Bill Gates: interfering philanthropist

The Bill Gates Problem: Reckoning with the Myth of the Good Billionaire
By Tim Schwab. Henry Holt & Company. 2023. 496 pages.

To say that The Bill Gates Problem: Reckoning with the Myth of the Good Billionaire is hard-hitting would be putting it lightly.

The investigative journalist Tim Schwab has constructed a multifaceted and compelling (if at times overzealous) case against one of the world’s richest men.

Many readers will be surprised by the book’s contents. After all, for decades, the co-founder of Microsoft was almost universally fêted for his accomplishments in business and technology.

The establishment of the vast Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation — which has an endowment of $67.3 billion — a quarter of a century ago added greatly to the aura of greatness surrounding him.

Schwab’s success with this book is likely to change what he calls the “deeply unbalanced, one-sided discourse” about the Gates Foundation.

“Bill Gates is not simply donating money to fight disease and improve education and agriculture. He’s using his vast wealth to acquire political influence, to remake the world according to his narrow worldview,” Schwab writes.


On some issues like education reform in the United States, Gates’s policy positions veer towards a right-of-centre free market approach which Schwab clearly detests, whereas in other areas like family planning, the Seattle plutocrat pushes policies opposed by conservatives.

To Schwab, the broader problem is not about the programmes themselves, but the manner in which Gates advances them. He explains:

“The simple fact is Bill Gates doesn’t have expertise, training or education in most of the topics where he asserts it. And, almost universally, he or his foundation has financial interests in the public policies he endorses.”

He lays various charges against Gates and his Foundation, including the ever-fluctuating estimates of lives saved as a result of its work. This is compounded by the fact that some of the statistics which the Foundation cites come from organisations which have benefitted from their funding.

Bill Gates’s techniques for courting the media appear to have evolved in sophistication from the days when he would invite leading business journalists to his mansion to be wined and dined.

The Foundation has generously funded media outlets focused on particular topics, which inevitably leads to situations where journalists are reporting on Gates’s philanthropic activities without making clear that they have received funding from groups that ultimately answer to him.

Along the way, the Gates Foundation has expanded massively, to the point where it employed over 1,800 people in 2021, employees who appear to enjoy an average compensation package of around $250,000.

Excessive bureaucracy and micromanagement from above is apparently the norm within the organisation, with Gates maintaining a strong grip.

Education policy disputes are the source of a good deal of Schwab’s ideological animus against the billionaire.

Here, his narrow-minded dismissal of both charter schools and Gates’s efforts in trying to improve America’s desperately poor government-run schools detracts from his overall argument, as Schwab does not ask himself hard questions about why there is such a crisis in the public education sector.


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Likewise, his suspicion of the use of GMOs in agriculture — which the Gates Foundation has supported — leads to some unpersuasive criticisms.

Schwab suggests that “if GMO technology is going to be successful in poor nations, it should be local scientists producing the new seeds.” This is a curious line of argument given the relatively limited technological or scientific standards which exist in impoverished countries.

Population control

Though he lets his passions and sharply defined ideological worldview cloud his judgement at times, Schwab is open-minded as well, as seen in his description of the Gates Foundation’s work relating to family planning in the developing world.

Here, the facts on their own are sinister enough without any embellishment being necessary. The son of a Planned Parenthood activist, Bill Gates was speaking publicly about his personal interest in population control more than 30 years ago.

Schwab explains that in the era of Bill Gates Senior, what is now called ‘family planning’ was organised “less around women’s rights or reproductive justice and more as a top-down effort to manage the world’s growing population,” and he goes on to elaborate on the dark origins of Planned Parenthood and its founder Margaret Sanger’s association with white supremacy and eugenics.

Gates is clearly not of the same ilk, but his much-publicised work to ensure that 120 million additional women would begin using contraception certainly harks back to an earlier time when a small number of determined activists sought to slow the growth of certain populations.

Bill Gates and his former wife Melinda have denied that their intention is to tell people in poor countries to limit their family size.

However, Schwab provides a useful quote from a historian of population control who observes that their Foundation’s disinterest in funding treatments for infertility suggests that so-called family planning services are designed with a specific goal in mind.

The Gates Foundation does not fund abortion, and Schwab takes issue with this, while also suggesting that the decision probably relates to Gates’s need to retain good relations with both the Republican and Democratic political elites who he has assiduously courted over the years.

As with the Foundation’s decision to provide India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi with a humanitarian award in 2019, this shows how cold political calculations guide so much of its work.


Bill Gates the human being does not fare any better in this book than does Bill Gates the businessman, Bill Gates the policy wonk or Bill Gates the global philanthropist.

The book begins with an account of how the young Bill pressured his close friend and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen into accepting a smaller stake in the company than he had previously agreed to.

Schwab goes on to describe a toxic culture of hypercompetitive bullying which existed within Microsoft and makes clear where he thinks this atmosphere stemmed from.

He describes the allegations of inappropriate conduct by Gates towards female employees within a chapter titled ‘Women’, where Gates’s association with the infamous sex offender Jeffrey Epstein is detailed.

His opulent lifestyle is contrasted sharply with the manner in which he portrays himself as an all-knowing problem solver dedicating his efforts to helping the world’s most underprivileged people.

Schwab asks the reader a basic question.

“If you are a religious person, can you point to any scripture, doctrine, or holy book that rationalises or endorses this model of wealth and power? Or, if you understand the world through politics, what theory or ideology can you point to that makes sense of Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation, outside the idea of oligarchy?”

Even if Schwab’s policy approach is often too simplistic, this is a fair and pressing question.

George Orwell wrote nearly a century ago that “Money is what God used to be.”

The ‘Money God’ he writes of in ‘Keep the Aspidistra Flying’ is now best embodied in the ‘Money Gods’.

It is not just that too much wealth is concentrated in the uppermost socio-economic stratum. Today’s oligarchs are held up as idols for the young to worship and for young and old alike to listen to with the deepest reverence as they pontificate.

This naturally leads to an unhealthy political and social dynamic where leadership appears to come from those with financial heft, rather than coming from those with a democratic mandate.

Our opposition to this is selective. For those on the right, George Soros is the bête noire; for those on the left, Elon Musk has become a target of particular vitriol.  

It would be far better to apply the same standards to any billionaire whose intentions involved guiding public policy to an unnatural degree.

Money cannot be used to buy votes in today’s democracies, and neither should it be used to buy influence, least of all by outsiders who share no real connection to a country’s citizens.

A scepticism towards the rich is necessary, and in the case of Bill Gates, that scepticism appears to be richly deserved. 

Most people have strong opinions about Bill Gates. What are yours? Leave a comment in the box below! 

James Bradshaw writes on topics including history, culture, film and literature.

Image: Wikimedia Commons


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  • Steven Meyer
    commented 2024-03-15 13:24:02 +1100
    Here’s another perspective. Like all of us Bill Gates is a flawed human being. On the whole I think he’s doing more good than harm. That’s about all you can ask of him, or anybody else.

    “It is not just that too much wealth is concentrated in the uppermost socio-economic stratum.”

    What? You some kind of commie? You want to redistribute wealth? :)

    On a more serious note, plutocracy is, always has been, and always will be the only form of government. This was as true about the former Soviet Union as it is about present day China and the US.

    That’s the bad news.

    The good news is that you can have a fairly democratic type of plutocracy in which the benefits of growth are widely spread as used to be the case in The United States until recently. Or you can have an authoritarian plutocracy as in CCP ruled China.

    But which ever way you look at it, wealth – and power – is always going to be “concentrated in the uppermost socio-economic stratum.”

    “This naturally leads to an unhealthy political and social dynamic where leadership appears to come from those with financial heft, rather than coming from those with a democratic mandate.”

    Name a time when the people with “financial heft” did not wield power out of all proportion to their numbers.

    “Money cannot be used to buy votes in today’s democracies, and neither should it be used to buy influence, least of all by outsiders who share no real connection to a country’s citizens.”

    I see a lot of “should” and “should not” but never any “how”. So how do you plan to curtail the power of the wealthy class?

    This is a problem that Marx and the nineteenth century communists wrested with. In the Soviet Union and in today’s China the state has too much power. In the present-day United States the wealthy class has too much power..

    The trade unions used to be a source of countervailing power. But they are mostly gone.

    My forecast for the future. Neo-feudalism with large corporations in place of castles and phalanxes of spin doctors, lawyers and PR flacks instead of knights.

    Lincoln got it half right. You can fool some of the people all the time and all the people some of the time but you can’t fool all the people all the time.

    However, as the the wealthy class proved, you can usually fool enough of the people most of the time.

    The social justice warriors, like the prophet Amos, or Jesus, never win.

    So it goes.
  • mrscracker
    I’m not a fan of the Gates Foundation overall but its Early College Highschool program is a great idea & benefitted one of my children.
  • Paul Bunyan
    commented 2024-03-11 14:33:50 +1100
    Over 120 million pregnancies every year are unintended. Reducing this number would reduce population growth, and perhaps even lead to population decline. This would be very beneficial for women and low-income communities. Poverty and crime will decrease. Drug cartels wouldn’t have cheap labor to exploit. Terrorists couldn’t recruit desperate children who see no future.

    Of course, Elon Musk and his cronies wouldn’t have as many workers to slave away for them at below-starvation wages, but we certainly can’t keep growing our population forever. And neither should we encourage it.
  • James Bradshaw
    published this page in The Latest 2024-03-11 13:58:33 +1100