By Jacklee [CC BY-SA 4.0 ], from Wikimedia Commons

August 23, 2018; World Development

An article in the latest World Development Journal finds that staff at the Gates Foundation have trouble making effective grants because they are all trying so hard to be the smartest guy in the room.

The article examines the organizational culture of the foundation’s Agriculture Developmental program and finds that its heavy emphasis on strategic planning distracts from the practices on the ground from which they might learn and build. Specifically, it “abstracts away from smallholder farmers’ sociocultural worlds and relies on a generalizable set of development solutions.” The “bright, high achievers” on staff end up learning to manage up to Bill, presumably the alpha smartest-guy-in-the-room, instead of toward the farmers—and this, it seems, creates a bit of a bubble.

“As a result,” Rachel Schurman writes, “farmers continue to be treated as passive objects of development rather than as complex social actors.”

This sounds eerily familiar as a Gates diagnosis. Bill himself has apologized multiple times for this same failing in his Foundation’s education agenda, which has repeatedly failed to produce results but which he nonetheless is taking to scale internationally. Here is a short history of those efforts, as written in 2016 by NPQ’s Marty Levine:

After more than five years of foundation support, in 2009, Bill Gates reported on the failure of their investment in “small schools”: “Many of the small schools that we invested in did not improve students’ achievement in any significant way.” The foundation’s lessons learned from this experience did not result in any questioning of their core belief that the answer to building a more equitable society would be found within our public schools. They just shifted their focus to increasing the number of charter schools, creating test-based teacher evaluation systems, improving school and student data management, and setting universal standards through the common core curriculum. Each has struggled, and none appear to have been effective.

In 2014, the BMGF supported InBloom, an effort to create a national educational data management system, shut down after parents protested the collection and storage in the cloud of data on their children. Various states withdrew their support, and NPQ reported last September on the failure of one of these Gates-funded initiatives, Empowering Effective Teachers.

Desmond-Hellman has led the foundation as it has invested heavily in the effort to create a national set of learning standards, the Common Core Curriculum. Despite over $300 million in foundation funding, alliances with other large foundations, and strong support from the U.S. Department of Education, the effort has drawn bitter opposition and decreasing support. The strong push that the DoE gave states to implement the Common Core was seen as an unwanted intrusion of federal power into local schools. The use of Common Core to build a testing regimen for students and teachers was seen as disruptive and ineffective. Test data show little impact on bridging the inequity gap in states using Common Core.

As Levine observes, “The problem as seen by Gates is not the strategy, but the high level of resistance they have found to their attempts to implement it.”

Here, we might refer the Gates Foundation to management guru Chris Agyris’s observations on teaching smart people to learn. These bright, high achievers, he says, are so unused to failing that they lack the skills of introspection born of humility, instead blaming results of their own failures on things external—for example, the resistance and rebellion of a populace that does not appreciate being treated as passive objects of development rather than sources of energy, wisdom, and agency.—Ruth McCambridge