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The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation aims to innovate and lead in its philanthropic endeavours. With its 36.7 billion dollar endowment, the Gates Foundation is the largest charity in the world. The Foundation’s success is largely attributed to the business acumen of its founders, Bill Gates and his wife, Melinda, both of whom have introduced the notion of “philantrocapitalism.”

This is largely due to the Foundation’s underlying philosophy of being a “catalyst for change,” according to Sylvia Mathews, president of the Global Development Program.

Mathews was deputy director of the powerful Office of Management and Budget during the Bill Clinton Administration; she also served as Clinton’s deputy chief of staff. Mathews joined the Foundation in 2001, and her current responsibilities require her to design and implement programmes to combat poverty across the world through agricultural development and financial services to the poor.

But these projects are not without controversy. There are critics who allege that the Foundation wants to turn the continent into a test ground for biotech companies in the West.

While visiting Ethiopia, Mathews sat with Tamrat G. Giorgis, managing editor, on July 17, 2011, at the Sheraton Addis, to reflect on why the foundation is criticised for trying to do good. 

Pause, Stop, Listen to Criticisms



Fortune: Let me go to your flagship programme, which is introducing the second green revolution in Africa. The tenet of this programme is to introduce sustainable growth in the agriculture sector by combining technology, innovation, and skill. But I understand that many people were not happy with the plan. Why?

Mathews: You may be able to understand that better than us.

Q. I am sure you are aware of these criticisms.

Yes, we are aware, but we always want to hear more. I think some of the criticisms stemmed from issues with the initial green revolution. Whereas the initial green revolution saved millions of lives, it had some problems related to sustainability defined by environmental concerns. There is also a valid criticism on how the water table has been exhausted in India. We are working on all of those issues. We are probably the largest single and private donor for organic farming.

We believe there are a range of solutions for the smallholder farmer that need to be examined and we are investing in a variety of them.

A second area that we, as an institution, receive criticism for is on the agricultural front; namely, on our engagement with Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). We believe that there are suitable solutions that farmers need; and when we engage in breeding, we do everything from conventional breeding to what is called marker-assisted breeding, which gives us the ability to understand what things a plant has to offer.

And then, we do transgenic, which is the part that I think many people have a problem with, but we believe it is a part of the solution. We believe it needs to be safe; that countries need to make their own decisions; and that these countries need the regulatory capability to make those decisions. We have funded Michigan State University, along with NePAD (New Partnership for Africa’s Development), to provide grants and technical assistance here in the continent of Africa for those countries which seek regulatory assistance, so that their scientists have the capability and equipment to conduct testing.

There is a third, which has to do with the question of how hybrid seeds relate to corporations and companies that sell it. But, again, we believe that choice is up to the farmer.

Q: Don’t you think that it is valid criticism? I understand that the Trust [Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Trust has bought 27 million dollars worth of shares in a seed breeding company, MONSANTO]. It has a substantial investment in one of the corporations which is involved in the seed business Therefore, while you are promoting this project in the name of charity, there is another corporation, where you have a vested financial interest in, which sells products to farmers you support. Are you not promoting a corporate interest here?

The intellectual property for all the works that MONSANTO does on drought-resistant gene is free. The company is losing money on this effort. We keep our investments and the work of the Foundation separate. It is what we choose to do, as we believe, the Foundation should focus on the issues we are discussing here.

Q: You have a Trust which manages the Foundation’s endowment, investing in companies with high returns. You also have the Foundation, which is going around the world, trying to support poor people and overcome poverty. But the criticism comes when the companies your Trust invests in are doing things that undermine the wellbeing of the very poor people the Foundation is trying to help.

In the case of MONSANTO, the investment is very small relative to our portfolio. But, I do not think that is actually a relevant point. The more relevant point is that, I am not sure I understand what MONSANTO does in undermining the poor. It gave the intellectual property away for free, a right which costs an American farmer a tremendous amount of money, but would not cost an African farmer anything. How is MONSANTO undermining the poor here?

Q: By making them dependent on the very product that it is selling?

It is the farmers’ choice whether or not to buy hybrid. A farmer can use Open Pollinated Variety (OPV), grow maize, or use a hybrid. That should be the farmer’s choice; making this choice out of an economic rationale. Yes, farmers need technology to understand the extension, but most farmers actually understand their own economics, the risks they take when they plant, and they know how many years a drought lasts. That is why they won’t use other inputs.

The idea that farmers become hooked is false. We believe that putting choice in the farmer’s hand is a better approach than dictating what the farmer should do. 

Q: I read a statement made by one of your officers a while back; he said he would like to see as many African companies flourish in the African seed selling market. Is the Foundation interested in supporting such companies in Ethiopia, for instance, by providing financial support? How would it work with you?

Given that we are a large organisation based in Seattle, most of our work is done through intermediaries. The biggest intermediary that works specifically on the issue of both seed production and sales is the Program for African Seed Systems, with the Africa Agricultural Technology Foundation (AGRA), where I sit on the board.

AGRA will be supporting the agro-dealers and the seed producers that are producing the largest volume of seed on the continent of Africa; and they are private. That would be a place where we could add value, and the support comes in a number of forms. There are direct grants that AGRA does; it also provides technical assistance to help these countries think about a concept known as the “business development portion.” AGRA will help with their financial management, set up their books, business practices, as well as give them direct cash support.

These seed companies, the agro-dealers and distributors, are springing up everywhere. In Mali, I have visited a woman, who has started up a company that uses smaller seed packs, which is what farmers need in terms of their ability to pay. She is a small company owner, who has won a national top businesswoman award in the country.

And that is the difference between the agro-dealer versus the seed producer; but they are both important parts of the value chain.

Q: Who could be eligible for the programme?

It is all done through AGRA and there are other conditions in relation to the capacity of the organisation and the ability to show stability. As far as the amount of grants we process, AGRA sets these things.

Q: There are also programmes on water efficient maize as well as the support of companies which deal with marketing seeds. Are you hoping to introduce them to the Ethiopian market?

Yes. Whether it is an AIDS vaccine or a drought resistance breed, it can spread. It is a little more complicated with seeds because even if it is bred with much research, done in Kenya, it will have to come to Ethiopia through the national research centre to ensure that the product fits the Ethiopian agroecology, its soils, the rain, and everything here. The idea is that, it would be used all over the continent.

Q: I understand the laws of Ethiopia prohibit the import and use of genetically modified food [GMO], which I see you are passionate about.

Only six per cent of our financing goes to GMOs. The project has transgenic and non transgenic components. The benefits of these products are to the farmers. The changing lives of the poor will determine how people think about the laws. We respect the laws of the countries and that will determine what they want and where they want to be on the GMO issue. But as I said, countries will make their own choices on what is good for them.

On the importation of seeds and the ability to move products across countries, we will probably be working on our policy. For instance, eight new breeds of pigeon pea have come out from Uganda. In the next two months, they will move to South Sudan because they do not have a law prohibiting it. For South Sudan, right now, the top quality pigeon pea breeding seeds will make a very big difference.

Q: Are you a grant providing agency or are you also involved in the actual operations that you support?

We are a grant making agency, but we have active partners. I am sure some of our grantees would say we may be more active than they want us to be as a partner.

For instance, an example of our deep engagement is with AGRA. Separately, everyone from our measurement and evaluation personnel work directly with the measurement and evaluation personnel of our partners. As they put together a new health strategy, our team would be involved in helping, supporting, and putting their strategy together. Some of it we fund, and some of it we would not fund. But, we will be partners in that sense. Our work involves having deep conversations.

Q: You gave me the impression that you have a little more involvement in the projects, that you provide funds to grantees while maintaining a certain level of engagement.

Interestingly, we have actually conducted a survey on this issue. And probably, a limited number of our grantees did not like our engagement. For some of the grantees, our level of engagement is off the chart. Some grantees find our engagement more important than the money. In terms of technical capability, we have the best employees in the United States. That kind of staff makes a real difference. There are some grantees that might not like that.

Q: What underlies and characterises your philosophy at the Foundation?

In short, catalytic change at scale. We think it is not our role to simply fund delivery of existing solutions on the ground. We respect that it is incredibly important and we play some role in that. But, we think the unique contribution that we can make is to find places and things that we can take to the next level.

Whether our contributions are in breeding, or in building capacity on the ground for things like finance and extension, what we do is to catalyse and stimulate that change. Some of what we do with the Ethiopian government in agricultural transformation is part of that catalytic change. We are making plans together and are developing implementation tools to realise the catalytic change. That will move and speed the change, which this country is already experiencing.

Q: On your official website, I saw a phrase that reads, “defeating hunger and poverty is not just possible, but it is happening.” Isn’t it too early to declare victory, considering the present nature of the problem?

I think, we are trying to be very careful on two matters. Firstly, half the people recognise the magnitude of the problems, and the importance, as well as the urgency, of working towards it. Secondly, this is not the time to have a sense of hopelessness. In the most recent anniversary, there was a real sense that the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) was going to be a talk of failure. And that kind of failure-talk was not necessary. The statement implies progress is being made.

Q: Can you give me an example?

Absolutely! If you look at the [MDGs], the actual numbers of people living under poverty in the world has declined. The progress that has been made in the past 20 years is greater than it has been in any other time.

It is not only a matter of looking at gross numbers, considering the global population increase; you also have a reduction in percentage (or relative) terms. In the global context, much of that progress, when you dive into the numbers, comes from China. In terms of poverty, we do think of poverty all over the world and there actually has been progress made in countries such as Ghana. In cutting hunger by half, progress has been made, too.

There are also a number of countries that are meeting MDGs.

Yet, maintaining the energy and momentum behind success is an important thing, both in terms of the donor community, the developed world, as well as here on the ground, where the countries are working hard to make progress.

Q: There are two issues about measurements of progress when it comes to statistics on the macroeconomic front and MDGs. International organisations depend on nation states to get their data; the nation states have an interest to portray themselves in a much more positive manner than the reality on the ground. This basically means that governments cook-up the data. On the other hand, you may have all the correct statistics, stating the increased number of kids attending school, compared to the low rates of the past years. But in the quality of whatever social service is being provided, there is a huge gap. Yes, indeed, countries may report that they have made progress in terms of statistics, but on the ground there can be a huge gap.

Certainly, the question of accurate statistics is critical. One way to try to address that problem is by having surveys, which are done, and have been done over many years, by independent bodies. We, as an institution, use actual surveys that we find ourselves from the World Bank, IFAD, and other organisations. Still, we cannot fully take care of it. But you can address it to some degree.

Q: Let me give you an example. The Ethiopian government may report that it has built this number of clinics and increased health provision by whatever percentage. You go to one of the actual clinics and there is only a structure that is not equipped by medical supplies or even personnel. True, on the MDGs' score card, it could be reported that there is an improvement, but in reality there is not much.

We support the MDGs because they focus peoples’ minds and they do have measures. They are imperfect and it is a question of not “throwing a baby out with the bath water,” as we would say, in terms of these imperfections. We believe what they did was energise the effort and focus around the world the key things that need improvement. There are problems, as you have reflected.

Yet, I think, we have to think through the next step which is quality. Similarly, I would be at the Africa Sanitation Conference, which is the largest gathering of sanitation officials in the world, to emphasise on leadership for tomorrow. Taking the MDGs beyond access is something that we have to be working towards.

The whole issue is; is it really working for the people? Are we really helping individuals?

I think there is a serious development of weaknesses, and the question we ask ourselves is on whether our staff members struggle to provide us with the correct picture. This should involve crosschecking whether progresses made are good enough. Sometimes portraits of the progresses might not be directionally correct as compared to the key assumption that you are making, although progress has been made.

Q: Much of the allegations from your critics come as a result of their ideological worldview. They see the alignment of forces coming together against what they say is an imposition of a neo-liberal agenda on Africa. You have International Financing Organizations (IFO) such as the IMF and the World Bank imposing policies. You have foundations, which are somehow in line with these international financing institutions. You have corporations, which are part of the whole foundation network, because the foundations come from these corporations. The concern is that for the first time, there is an alignment of these three groups imposing the interests of the West on Asia, Africa and the underdeveloped world, in order to control resources.

We are hopeful that our role is for more forces to come together within the country. I think Ethiopia is a very good example of what we hope can happen in the agriculture sector. We hope to contribute support to the government in developing the sector. Both the strategy and the implementation are nationally owned and our job is to provide support in developing the strategy, helping get the transformation off the ground, and bring other partners to the table to fund the Ethiopian plan. We see ourselves as part of that triangle. But, what drives off the relationship is what a country needs.

Then, the process would be on how you drag resources against that, and support the country with tools, technologies and funding to try and make achievements.

I appreciate the Washington Consensus problems, in terms of how the IMF and other agencies were driving certain standards and certain change. I also appreciate the concerns when corporations, or other parties, come in with certain view on resources.

Q: How do you feel when you come with funds to support projects, and yet, at the same time, you are subjected to these criticisms?

Criticisms usually make you stronger and better if you stop and listen. It will make you more effective. You have to come with the mindset of pausing and listening to what the criticism is all about. Even in their exaggerated forms; criticisms are words of some kind. So we stop, listen and try to get to the core of the issue.

Q: You seem to give a lot of emphasis on the individual farmer’s choice; on whether or not to embrace what you are trying to introduce and your interest to improve their lives. But in a situation where they may have a state that is not accountable, or refuses to be accountable, and in a situation where the governance issue has a lot more to do with the inability to make individual choices, how concerned are you with the governance issue and a government’s lack of accountability in countries where you work, including Ethiopia?

There are places where there is not enough governance, at any level. There are places that are completely unstable, and those are places where we do not do much work. We do not work in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), for instance. We actually have great sympathy, but we are not engaged in the kind of work we do with Ethiopia.

Yes, we are concerned about it in a sense that one of the things we believe about our work is creating broad ownership. It is not that government leadership is central; however it is a necessary component, but it is not a sufficient component.

I think, what we do is try to make sure that we consistently have our eyes open and embed the work with people as much as possible. We fundamentally believe that when you empower people economically, you empower change because their knowledge, desires and everything moves. That is an important part of an evolving process, one that we can contribute to good governance.

Q: Do you believe there is a kind of political setting in Ethiopia that allows you to make a difference towards your goals?

We feel it is sufficient, or we would not be working here. We hope we are a part of long-term positive change for the individual on the ground in this country, that we can support them in the change, because they are the change agents, not us.


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