OPINION: Bill Gates – Doing better and listening to African civil society

by Community Alliance for Global Justice / AGRA Watch


Earlier this year, several media outlets made alarming headlines about Bill Gates’ status as the largest private owner of farmland in the United States. Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). African civil society organizations have spoken out against AGRA’s industrial agriculture model for over a decade, and the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA), the largest civil society network on the continent, recently called on wealthy donors to “stop telling Africans what kind of agriculture Africans need.” So how does the agricultural development of the Gates Foundation still seem positive to so many people in the United States?

First, Gates spent millions of dollars to fund media. Analysis from 2019, as well as our own reviews, suggest that AllAfrica.com, Al Jazeera, The Guardian, Le Monde, National Public Radio, and Public Radio International are among the media that have received large grants from the Gates Foundation for extend their coverage. development and public health issues. Some journalists from Gates-funded media have suggested that this “philanthro-journalism” prevents public criticism of the Foundation, encouraging journalists to cover the “successes” of development aid rather than the failures.

Second, the Gates Foundation claims that its interventions are backed by “science”. By extension, critiques of their work are presented as “anti-science” – a serious accusation in this age of “alternative truths” and disinformation campaigns. The Foundation only supports certain forms of science, namely genetically modified seeds, increased use of chemical fertilizers and other inputs that farmers have to buy from large food companies and their African subsidiaries. They have also funded programs, like the Cornell Alliance for Science, that train communications professionals to write compelling propaganda for biotechnology and anti-agroecology.

Yet agroecology is too scientist. It has been defined as “the science of applying ecological concepts and principles to the design and management of sustainable agroecosystems”, and it stems from an appreciation of indigenous and non-Eurocentric agricultural practices and knowledge.

A 2009 report co-authored by scientists around the world suggested a role for the two biotechnology and agroecology in the food production of tomorrow. Specifically, the report identified a need for increased public and private investment to strengthen agroecological research capacities and extension services. Despite this, a tiny minority of Gates Foundation grants go to agroecological research and partnerships, while a majority of their agricultural development grants go to industrial agriculture and biotechnology development. Additionally, the Foundation funds programs that attack agroecology rather than working with communities to develop holistic, integrated and participatory approaches for truly sustainable agriculture.

The Gates Foundation has been able to put a positive spin on what the available evidence suggests is in fact an embarrassing record of failure in agricultural development:

  1. Despite Bill Gates’ emphasis on data, until recently the Foundation did not engage in comprehensive evaluations of some of its major agricultural development programs. An evaluation carried out in 2020 found that although beneficiaries collected data, they did not do it in a systematic manner; therefore, it was not possible to draw reliable conclusions about the results of the program.
  2. AGRA and the Gates Foundation’s broader agricultural development funding have also failed to deliver on promises to reach tens of millions of smallholder farmers, increase crop yields and increase farmer incomes. . Although yields of some crops increased slightly, most of the gains were limited to demonstration plots, as high-yielding seed varieties cost more and require more chemical inputs than farmers could afford. And the yields of many other important staple crops in Africa, such as millet and sorghum, actually declined under AGRA.
  3. Finally, AGRA did not reduce hunger. In Kenya, for example, the number of food insecure people has increased by 4.2 million since AGRA’s programs began, with hunger rates remaining at the same level, commensurate with the size of the population.

As recent reports have pointed out, Bill Gates’ model of “catalytic philanthropy” is based on giving money to the rich to “help” the needy. Much of the Foundation’s agricultural development funding goes to research institutions, businesses and NGOs located in the Global North. Meanwhile, AGRA’s Board of Directors exclusively represents the interests of government and / or the private sector. There is not a single board member who represents civil society or agricultural organizations. The model of industrial agriculture promoted by AGRA, which benefits businesses far more than real farmers, is gaining even more ground at the global level thanks to the upcoming United Nations Food Systems Summit (UNFSS), which the President from AGRA, Agnes Kalibata, supervises as Special Envoy. The controversial UNFSS sidelined civil society and gave greater voice and decision-making power to corporate interests.

Many aspects of the Gates Foundation (and other philanthropic foundations) are deeply undemocratic. The board of directors of the Gates Foundation has long been made up primarily of family members and founders. Although the Foundation receives huge public tax grants, there is also no democratic mechanism for the general public to have a say in how the Foundation’s assets are spent for public purposes. Yet even in the context of these very problematic structures, Gates can do better.

At the very least, Bill Gates should engage with his critics and fund solutions that are required and relevant to the African farmers and communities he claims to want to help. Since June of this year, African civil society organizations and farmers’ associations have written letters to the Gates Foundation (and other AGRA donors), calling for dialogue and encouraging a shift in priorities. funding, away from industrial agriculture towards agroecology. The Gates Foundation has still not responded.

As Ijeoma Oluo writes in his new book, Mediocre: The dangerous legacy of white male America, “Somehow we have agreed that rich white men are the best group to bring us prosperity, when their wealth has been stolen from our work. Bill Gates epitomizes this white male mediocrity, and we have to stop believing that he’s somehow more of an expert on African agriculture than real farmers and community organizations based in Africa, just because he’s rich.


Community Alliance for Global Justice (CABJ) is a Seattle-based grassroots organization. CABJ’s dedicated volunteers put their skills, time and money to work for a fair local and global economy. CABJ AGRA watch is a local Seattle-based group that challenges the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s questionable agricultural programs in Africa, including its Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). You can find out more about CABJ and AGRA Watchworks on cagj.org.

?? Featured Image: Members of the Community Alliance for Global Justice (CAGJ) / AGRA Watch celebrate with the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa at the 2018 African Food Systems Summit in Senegal. Photo courtesy of the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa.

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