Bill Gates, Coca-Cola, and Third World Farmers

Dana Goldstein did an interview with Bill Gates, timed to coincide with the release of his annual letter about his philanthropic activities, and her writeup on the Gates Foundation raises a number of interesting issues. I thought I might focus on this, though:

The world’s richest man, Gates remains a general promoter of the private sector’s good intentions. One of the Gates Foundation’s newest investments is $7.5 million to link 50,000 poor fruit farmers in Uganda and Kenya to Coca-Cola’s supply chain. The goal is to double the farmers’ income by 2014. Chris McDonald, a business ethicist and Coca-Cola expert, has raised questions about whether the plan could leave poor families economically dependent upon the whims of a multinational corporation, but overall McDonald told the Seattle Times, “This clearly seems like a positive thing.”

What always leaves me scratching my head about uber-rich philanthropists is why so many of their activities are so depoliticized. The state plays an enormous role in the economy and in people’s lives — much larger than any foundation ever could — and one of the biggest ways someone with a lot of money can impact the world is by using the money as a lever to move states. Gates, however, generally doesn’t do this outside the field of K-12 education, and even there, as Dana has written, he tends to steer himself toward relatively safe “centrist” ideas about charter schools and teacher pay (ideas of which I approve, to be clear) rather than tackling the hottest political issues.

And this business with farmers and the Coca-Cola supply chain seems like a great example to me. Poor people really need money, which means they need to be connected with people who have money and might give it to them in exchange for work. Which is to say developed world consumers and the corporations who intermediate our interactions with producers. Hence this supply chain idea. But the biggest thing cutting developed world farmers out of the supply chain for Coca-Cola and others isn’t a logistic issue, it’s developed world agricultural policy. In the US, for example, Coke is made with high-fructose corn syrup thanks to barriers to importing sugar and subsidies for the growing of corn. This kind of thing is incredibly difficult to change even though you’d be hard-pressed to find serious policy analysts who think it’s a good idea. It’s incredibly difficult to change because the interest group pressure is all on the side of US corn and sugar producers. But that’s the kind of dynamic the richest man on the planet could conceivably change.