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We can't leave the fate of the world to the Gateses and the Zuckerbergs

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For years, Bill Gates has been among the most extraordinary people in the world -- extraordinarily successful, rich, ambitious, generous and tough.

So it was somehow predictable to see on the front page of this paper recently a photo from the Paris climate negotiations, described as "the biggest gathering of prime ministers, presidents, chancellors and kings under a single roof in a single day." The all-male photo included the heads of five governments and, in the middle, Bill Gates -- an elected leader of nothing, but head with his wife of a multi-billion dollar charitable foundation funded by them from his unfathomable personal wealth.

But that's not the only extraordinary Gates moment in the last few weeks, thanks to a new book by Linsey McGoey, a British academic and former adviser to the World Health Organization. The title is the message: No Such Thing as a Free Gift: The Gates Foundation and the Price of Philanthropy. Among the revelations was that the Gates idea of philanthropy and charity is not like that of ordinary mortals.

Last year, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced an $11 million grant to -- wait for it -- MasterCard, to establish something called a financial inclusion lab in Nairobi, Kenya. After three years, if all goes well, MasterCard may be willing to foot the bill itself. The $11 million is an outright gift, not a loan, from Gates to MasterCard, and God knows that MasterCard needs it. In 2013, the company earned a profit of $3.1-billion. Its stock has jumped 330 per cent over the past five years.

According to Ms. McGoey, this little caper "was only the most recent in a long list of donations that the Gates Foundation has offered to the world's wealthiest corporations. From Vodafone, a British company notorious for paying zero corporate tax in the United Kingdom, to leading [for-profit] education companies such as Scholastic Inc., the Gates Foundation doesn't simply partner with for-profit companies: it subsidizes their bottom-line."

So philanthropists now hand out their charitable dough to huge corporations and not to charities. McGoey calls it "philanthrocapitalism," but I don't get the "philanthro" part at all.

I confess I was aware of none of this. The real world somehow manages to be worse than my lowest expectations. I guess it should come as no surprise that Bill Gates is no ordinary philanthropist; he's never been an ordinary anything.

This is one very powerful man -- in some ways far more powerful than the leaders he stood among in Paris, and maybe, as the book's title implies, far too powerful for the good of the world. For he not only dishes out tons of dough to a wide variety of causes of his choosing, he decides how large chunks of the world are to operate. This very much includes not-for-profit organizations like the World Health Organization.

The Gates Foundation doesn't stand alone here, and these Croesus-like private donors, McGoey writes, "play an outsized role in national and global policy-making." You might say, paraphrasing Lenin, they vote with their money, and they usually win. How can they lose? The Gates Foundation spends more annually on health issues than many of the world's wealthiest nations, and that gives Gates lots of votes.

But it also means that it's hard to know whose interests he most serves. Of course you can't accuse the Gates family of enriching themselves in the name of doing good. It's what constitutes "doing good" that's at issue, and the right of private zillionaires to impose their views, biases and ideologies on the public sphere.

Like all UN agencies, WHO is very far from perfect. But at least its staff, who make health-related decisions that touch the lives of tens of millions of people, are experts in their field. Like them, Bill Gates has many preferences that he feels very strongly about.

For example, as The Lancet once pointed out, far from being brilliantly effective, as he insists, Gates Foundation grants "do not reflect the burden of disease endured by those in deepest poverty."

As well, his foundation favours ambitious and costly vaccines and disease eradication programs. This might sound good to lay people, but many health professionals say these programs are squeezing out solutions that are cheaper and quicker, including my own favourite -- an abundance of well-trained community health workers.

But they're not as sexy as high-tech initiatives. Yet Gates' people, who are everywhere, unofficially vet most of WHO's policy initiatives. And McGoey points out what we all might suspect: Given the reach of the Gates organization in the charity and NGO worlds, only the bold or reckless are prepared to stand up to it.

Does this mean the foundations funded by the .001 per cent do more harm than good? Ms. McGoey says that "the Gateses do considerable good" and the Gates Foundation has after all spent billions on thousands of good projects, like the eradication of malaria and polio. A good thing, too, since Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg is about to create his own $45-billion variation of the Gates Foundation, by giving away 99 per cent of his Facebook shares. Very benevolent of him, for sure, though I still believe a world where some are worth billions is intrinsically insane.

I'm also pretty sure that giving millions to giant corporations doesn't have a whole lot to do with charity or altruism. But we have seen the future and it belongs to the Gateses and Zuckerbergs.

This article originally appeared in The Globe and Mail

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