The Problem With Capitalist Philanthropy

Philanthropists like Howard Buffett are the darlings of journalists and the NGO world — but are they really helping Africa?

Hillary Clinton presents the World Food Program’s 2011 George McGovern Leadership Award to Howard Buffett and Bill Gates at the Department of State, October 24, 2011. US Department of State / Wikimedia

In 2015, while on a reporting trip with the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a local journalist told me, “It is difficult to go anywhere in the east of the country without touching one of Howard Buffett’s projects.”

Indeed, having invested in a range of initiatives including hydroelectric power plants, road development, and eco-tourism, Howard Buffett is considerably involved in the east of the country. The photographer, farmer, sheriff, former director of the Coca-Cola Company, and son of the third richest man in the world, has poured millions into the region.

The hydroelectric project was the first stage in an investment program the Congolese national parks authority (ICCN) and the Virunga Foundation, a British charity, drew up together. In 2015, Buffett reportedly pledged an additional $39 million toward two more power generation facilities, and the Virunga Foundation plans to fund more plants, hotels, and infrastructure projects around the park over the next years. In an interview with Reuters, the park’s director, Emmanuel de Merode, said that these initiatives, especially the power plants, will create employment opportunities for communities surrounding the park.

And Buffett’s investments don’t stop there; across the border in Rwanda, his foundation stated in 2015 that it was investing $500 million over ten years in order to “transform” the country’s agriculture “into a more productive, high-value, and market-oriented sector.” So far, the foundation has focused on food security projects, with 67.5 percent of its 2015 contributions funding this sector.

These investments seem laudable. Who can object to improving food security in rural Rwanda or building hydroelectric plants in the DRC’s Kivu region, where basic infrastructure is limited and only about 3 percent of population has electricity? What better way to support the region than by funding power plants and preventing people from cutting down trees for charcoal?

To answer these questions, one must first ask: who exactly is Howard Buffett?

Capitalist Philanthropy and Its Discontents

Howard Buffett, like Bill Gates, belongs to the exclusive club of “capitalist philanthropists” who invest their wealth in solving the world’s major problems in areas like health and agriculture. The Howard G. Buffett Foundation’s mission statement explains that its investments “catalyze transformational change, particularly for the world’s most impoverished and marginalized populations.”

Although philanthropists say they’re helping the powerless, Jens Martens and Karoline Seitz have documented how charitable giving benefits the rich as well. Wealthy businessmen set up the very first American foundations at the beginning of the twentieth century to shield themselves from taxation, build prestige, and gain a voice in global affairs. Since then, philanthropists have come to occupy an increasingly dominant position in economic development, influencing governments and international organizations alike.

Capitalist philanthropists operate at the nexus of charity, capitalism, and development. As Behrooz Morvaridi writes, they are “politically and ideologically committed to a market approach.” By investing vast sums of money in solving complex historical problems, expanding the private sector, and investing in technical fixes, they advance the idea that capitalism is not the cause, but the solution, to the world’s troubles. In the words of historian Mikkel Thorup, capitalist philanthropy obscures the conflict between rich and poor, asserting instead that the rich are “the poor’s best and possibly only friend.”

But the problems capitalist philanthropists claim to be solving are rooted in the same economic system that allows them to generate such enormous wealth in the first place. Martens and Seitz show that charitable giving represents “the other side of the coin of growing inequality between rich and poor”: they uncover a direct correlation between “increased wealth accumulation, regressive tax measures, and funding toward philanthropic activities.”

In her book No Is Not Enough, Naomi Klein writes that over the last two decades, elite liberals have been “looking to the billionaire class to solve the problems” that were formerly addressed “with collective action and a strong public sector.” Indeed, the solutions capitalist philanthropists propose in areas like health care, education, and agriculture erode public sector spending and shift the focus away from structural causes of poverty. In agriculture, structural barriers include trade-liberalization agreements that remove import tariffs and enable rich countries to buy products at a low cost, as well as the global rush for farmland, which, in 2016, translated into almost five hundred deals affecting thirty million hectares of land.

Buffett has criticized the imposition of the American model of industrial agriculture in Africa, which fellow philanthropists, like Bill Gates, advocate. Nevertheless, his investments in eastern Congo and Rwanda are designed to support market-oriented systems. He’s collaborated with Partners for Seed in Africa (PASA) and the Program for Africa’s Seed Systems (PASS), both of which support private seed companies that sell hybrid seeds and fertilizers to farmers, a process that has been criticized for undermining farmers’ age-old practices of openly saving, sharing, and exchanging seeds, and promoting seed diversity. Both programs are part of the controversial Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, which smallholder farmers and livestock keepers from different African countries have criticized for promoting big business and “using intellectual property to establish corporate control over seeds.”

Along with Gates, Buffett has invested $47 million toward a project in partnership with Monsanto to develop water-efficient maize varieties for small-scale farmers. Critics have argued that the agro-giant is trying to shift the ownership of “maize breeding, seed production, and marketing … into the private sector,” thereby ensnaring “small-scale farmers into the adoption of hybrid maize varieties and their accompanying synthetic fertilizers and pesticides” that ultimately benefit seed and agrochemical companies.

Putting aside the irony of having someone who served on the board of directors of Coca-Cola — which funded researchers to downplay its dangerous health effects — decide how farmers in Africa should grow food, it’s worth remembering that Buffett also served on the board of directors for the food giant Conagra Foods, which has faced accusations of abusing labor and environmental codes.

Conservation is the other major priority area for Buffett. Some have described the Virunga National Park, a media darling that has an ongoing partnership with the Buffett Foundation, as a “state within a state”; although it protects the region’s biodiversity from poaching and oil exploration, it has also dispossessed the area’s original inhabitants of their land, and its paramilitary-trained rangers have reportedly mistreated indigenous communities on the park’s outskirts.

The park’s much-hyped hydroelectric plant, too, has stirred significant controversy lately, with some complaining that the price of electricity from the plant has exploded from $5 to $50 for basic household usage. These claims have been disputed by Save Virunga, a group that supports the Virunga National Park.

Buffett also financed peace talks between M23 rebels and the Congolese government in Uganda, a level of meddling that reveals how much influence philanthropists wield over political outcomes. When a UN Group of Experts report found that the Rwanda government was supporting the M23 rebels, Buffett argued against suspending aid to the country. Despite describing itself as a “non-political entity,” his foundation published a report that discredited the Group of Expert’s findings and questioned its experts’ reliability.

Indeed, David Rieff highlights how the philanthro-capitalist project is “irreducibly undemocratic,” if not “antidemocratic.” In his analysis of Bill and Melinda Gates, he notes that there is no check on what they can do, besides “their own resources and desires.” Joanne Barkan points out the problems with private philanthropic foundations: “they intervene in public life but aren’t accountable to the public; they are privately governed but publicly subsidized by being tax exempt” and “they reinforce the problem of plutocracy — the exercise of power derived from wealth.”

That Howard Buffett can invest so freely in the DRC is a product of the country’s devastating colonial past as well as its current subjugation to the neoliberal system. The DRC’s economy has been ravaged by thirty-two years of Mobutu’s Western-backed kleptocracy, World Bank–imposed structural adjustment policies, extraction by transnational mining companies and the Congolese political elite, and a war that took the lives of millions of people.

Buffett argues that his investments are necessary “because no one else is interested in doing it.” But there are numerous Congolese citizens who would like to see a strengthened public sector rather than private investment in services. Many have joined the social movement Lucha (“Lutte pour le changement”) which has been calling on the government to provide the eastern DRC with basic services like running water and proper infrastructure. In their struggle to see Congolese citizens’ material needs met and ensure they can participate in political decision-making, many of their members have faced repression and arrest.

The Power of Narrative

The Howard G. Buffett Foundation has presented its work carefully. Articles from the region published in reputable media agencies, including the Guardian and Al Jazeera, have received support from the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF), which in turn received funding from Buffett. His foundation directly contributes to the organization’s Great Lakes Reporting Initiative, which supports female journalists who work in the DRC, South Sudan, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, and the Central Africa Republic on issues related to “empowerment, democracy, food security, and conservation efforts.”

This seems like a much-needed project: at a time when media outlets face growing budget shortfalls, the IWMF provides cash-strapped journalists with generous grants. I myself was grateful for the support I received from the Great Lakes fellowship to report from eastern Congo, but I also felt uncomfortable with the knowledge of who finances the organization.

The IWMF stresses that it does not influence its grant recipients’ stories, and in an interview said that they find it “unacceptable for a funder to influence the editorial content of the stories [they] facilitate.” However, their preferred areas of focus, particularly food security and conservation, are chosen in partnership with the Howard G. Buffett Foundation.

Ironically, Buffett’s investment in the IWMF exists alongside his support for a dictatorship that has decimated its local press. As Anjan Sundaram documents in Bad News, Rwandan president Paul Kagame has killed, tortured, exiled, and imprisoned journalists across the country. The Committee to Protect Journalists has documented that seventeen journalists have been killed in Rwanda since 1992. Yet Buffett has called Rwanda “the most progressive country on the continent,” and, like many Western donors, enjoys a cozy relationship with its leader.

So far, none of the IWMF articles published from Rwanda offer a critical perspective on the Kagame regime. Jennifer Hyman, the organization’s communications director, said that their support for foreign journalists reporting from Rwanda was not contradictory given the organization’s mandate to promote press freedom and that the organization conducts in-country training for local reporters in the countries where they work. Yet, although the organization has been vocal in condemning the treatment of journalists in Colombia, Bahrain, and Azerbaijan, Hyman was unable to state the IWMF’s position regarding Rwanda’s treatment of its own journalists.

A closer look at the IWMF’s funders offers further insights. On its website, the organization’s 2013 donors include multinational companies like pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, which has faced charges of labor, human rights, and environmental abuses, including using Nigerian children to test an anti-meningitis drug that led to the deaths of eleven children. Walmart — notorious for its exploitative labor practices — also contributed, as did Dole Food Company, accused of enforcing inhumane working conditions and exposing Nicaraguan plantation workers to a banned pesticide. Oil giants Occidental Petroleum and Chevron, as well as Donald Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, also appear on the IWMF’s list of supporters.

The IWMF clarified that this list does not constitute major donors, with the exception of Chevron, Bank of America, and the Buffett Foundation. In response to queries about the apparent contradiction in accepting support from these entities, while at the same focusing on issues around empowerment and democracy in the Great Lakes Region, Hyman responded that IWMF’s mission is to “unleash the potential of women journalists as champions of press freedom … we welcome the support of corporations, foundations, and individuals who believe in that mission.”

In Morvaridi’s words , organizations, including the media, promote the priorities of “elite capitalist philanthropists” and thereby “contribute to the building of the political agenda they support.” The IMWF has successfully reshaped mainstream media narratives in the Great Lakes region, diversifying the range of stories that emerge from that area and influencing international opinion. However, in partnering with the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, it has legitimized Buffett’s activities in the region and his support for the Rwandan government.

Recent revelations from the Paradise Papers demonstrate the extent to which vast sums of wealth are being siphoned from countries like the DRC. It is up to journalists to interrogate the money that enters the country from the billionaire philanthro-capitalist class, and in particular, from men like Howard Buffett, whose vision for regional development — privatization as a path to growth — undermines the ongoing struggle of ordinary Congolese to shape their own future.