Bill Gates: We Need More than a Superhero to Change the World

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Bill Gates: We Need More than a Superhero to Change the World

Superheroes are having something of a resurgence. Our children continue to be inspired by them. Older generations remember how we were once inspired. And the companies which own them are seeing their profits soar.

When Global Justice Now released Gated Development  –   is the Gates Foundation always a force for good?, in January 2016, we created a spoof superhero game to encourage people to read it. In the game, Bill Gates is a superhero flying across the African continent dropping aid. But no matter how much Gates gives away, his profits keep soaring.  This is because, as we set out in our report, big business is directly benefiting as a result of the Gates Foundation’s activities, despite evidence to show that business solutions are not the most effective.

"The best thing Gates can do is not pump millions into creating a privatised renewable energy market to stand in the way of local, democratic, public and renewable energy networks."

Every January, Bill Gates sets out his vision for a better world and the role the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation can play in achieving this in an annual letter to us all. You can imagine our surprise, when the 2016 letter was released just a couple of weeks ago and Bill Gates himself asks us to imagine we are superheroes.

This year’s letter concentrates on the urgent need for cheap clean energy and the continued scandal of women’s unpaid work.  While I agree with Bill and Melinda Gates about the gravity of both of these problems, the letter does not address two fundamental concerns we raise in Gated Development.

Firstly, the private sector is central to Gates’ solutions on energy, as can be seen from the line-up of supporters (Amazon, Virgin et al) in the Breakthrough Energy Coalition. In Gated Development, we challenge the trend in the Gates Foundation’s programmes to find market-based solutions to poverty, such as developing the commercial seed sector in Africa and cheap private schooling in the Harnessing Non-state Actors for Better Health for the Poor (HANSHEP) programme. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that while these outcomes do wonders for the profit margins of various companies, they fail to address fundamental inequalities in power and wealth, which are the root causes of poverty.

The role of the state, the private sector and communities is a febrile issue in energy. 1.3 billion people cannot even access energy, while our planet is set on a crash and burn course as a direct result of the energy the rest of us have already consumed -  unless, of course, we take immediate drastic action to cut carbon emissions. Our dependence on fossil fuels makes it both uncomfortable to change our carbon intensive lifestyles and unprofitable for our carbon dependent economy. But turning to the private sector, and dismissing the role of the public sector and communities in meeting Africa’s need for clean green energy, would be a mistake.

The generation, transmission and distribution of electricity across Africa remains largely in public hands, despite heavy promotion of privatisation by the World Bank and others, since the 1990s. The state is also the biggest investor, putting in 90% of all investment. Nonetheless, many privately run Independent Power Providers (IPPs) have sprung up, although they have been mired in corruption scandals and have frequently failed to meet their contractual obligations. They have also not been value for money. In Tanzania, the state energy company Tanesco is spending 90% of its revenue on IPPs, leaving little for energy distribution and transmission.

A plethora of community energy initiatives are also being run on a non-commercial basis across Africa.  These have enabled some communities, for example in Kenya, The Gambia and Cameroon, to manage new sources of renewable energy for themselves. However, small off-grid community initiatives have been struggling to keep the costs affordable. A tariff that is cheap enough for community members is often not enough to pay for establishing the initiative in the first place or for major repairs and development of the system. Small off-grid community schemes have also struggled to provide enough electricity for 24 hours access.  This is where the state can step in to provide both the necessary investment and the wider grid network, to give more secure and reliable energy access to everyone. This is why Bill Gates must look to the public sector first in his search for an “energy miracle”. The state should not just be the risk-taker in terms of stumping up cash for research. It is the real bottom line.

Gated Development also raises fundamental concerns about the lack of ownership in the Gates Foundation’s programmes by the people it sets out to help. A recent analysis carried out by the NGO GRAIN could find no evidence of any support from the foundation for programmes of research or technology development carried out by farmers based on farmers’ knowledge, despite the multitude of such initiatives that exist in Africa. GRAIN’s conclusion is that “nowhere in the programmes funded by the Gates Foundation is there any indication that it believes that Africa’s small farmers have anything to teach”. Rather, the foundation is “orientated towards bringing foreign technology into Africa and opening up markets to foreign corporations”.

There is every indication that Gates’ approach to energy will be the same. Yet across Europe people are challenging the private provision of energy and advocating for local, democratic and public provision instead. Robin Hood Energy has been set up by Nottingham City Council to provide a locally run not-for-profit energy alternative. Switched On London, a coalition of unions and campaign groups, is campaigning for a “clean, affordable energy company for people not profit” and is currently asking candidates for London mayor to endorse it.

Bill Gates says he is searching for an “energy miracle”. I think it is democratic ownership of renewable energy. But even if Gates were to support this, it is not something he has the power to give us. We have to claim it for ourselves. The best thing Gates can do is not pump millions into creating a privatised renewable energy market to stand in the way of local, democratic, public and renewable energy networks.

This is where I’d find my superheroes. Not one man zooming round the planet dishing out aid, but masses of people managing green energy for themselves.  

Enjoy our new spoof superhero game. This time you get to save the planet and not just Africa.

Polly Jones

Polly Jones is head of policy and campaigns for Global Justice Now.

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