Friday, June 27, 2008

Bill Gates: Short-Sighted Philanthropist

Today is Bill Gates' last day at Microsoft before he begins his full-time focus on Philanthropy through his Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. So today I get to bitch about philanthropy and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The problem I have with philanthropy, charitable organizations, is that their goals are short-sighted, their focus is narrow. In order to create the feeling of accomplishment they limit the scope of their pursuit and fail to acknowledge the full repercussions of their actions. For example, the Global Health Program overview for the BMG Foundation. The page notes that "millions of people" die each year in developing countries from diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis. So, obviously, the thing to do is provide treatment for malaria and tuberculosis. Right? Well, let's perform a thought experiment.

Let's say that without treatment 500,000 children age eight and younger would die each year in developing countries. So we provide treatment and save their lives. Terrific, except now there are 500,000 more children to feed in developing countries. So, we donate money to farming organizations or food production. Fine, except now we have placed a greater strain on the world's food supplies. So we develop more land for agriculture, which deforests more land so impacting the world's atmosphere. And that's just food. What of the other resources those 500,000 beings require? Given that Earth's Resources are Finite was it truly beneficial to create a situation in which more people put a larger strain on developing countries?

That's just one of the many problems the BMG Foundation, and any life-saving charity creates. Sure, one could focus on the hypocrisy involved in the BMG Foundation investing its funds in companies who utilize slave labor or destroy the land and atmosphere in these developing countries. But what of simply the short-sighted solutions offered for incredibly complex problems?

HIV is another great example. The treatment is far too expensive for most individuals in third world countries to afford. So an organization donates medicine. Fine, but as the previously linked article notes, "when the free drugs are gone, patients die". Congratulations, you've created a welfare society which is not only completely not self-sufficient, but who will die off once you stop giving money. Also, the story in the article notes another aspect of HIV medication. With no means of refrigeration individuals have to maintain a daily supply of ice for their medication lest it melt. Couple that with the strict time requirements of HIV medication and an individual’s life becomes primarily a routine to combat the disease. Wake up, travel to a location for ice, bring ice home, take medicine at 10 a.m., take medicine at 10 p.m. When people are living in poverty to begin with in what way are they behooved by their enslavement to fighting the disease?

Saving lives sounds good; it is rhetorically compelling. But when one abandons rhetoric and feel-gooderies and rather objectively observes the world in which they live? This sort of charity not only ceases to make sense, as if it ever did, but also becomes more of a form of slow torture, dependence, and rampant idiocy. People need to die; this is reality. The full transformation of all locations from arid wastelands of poverty and filth to industrialized societies with Wal-Marts and Strip Clubs is fundamentally a fool's errand and impossible goal to obtain. Earth simply does not have enough shit for everyone born to live, for everyone to have what they need, or for life everywhere to be tolerable. Fuck the ideal, let's simply focus on the fact that if you cure a third world child's TB you've basically only afforded it the opportunity to enjoy a life of squalor. Oh boy!

Is that to say that one oughtn't try? Not necessarily. But one does need to have a realistic approach and abandon the platitude of "all lives, no matter where they are lived, have equal value" and rather assess the overall survival of the species. Maybe instead of curing tuberculosis we ought to focus on, say, discovering a non-polluting, cost effective fuel source which could be used the world over to provide cheap energy? Maybe instead of focusing on individual, easy to solve problems and ignore the larger picture we need to focus on the larger picture and ignore individuals.

Or maybe I've missed the point and Bill Gates can do whatever the fuck he wants since he has 58 billion dollars. I mean, currency is meaningful, right?


Roscoe said...

are you equally opposed to philanthropy effots like say, Carnegie's Libraries?

I get what you're putting forward - Actions have consequences..

but you're doing the equivalent of saying it's a problem, it will always be a problem, deal with it.

you're criticising a person for taking action, because they're capable of it, and your criticisms are founded on their taking action, NOT pursuant to their outlooks upon life, but pursuant to yours.

In other words, you're knocking them not for their actions, but because they don't see the world in the same manner.

_J_ said...

"are you equally opposed to philanthropy effots like say, Carnegie's Libraries?"

I'm ok with people building libraries for the sake of building libraries and, say, affording people in small towns access to books. That is a sensible goal-approach-execution.

There is a great deal more involved with "saving lives". And to both fully grasp "life saving" and to actualize "life saving" requires far more than just funding flu shots.

Though, if the goal for funding TB cures was to ONLY ensure that 100% of human beings do not have TB? Then I would be ok with it insofar as they had a goal "cure TB" and executed a sensible action to reach that goal. It would still be something of an idiotic goal with no discernable reasoning behind it...but at least the approach would fit the goal.

_J_ said...

Think of it in terms of balloons.

Goal: Everyone has a balloon.
Reason: For the sake of everyone having a balloon.
Action: Give everyone a balloon.

That would be a sensible endeavor insofar as it had internal consistency. We can question whether or not "balloon having" is a sensible or useful goal to have...but that is secondary to the Goal, Reason, Action relation.

BMG Foundation:
Goal: Fix teh world
Reason: Feel better about ourselves
Action: Fund TB medication for children living in squalor

That doesn't make one shit-stained inch of sense.

Roscoe said...

But you're assuming either that the foundation won't be A) following up upon latter complications.. or B) that they aren't actually just interested in curing TB,or what have you.

You're arguing FOR libraries on the grounds that they're for granting access to books.. but his libraries were also to improve education, to uplift everyone. And yet, Carnegie can't have people forced to go in and learn.

Essentially, you're arguing against the Gates foundation for not providing for every step of making someone's life perfect, but not for Carnegie. You're making unequal cases, either by extrapolating and assigning more responsibility to the Gates foundation, or by narrowly confining counter-examples.

But philanthropy doesn't come at issues that way. They have a surplus of money, and look to make visible, mesurable improvements in an issue...

Give the foundation time or at least the leeway to take an issue one step at a time, will ya?

kylebrown said...

But by your own ideals the libraries must be a bad thing! Finite resources were wasted in that endeavor. Between land, building materials, and the books, those libraries were massive wastes of resources. Think of the trees, and finite amount of building materials and land that were used.