Are tech philanthropists really helping abolish poverty?

July 3rd, 2019

What is more important to successfully eradicating poverty: innovative technology and charity, or equality of wealth distribution?

Last month, Bill Gates released an article calling on people from technology backgrounds to use their talents to improve the state of global health and development, emphasising that “people with tech skills can find fascinating problems to work on” in this realm.

He mentions the case of QED founder William Wu who, in a single day, built a script that transformed soil data analysis for a project his wife was working on in Africa. His code can automate the conversion of thousands of data points into GPS coordinates, making it easier and cheaper for farmers to manage soil quality, grow crops and avoid poverty.

‘Tech Saviours’ are constantly in the news for developing these kinds of innovative solutions. And Gates himself is perhaps the most prominent example; an entrepreneurial genius who cares passionately about the planet and its people. He can’t give his money away fast enough, quite literally, because his wealth grows by billions of dollars every year.

Which raises the question: should we be more wary about western tech entrepreneurs promising to solve the problem of global poverty? Having vast amounts of wealth certainly endows these entrepreneurs with enough power to change the world – but whether it qualifies them to do so is another matter.

The Gates Foundation is the biggest funder of research into genetic modification in the world. For every positive story like William Wu’s, there is another which shows how allegedly philanthropic projects are doing more harm than good. From privatisating seed distribution and replacing sustainable farming with harmful chemicals to putting multinational corporations in control of entire food systems, Gates-backed agriculture projects do not always seem to be poverty-led. Look behind the veil of philanthropy, and profit motives appear.

“Our technology promises the magic of constant connectedness. Yet we feel loss, bobbing in a sharing economy in which the technologists seem to own all the shares…” – Anand Giridharadas

In his book, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, Anand Giridharadas similarly rebukes technology tycoons like Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg for their philanthropic efforts, alleging that they are all beneficiaries of the problems they are proclaiming to fix.

In 2017, 82% of wealth created globally went straight to the top 1%. If Silicon Valley aristocrats really want to solve the problem of global poverty, there is a conflict of interest they must face up to first: their place in the current world order. For Gates and co. to be as wealthy as they are, Giridharadas argues, there has to be an abundance of poverty elsewhere in the world.

For its critics, the Gates Foundation is a disingenuous vanity project – a ruse pushed by a mansplaining billionaire to deflect attention from the system that perpetuates his wealth.

But is that fair? Gates is famous for practising what he preaches. If inspiring some of the world’s richest individuals to give half of their immense wealth to charitable causes and spending millions of dollars providing safe sanitation to households in developing countries do not count as positive contributions to the global war against poverty, then critics like Giridharadas are setting an extremely high bar.

Gates himself has acknowledged the ‘Tech Saviour’ critique, commending Giridharadas’ arguments as “thought-provoking” and “admirable” adding, “I appreciate (Anand’s) commitment and dedication to spreading social justice.”

It seems counter-intuitive for Gates to approve of the book that tore him apart and risk further associating his name with the subject. But perhaps he has genuinely listened to the criticisms that have been levelled against him and is now thinking about how his approach to philanthropy might evolve.

Whatever measures Gates takes, he will not be able to satisfy his harshest critics; those who believe a top-down model of philanthropy is fundamentally flawed.

The fact remains, innovative technology has helped bring over one billion people out of poverty in the last 20 years. For many in the tech industry and beyond this would seem of far greater importance than the handful of self-made tech entrepreneurs who have become super-wealthy along the way.

Let me know your thoughts here.