Gates Foundation, PR, and spin in South Asia

More on “Creative Capitalism”. PR Newswire has a release that USAID will be working with the Gates Foundation to help more than “six million farmers achieve significant cereal yield increases over the next ten years” (link). Readers might be interested in the Newsweek report (Hamm:2009) on the “Artemisinin Project”, a joint venture by pharma major sanofi-aventis and biotech startup Amyris Biotechnologies. Backed by the Gates Foundation, the project aims to provide malaria drugs to African and Asian countries and though it does not make money it provides revenues, technology, and, for Amyris, a launchpad for a different product — the startup has raised $120 million in venture capital.¬† For sanofi-aventis, the project is expected to deliver good PR and expand sales of its ACT products.

It is another matter that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will spend less than it previously planned on grants this year, a sign of their lack of immunity to the turmoil in the financial markets. According to Wall Street Journal (see Guth:2008) the charity’s payout of grants in 2009 will be expanded by 10%, less than they originally planned. According to Guth, “the officials didn’t provide the original growth plan nor give a total amount of grants the foundation expects to make next year”. Thus, we do not have any idea of their commitment to South Asia, yet we are treated to press releases that states:

farmers will add economic value of more than $1.5 billion per year and will achieve substantial savings in production costs. It will reduce hunger and malnutrition and increase the incomes of small-holder farm families in South Asia.

The problem here is that “generalist” journalists will have little understanding of the intricacies of such interventions in poor countries. For example, how will this be achieved? What is the remit of this project? Why are are the project details being talked about in such vague and general terms? What are the commercial interests behind this project?

I would like to point readers in the direction of an article by Spinwatch on how established and eminent news agencies such as Reuters can fall for the spin, lobbying, and PR efforts of various bodies whose affiliations are often not known (link). As a result, journalists unwittingly valorise the activities of corporates without considering the wider ramifications of their reporting. But there is deeper and troubling ideological issue that is unseen. Writing in the peer-reviewed journal The Information Society, Siobhan Stevenson of the Faculty of Information, University of Toronto, Ontario, Canada, presents us with persuasive analysis that Gates Foundation’s work cannot be taken at face value (see Stevenson:2009). She argues that the Gates Foundation is emblematic of post-Fordism. Unlike the Fordist model, which required a compromise between state, capital, and labour, the post-Fordist model gives capital the means to enter into (and influence) all aspects of societal relations. For example, the condition of the South Asian farmer is a direct result of the disruption to the economy of the region (see Maheshwari & Tandon:1959 and Assadi:2000). A look at the history of increasing food grain production makes the Gates Foundation-USAID project problematic, especially when you consider what their press release states:

By producing at least five million tons more grain annually as a result of CSISA farmers will add economic value of more than $1.5 billion per year and will achieve substantial savings in production costs. It will reduce hunger and malnutrition and increase the incomes of small-holder farm families in South Asia.

A similar program unleashed in the 70s, the “green revolution” (see Chakravarti:1973), is perhaps comparable to what the Gates Foundation is trying to achieve. And the green revolution has been widely criticised for placing technology at the centre of a problem that is largely socio-political. The latest initiative by USAID-Gates Foundation¬† is perhaps headed in the same direction. As evidenced by literary, archeological, and other source, prior to the advent of industrialisation, the Indian economy was prosperous and a famine had never broken out in the region. The situation of the farmers in India is a direct result of the very conditions that gave rise to the post-Fordist Microsoft and its philanthropist Bill Gates. Instead of addressing the causes of the farmer struggles, the issue is framed as a techno-managerial one. As argued by Stevenson and the evidence provided about the workings of the Gates Foundation, such initiatives foreclose the possibility of alternative problem definitions by making the problem a technical and administrative problem rather than an issue of historic class struggle.

References

Anon (2009) “New Partnership to Ensure South Asia’s Food Security in the Face of Climate Change” PR Newswire, Jan 23, Link

Assadi, Muzaffar (2000) “Seed Tribunal: Interrogating Farmers’ Suicides”, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 35, No. 43/44 (Oct. 21 – Nov. 3, 2000), pp. 3808-3810

Chakravarti, A. K. (1973) “Green Revolution in India” Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Vol. 63, No. 3 (Sep), pp. 319-330

Guth, Robert A.¬† (2008) “U.S. News: Gates Foundation Feels Pinch From Market Turmoil” Wall Street Journal. (Eastern edition). Nov 25 pg. A.5

Hamm, Steve (2009) “”‘Creative Capitalism’ Versus Malaria”. Business Week, 26 Jan, Issue 4117, p83-83

Lipietz, A. (1992) Towards a new economic order: Postfordism, ecology and democracy Oxford University Press , New York

Maheshwari, P; Tandon, S. L. (1959) “Agriculture and Economic Development in India” Economic Botany, Vol. 13, No. 3 pp. 205-242

Stevenson, Siobhan (2009) “Digital Divide: A Discursive Move Away from the Real Inequities” Information Society, Jan, Vol. 25 Issue 1, p1-22

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