Many cheered Zuckerberg’s largesse to donate 99% of his (and his wife Priscilla Chan’s) stock in the social-networking company, in his lifetime, because the estimated value of that pledge is US$46 billion. It’s anticipated that more wealthy individuals will follow suit (FOMO?) and donate their big bucks to worthy causes. Fans said Team Zuckerberg had set a new philanthropic benchmark and that theoretically ‘millions’ of people can now be lifted out of poverty.
He had a good mentor in Bill Gates who started the Gates Foundation (US$39.6 billion endowment as of last year) and parallel to that, the Giving Pledge, pestering America’s, and then the world’s, wealthiest families and individuals to give away all their money to charitable causes. Gates’ philanthropy funds the seemingly intractable and less addressed diseases called neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) such as guinea worm, river blindness, sleeping sickness and hookworm, so this is money clearly aimed at the poor and vulnerable.
The two tech titans diverge, however, on a key point. The Gates Foundation operates as a 501(c)3 nonprofit, so it’s required by law to be transparent (read, audits) and ultimately is restricted or banned from activities such as political donations or political lobbying. Zuckerberg created an investment vehicle (as in a limited liability company or LLC) not a nonprofit, charitable foundation. An LLC can invest in for-profit companies, give money to political parties and lobby government (at all levels) to change laws. So Gates’ structure is the antithesis of the Zuckerberg model. By pledging his Facebook shares and not the cash from the sale of same (i.e. triggering capital gains) or when his daughter inherits, Zuckerberg’s LLC is a stupendous tax shelter.
As we’ve seen with the recent Panama Papers leak, no tax filing equals no transparency or accountability. By pledging shares into a for-profit LLC, this megaphilanthropy means billions of unrealised tax dollars will not make it into the public sector.
At the end of the day Bill and Melinda Gates absolutely control where their funding goes, too, but they are neither development nor health professionals, nor even arms-length professional philanthropists. Gates and Zuckerberg have experienced funding debacles with their forays into education and Gates’ ‘chickengate’ in Bolivia is lamentable. As one of the largest funders to the World Health Organization, the Gates Foundation dominates the global health agenda.
Undemocratic or nonrepresentational processes or those cloaked in subterfuge continue to put more and more power in the hands of wealthy elites and private individuals. Who is writing the rules and performing oversight? Appealing to the mega-rich to fund the eradication of the world’s problems is not the panacea we might all hope for. How do technological fixes like smart pills and shiny gadgets solve or end discrimination, oppression or environmental destruction?
“We need a system that does not create so many billionaires,” said public health researcher Dr David McCoy in 2012. “[But] until we do that, this kind of philanthropy [remains] a distraction or is potentially harmful to the need for systemic change to the political economy.” Political will is what we’re after, not tax dodging disguised as altruism.
This is what plutocrats hate: better and more education for women and girls; upending the status quo; obliteration of patriarchy, superstition and ignorance. These are the things we must do together to not only dismantle the systemic causes of poverty, but to address the inherent contradictions of capitalism and the neoliberal market.
Otherwise we continue to spray our fire extinguishers at the top of the fire and not its base.
Dana McNairn is the CEO of KOTO, an award-winning nonprofit social enterprise and vocational training programme for at-risk youth