria project to the tune of $100 million. So those are some of our problems because we believe that, you know, there are some Gates projects dealing with um, the provision of antimalarial drugs to malaria victims, but we have some problems with these kinds of projects that the millions of dollars coming from the Gates coffers are funding in Africa.

Nima: So Mariam, thank you so much for that. Can you tell us what your work at the African Center for Biodiversity is really all about? What the center does and how you and similar groups are really looking to, um, maybe push back on this kind of western imperial colonial funding drive or what are the positives that you are trying to push as opposed to what you see as coming from the outside?

Mariam Mayet: Well I think we are extremely concerned with the industrialization of African agriculture and adopting what is called euphemistically green revolution in Africa. We are interested in social justice in our farming systems, taking into account that eighty percent of the seed used in Africa is produced by smallholder farmers that about seventy percent of the population in Africa, uh, still derive most of their nutritional needs from the efforts of small scale farmers, small scale fisher folks, pastoralists and other small scale producers. So I think that we are resisting the corporate hegemony in Africa. We are campaigning for recognition of pharmacy systems and farmers’ rights. We are campaigning for transitioning out of industrial agriculture to agroecological farming systems based on autonomy of women, protection of the rights of children, more equitable terms of trade in terms of access to market. So we’re campaigning for radical transformation of our systems. Whereas the Gates Foundation and others are coming from the opposite direction, trying to deepen structural inequalities and create more space in our food systems for the corporate sector. So I think we’re just moving in opposite directions and we are swimming against the tide because our governments have changed not only agriculture policies but investment policies, environmental policies, trade policies to come in line with this new green revolution and industrialization, not only of agriculture but you see much more deforestation, more mining, more land grabs, communities being squeezed and more marginalization, more conflict over land resources like water. So I think it’s really a tough battle. And people like Gates with all their money exacerbate an already a conflictual situation.

Adam: One of the things we’re talking about in this episode, aside from the kind of objective or empirical question of the efficacy or ethics or neocolonialism of Gates’ tremendous influence in sub Saharan Africa is the complete lack of sort of any democratic input. Um, obviously Gates is not elected. Gates is not chosen by any of these leaders in Africa or any of the people in Africa. Polls are nonexistent. There really is no polling even about what, what the average sort of Africans perception of Bill Gates is or anyone in this space. From your perception, and we’re kind of comparing and contrasting the perceptions here, so in the United States, Bill Gates receives almost uniformly praise coverage, you know, he’s, he’s on all these, he’s on Oprah, he’s on these different TV networks, he’s on 60 Minutes and he just sort of asserts that he’s helping Africa. In your perspective, and I know this is somewhat anecdotal, can you give us a sense of what the kind of perception of Gates is specifically in South Africa and Zambia where you operate?

Mariam Mayet: I think that, you know, I think it’s mixed. I think that by and large he’s still perceived as a good guy. I think that last year he may have been a guest also of the Nelson Mandela Foundation and there was some pushback, but there wasn’t a big protest. So I won’t say that people will come out and protest against Gates. I think that because there are some good things out there, it’s not all bad.

Adam: Right.

Mariam Mayet: There’s some good things, but there are some things that are very concerning and those of us who monitor what the funding is doing and how it’s being used, I’ll give an example, uh, Gates is funding a network called African Biodiversity Network of Experts. They are a group of scientists that are very pro-biotech, they have managed to capture through their scientific capacities and they reach to African governments, they’ve been able to capture the African Union and so they are part of the new, it’s a program under the African Union called NEPAD [New Partnership for Africa’s Development]. They have captured the African Union to such an extent that they provide the policy direction on biotechnology for the African Union and they’ve already drafted a policy on gene drives. Um, and it’s shocking because it’s a technology that’s ten years away. So with Gates’ money it’s very insidious and it’s, I think that the concerns are not in the public domain. I think that it’s kept within maybe certain sectors of the public discourse, but I don’t think it’s out in the big public discussion, but I think it’s gaining traction. And I think that in time maybe they’ll be increased public awareness about, uh, the Gates funding. The issue is not just to attack the man or the family. The issue is about how funding is being captured by a host of other players who have a particular agenda as well as the philosophy that Gates is supporting in terms of how they see transformation happening in public health, for example, with the Target Malaria project and in agriculture in other sectors. So I think that Gates’ money is there, the philosophy is there, the reach is there, but there are also other actors that are complicit in this and uh, people who are waiting in the wings for Gates to do a lot of the ground work for them. For example, putting fire safety systems in place, building the capacity of biosafety scientists so that the biotech industry can enter into those markets and come into those countries and commercialize GM [genetically modified] seeds for example. So I think it’s, uh, it’s complicated. They are lot of beneficiaries kind of targeted and off target beneficiaries from Gates funded projects. And I think that some of the sole beneficiaries are African scientists and also the corporate sector as well as small seed companies that Gates’ money has established.

Adam: Yeah. I think we’ve talked a lot about the way in which Gates funds American media, but he also funds quite a bit of media in Africa, specifically South Africa as well, which I think it’s sort of hard to read the organic opinions versus when he controls, uh, when he funds a lot of media outlets, it’s difficult to know where the sort of organic opinions begin in the kind of propaganda ends.

Mariam Mayet: Yeah well I have to say that we have more of an independent media. To some extent.

Adam: Right.

Mariam Mayet: I mean there’s still some semblance of independence here and you can still get your stuff published but on the rest of the continent its very difficult.

Adam: Right.

Mariam Mayet: We have had to get our stuff published but we have had to pay for it. So a lot of the stuff that gets into the African media is paid for by the Gates and people working for Gates and that’s how they can get a lot of that media. From Cornell University Mark Lynas and all of these people, get a lot of media coverage because they pay for it and we can’t. We are a public interest organization. It’s unethical to pay. It should be in the public interest what the media should report on should be to raise awareness and share information that is in the public interest. So that’s also something that we need to take into account how the African media operates.

Nima: Considering how wealth operates in our world currently, the lingering legacy of colonialism and also the lack of oftentimes sufficient funding from the government for many sectors, uh, what role, if any really, do you Mariam, think that international philanthropy should play in this work? Is there a way to do this responsibly with local leadership and community-based strategies or is it really just a matter of kind of helicoptering in and imposing western ideas, more corporate driven ideas onto a, onto a, kind of, local domestic sector?

Mariam Mayet: You know, it’s a difficult one to answer because I do think that we should come up with our own solutions and, uh, we should be less dependent on development funds, external funding. I think that people should come up with local solutions, should be supported by public funds. I think that, I’m not sure if there’s a place really in problem solving, overcoming crisis inequalities, uh, looking at challenges, ecological crisis, the challenges posed by climate change, whether the answer is to look towards philanthrocapitalism to assist us, I think we should have much more agency. We should be less dependent on financial resources and come up with our own innovative solutions for ourselves. I think the minute there’s no external funding, it doesn’t matter from what source, it’s always going to be tied funding. There’s always either explicit or implicit conditionalities. So I think maybe they should fund, you know, maybe things that are really in the public interest where there’s no individual ownership, private ownership goods and services that can be a benefit to everybody in society, common goods, public common goods, public common interests, things that are just in the global public good. I think maybe that could have a role, but not to get involved in reshaping how we produce food, funding what kind of seed we should grow, dictating the direction of research and development, fostering more dependence on the corporate sector, locking us into corporate technologies. It’s just wrong.

Adam: Let’s hone in on that for a second here because I want to get into the, not to make an unfortunate pun, but I want to get into the weeds here. Um, the Gates’ has invested heavily in Monsanto. I know that they’ve kind of bet big on it. And Monsanto, even in the United States is very divisive. Can we talk about them and other kind of fertilizer and GM technologies and what the kind of negative effects on that is it, is it mostly kind of just, they’re kind of running a real world experiment? I know there’s a lot of issues with intellectual property and propriety. Uh, can we talk about the dangers of that and kind of give us some sense of what the objections to that are that most Americans just don’t hear?

Mariam Mayet: Well, Monsanto has a foothold in both the GM and the non-GM made seed market on the continent. So maze is a big staple crop. Um, historically it was never staple but kind of became industrialized with the industrialization of South Africa with the gold mining and also to colonialism and structural adjustment on the rest of the continent. So it’s kind of embedded in people’s cuisine and cultural way of eating. So Monsanto controls seed market in GM hybrid seed in South Africa, which is the only country on the continent that grows maize as a staple food and it had a very devastating impact on small scale farmers through its GM cotton seed production system, both in South Africa in Burkina Faso. So in Burkina Faso they introduced GM cotton, I think it was around 2010 and Burkina Faso small scale producers, cotton produces, export the lint and uh, they’re well known for the superior quality of their staple fibers. And Monsanto introduced Bt, a GM cotton into Burkina Faso, small scale farmers began to sow the seeds and discovered that the seed produced very short staple fibers and with the results, small scale farmers lost a huge amount of money. So did the cotton companies, in fact they couldn’t sell any of those fibers. They lost, $85 million were claimed back from Monsanto. And the settlement I understand was basically the government saying to Monsanto, ‘Okay, we owe you $11,000 in royalty fees for your seed. Will you just write that up? And we walk away.’ And so the government of Burkina Faso phased out Monsanto’s cotton, GM cotton completely because it utterly failed. Similarly in South Africa, gotten small scale cotton farmers were unable to afford the high price of cotton seed and the pesticides that go with it. And eventually that whole project collapsed and the South African government underwrote the project to the tune of about 13 million rand and wrote all of that off. So for small scale farmers, it’s been an absolute disaster because economies of scale don’t favor them. They can’t compete on global markets with subsidized cotton farmers from the US, yet Monsanto hasn’t given up. It’s still introducing GM cotton seed in Ethiopia. And also Swaziland is growing GM cotton, soon in Malawi as well. Nigeria. So yet a failed project is still being touted as a success and it’s now wanting to introduce a so-called drought tolerant GM maize variety to five African countries. And this project is funded by Gates and has been instrumental in changing the biosafety laws are the government of Tanzania and Mozambique to shift from strict liability to fall based liability to enable field trials of the maize to take place. And we have called them out and we have said to them that they, it’s impossible to genetically engineer maize to be drought tolerant with single gene, you need about thirty genes. It’s such a complex trait. So they passing off really conventionally bred varieties that are maybe that have could drought tolerant characteristics and passing that off as a savior GM crop produced by Monsanto with Gates money. So it just, you know, it never ends. It’s on so many different levels.

Nima: You know, something you’ve written about is the claim by the Monsanto funded International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications, which sounds very organic and very grassroots, of course, that they claimed that without certain crops given by Monsanto that, for instance, Kenyans are on the quote, “brink of starvation,” end quote, without these crops. Can you speak to how this corporate speak, this corporate kind of propaganda then infuses the rest of the development conversation?

Mariam Mayet: Yes, I’ll give you an example. Africa was ravaged by a pest infestation called the fall armyworm. It’s an insect, its a moth endemic to the Americas and it came across to Africa in grain shipments on aeroplanes, you know, and dispersed very rapidly through wind and other human intervention and decimated farmers’ fields, particularly of maize and also sorghum. And what came out of the pro-biotech spin, Cornell University, Triple A, there’s AATF funded by Monsanto, they began to say that not only does the GM drought tolerant maize deal with drought, um, but they’ve transformed it also to contain the Bt gene to deal with certain, caterpillars that eat up the stems and other parts of the maize plant but it also kills off and deals with the fall armyworm. So we said to them, fine, can you give us the data, give us your trial data, give us your data from the fields to substantiate your claims. Show us your peer review data that shows that Bt, Monsanto’s Bt crops can withstand the fall armyworm. And they were unable to do that. None of them were able to give us any peer reviewed scientific studies to substantiate their claims. They often tell us that we are luddites. They often say to us that we are against technology, we’re unscientific, we stymie scientific progress, but they make wild statements about the economic performance of Monsanto’s Bt crops and in fact the trait they’re talking about is an outdated trait that even South Africa is throwaway technologies that even South African farmers no longer use. So it’s neocolonialism dumping failed technologies that commercial farmers in South Africa don’t want any more where there’s been a lot of infestation by a whole range of off target pests onto Africa and making statements that not, oh, and then there were also statements that it will deal with Maize Lethal Necrosis, another disease affecting plants, so really wild statements and then we call them out on it and they’re unable to respond.

Nima: Right, so, something that your center has written about a lot is this idea of this new technology coming in as a Trojan horse by the development and corporate sector. What do our listeners need to know about your work and how can they possibly help out?

Mariam Mayet: Well, I think that they, you know, we have partners in the US. AGRA Watch is a very strong partner of ours. AGRA Watch shares a lot of similar objectives, um, and um, perhaps just to look out for publication of our work and maybe to support AGRA Watch, a Seattle based organization right in their backyard, uh, because AGRA Watch supports a lot of the work that we do. Um, and that’s what I could, I could suggest as something that people can do. AGRA Watch and there is a sister organization, uh, they work with, they do a lot of community based work, so I think maybe put them to support US based organizations who are supporting African organizations like us in our efforts could be one thing that I could suggest.

Adam: Great.

Nima: That is wonderful. So thanks Mariam Mayet, Executive Director of the African Center for Biodiversity who has joined us today from Johannesburg, South Africa. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us, it has been so great.

Mariam Mayet: Thank you so much for showing interest in African issues and I look forward to listening to the recording.


Adam: Um, so one quick production note, we had recorded another guest for this episode, a gentleman by the name of Joshua Machinga, who runs a group called Common Ground for Africa, and we had technical problems with the call. He was calling us from Kenya and so the call quality wasn’t that good so we couldn’t run it, so we wanted to apologize to him formally and to promote his group Common Ground for Africa. Which you can check out at commongroundforafrica.org. They do super great work. Hopefully in the future, when we revisit this topic, which I know we will, we’ll try to get it back and get and get a better connection. We want to thank him for coming on and apologize for not being able to run that interview.


Adam: So yeah, that was, uh, that was good. I’m glad we got different perspectives here. It’s, it’s, it’s, it’s quite shocking. If you’re a journalist, you can try this, try to find critics of the Gates Foundation.

Nima: (Laughing) Yeah.

Adam: It’s very hard, if it wasn’t for certain contacts and a lot of the global justice movement or others, it’s hard because they’re, they’re very sophisticated at astroturfing things. They’re very good at laundering things. There’s the fundamental issue of legitimacy of does he have any right to have this money in the first place, and if he does, does he even have a right to have this much power over it? Then there’s the secondary issue of what is the purpose of media? Is it be cheerleaders and mindless parrots for the wealthiest amongst us, or should we be critical? And what Gates is good and the reason why he gets no heat at all is because the only thing people really criticize, in the United States at least, is when things are not bipartisan, when things are partisan, right? So Soros gets criticized because he’s a huge democratic funder and the Kochs get criticized because they fund every evil Republican thing in the world, but what Gates is good at is he avoids the partisan evil things and supports a lot of what I would consider to be bad things that are bipartisan.

Nima: Which are thoroughly corporate and plutocratic.

Adam: Yeah neoliberal capitalism, uh, you know, he works with the Saudi regime, handshakes with Mohammad Bin Salman, someone who, who’s murdering people in Yemen. Those things are kind of factored in, those aren’t controversial.

Nima: That is definitely bipartisan.

Adam: I also think he avoids a lot of criticism because in the same way that Soros does, I think, I think it’s mostly because a lot of it’s animated by anti-Semitism.

Nima: Right.

Adam: Gates doesn’t have that baggage because I guarantee you that if he was doing some of these things and met that sort of trope, there would be more people on the right who would be outraged by it.

Nima: So much of the Gates mystique is also because so many people just at this point want to be like him in terms of the money that he has. I mean, billionaires have this cache obviously, which is that Americans are told pretty much from when they’re born that if you do the things you need to do, you can, you can achieve that level of wealth. That it’s open to anyone and everyone, which is obviously horseshit, but it’s this idea that we are, you know, only temporarily embarrassed capitalists, right? As John Steinbeck put it. So these foundations as, as we keep saying, and I’ll just kind of say it one one last time, they really operate without any sort of accountability.

Adam: And the one institution that’s supposed to actually hold them accountable, because their constituents can’t, right? We can’t reappropriate their wealth. We don’t have that mechanism. They don’t have the political power to do it or the political will, I should say, we have the political power whenever we want it, but the one institution that’s supposed to keep them honest and supposed to keep them accountable is the media and the media is almost to the publication, with rare exceptions, takes money from and is in bed with and does messaging with the Gates Foundation. So there’s this broad kind of bribing apparatus that makes independent media impossible and someone like Gates who kind of he, he flies under the radar because he’s not partisan. Seems kind of like a nice guy. Again, he doesn’t have to be subject to anti-Semitism. You sorta just floats under the radar and it’s like, you know, there’s no one really criticizing him in the media in a meaningful way.

Nima: Right. So the media is failing in it’s duty to hold those who are not publicly accountable at least culturally or societally accountable.

Adam: And at the very least, you know, you would think that they could just forego the, the press releases because I mean there’s so many of them. Every time Bill Gates tweets something or sharts his pants, there’s like seventy fucking articles on Vox about it and it’s like guys like, this is not journalism, this is, this is not even, this is not even public relations. It’s, it’s just groveling. It’s like, it’s like they’re just sucking up to be his friend. It’s so pathetic. Anyway, on that note, we should probably wrap it up. I think this has been a good two-parter.

Nima: We can grovel so that our listeners are our friends.

Adam: Yeah. This is the part where, we’re going to segue now into sucking up to our patrons.

Nima: For your charity.

Adam: Yeah.

Nima: Yes. Everything. Everything helps. Please do support the show if you like the show.

Adam: Yeah.

Nima: And you want to see it keep going, keep kind of building on what we have already been doing for this past year. It has been a wonderful year and thanks to each and every listener that we have had, well over a million at this point, and so spread the word, write nice reviews or shitty reviews about Steven Pinker, but nice reviews about us on iTunes and follow us on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, Patreon CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. Special shout out goes to our critic level supporters who help us so, so, so much. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Our production consultant is Josh Kross. Research assistant is Sophia Steinert-Evoy. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks so much for listening. We’ll catch you next time.


This episode of Citations Needed was released on Wednesday, August 1, 2018.

Transcription by Morgan McAslan.