Philanthrocapitalism and Food Security: The “Charity” of Billionaires Comes at a Cost

A new trend has begun to emerge in the sphere of charitable giving, but this new model of charity does not resemble the philanthropic giving of the past. Usually, when one thinks of philanthropy, the old days of the fancy dinner regalia where the wealthiest would donate to pet projects such as the arts comes to mind. The new model of philanthropy, which has emerged primarily during the 21st century, was coined philanthrocapitalism (PC), or venture philanthropy by Matthew Bishop in a 2006 issue of The Economist (Bishop 2013, 474). PC is a practice which encompasses a wide range of projects from enhancing education systems, eliminating poverty, providing medications and other health services, and most prominently attempting to tackle the issue of food security, especially in developing nations (Bishop 2013, 474). Some view this practice as a potential pathway to bridge the gap between the private sector and government action, as the wealthiest individuals and corporations can take financial risks that governments—especially developing nation governments—would be hesitant to take for fear of financial failure (Bishop 2013, 478; HLPE 2018, 14). The idea that PC efforts will be of a more significant public benefit seems to be the minority opinion. PC has raised a lot of concerns that this practice has a deleterious effect on food security, food self-sufficiency, and the agricultural industry. On—and in—the ground the problems with PC are that it often creates a system of rule by the wealthy and technocratic elites, biodiversity loss, land grabbing, monoculture in areas with previously diverse agriculture, privatisation of public seed banks, the subversion of democracy, and it operates through the same commodity derivative speculation practices that deepened the 2008 world food crisis (Chadwick 2017, 626; Thompson 2018, 53-60). Growing literature is becoming sceptical if not outright hostile to the methods employed by food security based PC projects, while optimism that it can help solve society’s problems is dwindling.

Early philanthropic giving was espoused by Andrew Carnegie in Wealth where he stated that a person who dies wealthy has died a fool, or better put, the most affluent members of society should manage to leave their financial resources to make society better by giving it away during one’s life, or by leaving one’s personal wealth willed to public goods such as libraries and the arts upon their death (Carnegie 2012). PC finds its roots in the earliest forms of “scientific philanthropy” which began with the Rockefeller Foundation in the first decades of the 20th century in an effort “to promote the well-being of mankind throughout the world” (Birn 2014, 4). In an interview, Ted Turner stated that his goals along the lines of PC where he wanted to feel as though his life and fortune had made a positive difference (Bishop 2013, 473). This idea of scientific philanthropy was the beginning of a series of events which has led to the modern version of charitable giving. It was not until the Green Revolution of the 1960s that the groundwork which led to modern PC and its fundamental problems began. 

Turner opened the door to allowing modern PC practices into the world of international politics and institutions when he donated $1 billion to the United Nations (UN) which established the UN Office for Partnerships in 1998 (Bishop 2013, 473-474). The Rockefeller Foundation funded International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) which are both financed heavily by PC interests (; Gimenez & Shattuck 2011, 117). These partnerships eventually brought PC into the 21st century, which has brought the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) which was formed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) in 2006; a project which is seen as an attempt at turning the poorest and most marginalised people in Africa as little more than the next group of consumers to be told how to farm “correctly” (Bereano 2018).

Some see the first Green Revolution as a political goal where the western, capitalist world managed to save the developing world from starvation, while also showing the members of the nations which received these crops that they should reject communist ideologies (Brooks 2013, 2). These “miracle” crops became part of packages which gave people “better” seed sources and other products such as pesticides and irrigation systems. Still, these were intended to be used with monoculture practices which created a visual aid of uniform crops to show people how well they were functioning (Clapp 2018, 2; Cullather 2004, 227). The starving people of the developing world had been “saved” through technological innovation which could only be accomplished through scientific and financial investment; something that the communists could not provide. The Green Revolutions of the 20th century were the beginnings of the public-private partnerships which began to become more involved in the agricultural sector as companies realised that they could modify seeds and fertilisers to be patented and sold, bundled together for maximised profits. This was condemned by world leaders such as Al Gore and Prince Charles for subjugating the poorest people in the world and for damaging previously diverse agricultural and environmental systems while placing the people under the thumb of western practices and economic systems (Cullather 2004, 227).

In 2008 the G8 met to promote support for the “Global Partnership on Agriculture and Food Security (GPAFS)” in a high-profile meeting which was attended by the prominent PC Bill Gates himself, who was the sole private individual in attendance (Duncan & Margulis 2016, 10). G8 meetings and PC ventures are not known for their transparency, which makes the agricultural goals and roles of Gates and the G8 unknown, and these actors have made it clear that they do not wish to have the UN Committee on World Food Security interfering with their efforts (Duncan & Margulis 2016, 10; Dentico & Seitz 2019, 3; Nally 2016, 559). Any attempts made to improve the problems of food security at this G8 meeting were overshadowed by the extravagant and opulent menu provided to the attendees, which ended with them labelled as hypocritical “hungercrats” (Nally 2016, 559). 

No PC activities have come under more scrutiny and condemnation than those promoted by the BMGF in southern Africa’s agricultural practices. It is here that the methods of AGRA come into intense scrutiny as the goal of the programme is to transform agriculture in Africa to one which resembles the “large-scale monoculture” of Iowa while merging it with global markets for maximised profits (Thompson 2014, 389-390). Unlike some South American nations who have strict laws protecting the biodiversity of agricultural wealth, many African nations do not have these laws which have allowed for private companies to come in and begin the privatisation of seed banks in nations such as Zimbabwe which have ceased sharing programmes with smallholder farmers (Thompson 2014, 399-402). In these cases—along with others—the previously available public seed banks which hold the lion’s share of Africa’s agricultural biodiversity, have now become privatised and sold for profit instead of being disseminated for the public good. This is a practice which does not meet the scientific consensus that crops which have been selectively bred by farmers over thousands of years are superior to the failed crops of the genetically modified sweet potato, and the “Golden Rice” which did not deliver the quantities of vitamin A promised (Thompson 2014, 398). To finalise a criticism of the AGRA—and other—programme(s) in Africa, there are no laws which state that a private company or individual wishing to perform genetic modifications on an agricultural product cannot simply walk into a field and take a cutting for research and subsequent genetic modification (Thompson 2014, 392). 

At the heart of the problems mentioned above is the idea that the developing world can and should be brought into the global competitive market, and that this goal can only be achieved through the technological advancements brought in by the technocratic elite PCs. The “Scaling Up Nutrition Movement” is an initiative which is comprised of international organisations, transnational corporations (TNC), agribusiness and agrichemical companies, and is meant to tackle the UN Sustainable Development Goal 2 of Zero Hunger by 2030 (Michele 2019). It is in this context that the subversion of democracy can be seen. The goal of notable PCs such as Gates is to get involved with national governments in a public-private partnership. AGRA has used lobbying to influence the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to enact intellectual property seed legislation (Thompson 2014, 400). Once they are in, they are able to use their considerable financial influence to leverage governments and accelerate the implementation of their projects as traditional governance “moves too slowly” (Nally 2016, 569; Dentico & Seitz 2019). The goal of PC as an actor in governance is to change how governments operate through investment, or as Gates calls it “impatient optimism” where financial leverage promotes a rapid restructuring of governance in a top-down manner which lacks transparency or accountability (Nally 2016, 569; Dentico & Seitz 2019). It is in the darkness that the goals of those who wish to reshape the world in what they believe to be the “best practices” is allowed to flourish. C.S. Lewis stated that those who wish to do the most good may become the worst tyrants as they are only held accountable to their own conscience (Nally 2016, 562). 

Whether the goals and aims of the BMGF are to promote the well-being of humanity or to increase their personal wealth is not a subject of debate here, only the ramifications of their practices matter. The BMGF has had nothing but praise for their partnership with Monsanto while investing nearly $480 million into African agriculture between 2009-2011, which has allowed them to leverage governments into initiating their desired practices although Gates is neither an expert in African issues nor agriculture (Bereano 2018). The World Bank has supported the efforts by PCs in Africa to bring African agriculture and its ability to be brought into commodity derivative speculation into the 21st century for maximised profits. PC goals are placed above the needs and desires of the smallholder farmer despite the fact that these farmers rely on their agricultural output for 70-80% of their income while feeding an equal portion (70-80%) of the global population (Bereano 2018; Thompson 2014, 395, Thompson 2018, 56). The injection of vast sums of wealth by a few private individuals to coerce governments into acting in accordance with their wishes is at the cornerstone of subverting the democratic process, and the voices of the smallholder farmers are ignored in search of short-term but highly profitable agribusinesses (Almond 1991, 469; Dentico & Seitz 2019). SDG Watch has labelled the practices of PC in developing nations as “postdemocracy” when the leverage of a few individuals can remove best practices and democracy, in the name of modernisation and corporate profit (Dentico & Seitz 2019). Many PCs and the corporations they represent often state that they have no moral obligation whatsoever to behave in a socially responsible manner, with Jeffrey Raikes, the CEO of the BMGF saying “I prefer our approach where we’re either investing to create a return that will grow our endowment and give us more resources to do our programmatic work” (Thompson 2014, 394, Thompson 2018, 56). It is clear that some of these individuals and organisations see no need to improve anything other than their portfolios. The BMGF states that their goal is to use corporate leadership to promote high-tech practices into agriculture, promoting those who are the most successful entrepreneurs in agriculture and that they are not above land-grabbing methods to achieve this goal in commodifying African agriculture (Holt & Shattuck 2011, 116).

Both the FAO “Report on Multi-Stakeholder Partnerships” (MSP) and the United Kingdom “Partnership International Development Committee” (UKPIDC) see that there is both promise and peril in engaging with PC interests (HLPE 2018, 10; UKPIDC 2012, 4). The UKPIDC states that these MSPs need to become signatories to the “International Aid Transparency Initiative as the current lack of transparency may create “parallel structures… skewing the priorities of other donors and recipient governments” (UKPIDC 2012, 4-27). In the UKPIDC report, some U.K. Members of Parliament (MPs) state that they have reservations, while in the same report Raikes maintains the notion that food security is achieved through technological advancements (UKPIDC 2012, Ev 14-16). The FAO is more optimistic as they see the use of MSPs as the means to achieve the desired end result. Still, there is the same worry that these partnerships may foster asymmetric power imbalances within a nation-state, but they state that it is the ultimate responsibility of the state to mitigate these potential conflicts (HLPE 2018, 10 &16). As with the issues mentioned above, the FAO has also called for more transparency from PCs and other MSPs (HLPE 2018, 17). The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights states that all people have rights to “the highest attainable standard of health conducive to living in dignity,” and with PC practices eliminating smallholder farmers from the equation this becomes difficult at best (UN 2000, 1). 

When PC interests become entangled with the wishes of all stakeholders, it becomes clear as to which stakeholder wields the greatest power. If smallholder farmers are unable to engage in the democratic process, they have little say in how their national governments enact agricultural policies, especially when intellectual property rights become a barrier to seed banks. The same smallholder farmers who feed 70-80% of the global population face a steep challenge when it comes to accessing the seeds which they previously shared as seed banks become the property of privatised organisations which allocate seeds resources to the highest bidder. Research into the impacts of PC on food systems is still evolving as this is a new venture into the world of charity. The need for transparency and the maintenance of democratic systems of governance are of paramount importance has been espoused by a litany of organisations as has been shown. Nations must become proactive with regards to the deleterious effects of the practices employed PCs if they wish to ensure that democracy, biodiversity, and genetic seed wealth are to be preserved. Both national and international governing bodies must also promote full transparency when it comes to the practices employed by PC ventures when they state that they have no reason to be socially or ethically held accountable for their actions. A lot of questions remain to be answered as to how the efforts by the wealthiest people in the world are employed, and caution should be emphasised.


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