Bill Gates, Namanga Ngongi-WEF Annual Meeting Davos 2008,” World Economic Forum

When those with wealth announce new initiatives, they make headlines. They often want to step in to find solutions that governments, nonprofit organizations, and the private sector have failed to deliver. Their objectives are noble—and if successful, they can improve the lives of millions.

But the ability to make large investments brings with it a degree of power and influence that makes big donors a class unto themselves. In 2012, Paul Brest, the former president of the Hewlett Foundation, observed that this trend put donors and their foundations into the place of “architects, general contractors, or engineers,” with work that “often verges on the operational.”

As a practical matter, only a foundation staffed with experts in a field can undertake this work. During the past decade, foundations played increasingly active and visible problem-solving roles by building fields, brokering collaborative arrangements, and supporting systems change and advocacy.

At a time when public budgets are already strained, large infusions of money that aim to cure disease, improve education, reduce hunger, combat the climate crisis, stem poverty, or heal community conflict would seem beyond reproach. If a philanthropist wants to invest $100 million or $1 billion in any of these areas, rather than buy a private island, how can we argue?

In 2006, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation targeted a new effort to reduce hunger in Africa by improving how local farmers worked their fields. They imagined they could help transform the traditional approaches that were leaving millions starving. The foundation has become the major funder of a $1-billion effort embodied in the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).

According to Jan Urhahn, who heads the Food Sovereignty Program at the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung’s Southern Africa Office in Johannesburg, AGRA came to life with a clear and dramatic vision. He writes in Jacobin that it “set out to double the agricultural yields and incomes of 30 million smallholder households, thereby halving both hunger and poverty in 20 African countries by 2020.”

AGRA’s approach reflects the thinking of its donors. Gates, relying on the Western business models from which its own resources were harvested, believes hunger reduction comes from agricultural improvement, and that this requires governments “to invest public resources into modernization of the rural sector…for a critical mass of smallholders to transition from subsistence to commercially-oriented farm enterprises, supported by the increasing presence of the private sector.”

The resulting growth in productivity generates marketable surpluses and increased farm income that has been shown to spur significant additional growth in the rural non-farm economy through expanded business opportunities for transporting, trading, processing, and retailing farm surpluses; increased demand for local goods and services from better-off farm households; and by the real-income boost to all consumers delivered through lower food prices…

While this potentially virtuous cycle remains subject to volatility, especially in contexts of shifting policies and variable weather patterns, it remains the central process by which productivity growth has been shown to drive rural poverty reduction through increased off-farm value-addition, employment, and income generation, as well as through lower food costs.

In practical terms, AGRA’s efforts worked to recreate the industrial agricultural approach of the West. They urged the governments of AGRA partners to create farm input subsidy programs (FISPs). As Urhahn details, “Farmers are expected to purchase the seeds—mostly hybrid—and synthetic fertilizers promoted by AGRA. The state subsidies for small farms provide an incentive to introduce the bundle of farming technologies AGRA counts as part of its Green Revolution. FISPs have been introduced on a significant scale in ten of AGRA’s thirteen ‘focus countries,’ including Ethiopia, Kenya, Mali, Rwanda, Zambia, and Tanzania.” Food production was steered away from traditional food crops and toward those the program favors, and to using seeds and farming techniques approved by AGRA—more or less the opposite of what a philosophy of regenerative agriculture would recommend.

After 14 years, outside observers tell a story of AGRA’s failure. A consortium of organizations looked at the available public data and concluded in a report entitled False Promises that these strategies haven’t worked and hurt many small farmers:

  • “In countries in which AGRA operates, there has been a 30 percent increase in the number of people suffering hunger, a condition affecting 130 million people in the 13 AGRA focus countries.”
  • “Minimal reduction in rural poverty or hunger…poverty and hunger remained staggeringly high…”
  • “Further erosion of food security and nutrition for poor small-scale food producers where Green Revolution incentives for priority crops drove land use towards maize and away from more nutritious and climate-resilient traditional crops like millet and sorghum. While seeds for traditional crops were formerly easy and cheap to get hold of via farmers exchange, the farmers now have to pay for seeds of “priority crops.”
  • Strong evidence of negative environmental impacts, including acidification of soils under monoculture cultivation with fossil fuel based synthetic fertilizers.”

In sum, they found “little evidence of significant increases in the incomes or food security of small-scale food producers.”

The role of the Gates Foundation in this effort is clear—its power to shape direction and strategy is evident. That its initiative has not worked is part of the risk that comes with innovation. More troubling, though, is that in any public sense, “AGRA fails to be accountable.”

It has not published an overall evaluation of the impact of its programs. It presents no reliable estimates of the number of small-scale food producer households reached, improvements in their yields, household net incomes or food security, or its progress in achieving its own ambitious goals. Similarly, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which provided more than half of AGRA’s funding, remains silent. This lack of accountability and oversight is astounding for a program that drove the region’s agricultural development policies with its narrative of technology-driven input-intensive methods for so long.

Sue Desmond-Hellmann, Gates Foundation CEO, says, “The world won’t get better by itself. We must set big goals and hold ourselves accountable every step of the way.” But is self-accountability enough when the lives of so many people are at risk? At a moment when a small group of fabulously wealthy men and women can mix their own beliefs with their money to steer efforts that lives depend on, we must grapple more directly and forcefully with this critical question.

Donors may agree with the Gates Foundation when it asserts it does its “work in collaboration with grantees and other partners, who join with us in taking risks, pushing for new solutions, and harnessing the transformative power of science and technology.”

We strive to engage with our grantees and partners in a spirit of trust, candid communication, and transparency. Our collective efforts also depend on the support and resources of governments, the private sector, communities, and individuals.

But, as Urhahn notes, that belief is not universally held: “Many social movements, experts, and NGOs…insist that hunger isn’t a problem of production—rather, it’s rooted in the unequal distribution of power resources and control over agricultural inputs such as land and seeds.” Yet the wealth of a large donor may block the ability to hear and learn from these voices.

In an era when so many well-meaning but self-directed wealthy people are turning to philanthropy and public interest investing, building in accountability is vital. But who ensures donors will be held accountable? When charity comes to control public policy, the public’s interest cannot be entrusted to private parties.—Martin Levine