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We love the Gates foundation but...

In a two part investigative report, The Los Angeles Times uncovers the controversial investment practices of the Bill and Melinda Gates (BMG) foundation. According to this report, while the BMG foundation provides grants that help improve the health conditions of people, it is also at the same time investing in companies that are harming the environment, which gravely damages the health of those very same people it aims at supporting. Beyond the detailed descriptions of the effect of non-environmental industries on health, this report sheds light on the complexity of the concept of social responsibility, particularly in the non-profit field where the concept of social responsible investment is still limited.

The Gates foundation is the world’s largest philanthropic foundation, and its dedication to tackle global health threats such as HIV-AIDS, or Malaria, to name but a few, is crucial in shaping the recent and present global health picture and in encouraging the adoption of important new approaches and programs. The Gates Foundation, like any other foundation, seeks to invest and fructify its seed money in order to sustain its funding and its philanthropic activities for the years and hopefully the generations to come. It has been presumably created with good intentions and hopefully not only for the sake of avoiding paying taxes. Over the years, the Gates Foundation has become the leader of philanthropic organizations; as such, it has also become a target and a symbol. For that reason, the foundation is now and will be constantly object to scrutiny and criticism.

My guess is that the Gates, like many other actors in the non-profit field, have always been keenly aware of this problem. It is obvious that these extremely profitable but life threatening and environmentally harmful industries, will always be lucrative, whether it be for the Gates investments, or others. This assumption is confirmed by the letter that the BMG CEO Patty Stonesifer wrote lately to the LATimes. To that effect, the letter reads "Changes in our investment practices would have little or no impact on these issues". It is also known that besides some extremely harmful industries, the investors cannot have an exact idea about the degree of harm (social, environmental, health…) that the companies are carrying out.

The real problem in my opinion lies in the fact that the large number of corporations that are harming the environment do not face any real penalties or pressure in order to change their practices. The governments and the International community are powerless and have neither found the tools to address such issues nor reached a consensus so as to prevent those practices from continuing. I strongly believe that the solution should be policy driven and that the International community should react through the establishment of different protocols and treaties – such as the Kyoto protocol for instance. That, to my mind, remains the only alternative we have if we are to protect the planet and the human beings whose existence depend on it. I am ready to concede however, that this option cannot possibly take place any time in the near future, as it is still not on the public agenda. Therefore I think that the concept of social corporate responsibility and social responsible investment can be a temporary solution in that it can be effective into pressuring companies and governments, forcing them respectively to change their practices and establish regulations and rules to protect their citizens and environment.

In my opinion, philanthropy, with its optimistic aims, can be a model for investors and influence them to be socially responsible. According to the LA Times reports, some of these organizations have already taken some steps toward a more responsible way of investment. Consequently, if the BMG foundation had agreed to adopt such code of conduct, it would have been a strong signal to philanthropy field and an open invitation to generalize such practice. It is unfortunately obvious that the BMG foundation missed an opportunity to be in the front of this important fight. Their decision may be comprehensible on the financial level but cannot be defended on an ethical one. Thus, it is our duty as citizens, activists, journalists, as well as opinion and policy makers, to express and promote our need for changes in the investment practices, and urgently demand policies that enable the regulation of corporation activities. Therefore I consider that the L.A times report contributed in opening a public debate around the Gates foundation practices. It has pressured the foundation to review its investment policies and consequently shaken the philanthropy field starting an era where every philanthropy will cautiously consider socially responsible investments.


Anonyme a dit…
Social responsible investement is hard to achieve for funds and companies. On one hand they have the obligation to grow their investment and don't miss any opprtunity and on the other they have to select what companies are socially correct to invest in. And the definition can be very limiting. Any company that exploits workers in 3rd world should be eliminated? Drug companies selling crucial medicine for unreasonable prices in very poor countries? Internet companies that cooperate in limiting freedom of speech?Oil companies for their pollution? banks and investment firms investing in such companies?
Not to mention mutual funds that invest in hundreds of companies and it is hard to check them all out, even though we start seeing funds investing only in socially responsible ones.
Even at individual level. Should I investigate any company, I want to buy its stock?
Even if you buy US bonds, aren't you participating in funding a war that nobody wants and that is killing hundreds of thousands of innocents?
I wish these reporters were more realistic.

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