You could either say that Bill Gates is the most generous man in the world (now even more so that he gets others to donate through him), or you could say that he is a man who made his money as a monopolist who now gives his money away as an authoritarian. Personally, I think the truth is somewhere in between.

Still there´s a very important issue at stake in philanthropy and that is that even people with a tremendous amount of money who mean well, can cause enormous harm. For example, Bill Gates initial plan of vaccinating a huge number of children in Africa sounds perfect until you start wondering who will take care of those children later on in life. So here´s my sugestion to Bill Gates. I think that he should introduce democratic decission making methods in his foundations and he should introduce them through the internet. My basic idea here is that there are enough people on the internet around the world who care and that the Gates Foundation should run referendums before spending large amounts of money. One referendum could be “should the Gates foundation provide vaccination to all children of Africa”, Yes or No. And then there would be a period of debate on the internet in the form of a wiki and then a day to vote.

As the Wikipedia has shown, there´s value in collective knowledge so not only would the foundation be more effective this way, but it would be more democratic. Foundations and multinational corporations are becoming quasi governments. Just like in the past, I recommended in this blog that Google runs a referendum with its users in China on whether it should accomodate to the requirements of the Chinese Government or not.

I strongly believe that large foundations such as Gates should run referendums on major actions that may change the course of history.

Follow Martin Varsavsky on Twitter:

No Comments

Pelle on July 8, 2006  · 

While I agree with your concerns and am not particularly sure that Bill Gates knows more about whats good for Africa than your average man on the street I do disagree with you that this should be up for referendum.

Firstly if he wanted to do so thats fine, but I really doubt that the general public who has been fed the overly simplistic poverty story in Africa would do anything different than what Gates is doing. Gates has already publicly questioned the development of technology in Africa as being of any kind of importance.

In reality what Africa needs is open markets as well as projects such as FON. Aid is generally a really bad idea as history has shown us in Africa. Unfortunately the bad effects of it is not generally presented in the news. So the public and probably Bill Gates still believe primarily in the image of the starving African child as the main problem.

I wrote a piece a few years back called The Pitfalls of Philanthropy which explains some of the basic problems that very often happen when philanthropy becomes an economic process.

Some people have misunderstood this to believe I am against philanthropy. Nothing could be further from the truth, but it really has to be managed well. Bill Gates as a successful businessman might be able to manage this process, but unfortunately this is in no way certain.

3.0 rating

Antoin O Lachtnain on July 9, 2006  · 

I disagree. I think successful movements are as much about individuals’ initiatives and beliefs as they are about getting some sort of community consensus. The value of the Internet for democracy is that it enables individuals and small groups who may have views outside of the conventional.

It has to be said that there is definitely something grimly funny about Bill Gates doing for health care in Africa what he did for the computer industry in the developed world.

3.0 rating

killy-the-frog on July 9, 2006  · 

I think there is some huge limits about the Internet opinion poll (or referendum). First the Internet user are not a good representation of the real world, second the people coming to a particular website are even less representative, third, for big issues, Internet tend to attract small groups of pressure that will tell each other to come and vote, and so a small part of the population will come and impose their view…

If we make a pool to know what think fon user, that is great, because people coming to fon website are the user we target. If you post a question about immigration, that can lead to attract all the extreme right and extreme left to the website.

By the way, I still did not see many opinion poll about fon in fon website 😛

3.0 rating

Chris Johnston on July 9, 2006  · 

Bill Gates has a right to spend the money in his foundation in whatever way he chooses so long as it does not violate the rules that the foundation has in place. Whether or not the people in Africa choose to take advantage of the vaccinations is a matter of personal choice to them. It is very easy for us living in industrialized nations, with possibly government subsidized health care, to make judgements about why Bill Gates want to help people who for whatever reason do not have the same basic necessities available to them. But I think that however futile his effort to help the people of Africa may be, if it saves the life of one child who may go on to make a difference in his country it was worthwhile.

3.0 rating

David Oliver on July 10, 2006  · 

An internet referendum on a topic like this would be likely to attract a lot of extreme views rather than those with “middle of the road” opinions – perhaps not such a bad thing if it got people talking more about the pros and cons of foreign aid.

Having backpacked around a lot of Africa my opinion is that Africa has many problems that foreign aid can’t fix (such as bad government, poor infrastructure, poor education systems etc) and that a lot of aid is sent for political reasons (such as supporting a friendly government or helping the EU offload food surpluses etc) or to make well meaning people in western countries feel better about themselves.

In the case of Africa it will be interesting to see what effect the new colonizer, China, has as it increases its influence there. I think that the Chinese will take a very pragmatic approach and will have few qualms about doing business with regimes such as Zimbabwe that western governments have tried to boycott as it looks for the minerals and raw materials to feed its economy.

3.0 rating

Charbax on July 10, 2006  · 

I believe this is a great idea. For philantropic spending and for running governments too.

The Bush admin has been blamed to not follow the public opinion, that only 30% of americans support that president.

I want to build a Truth Engine on my domain that is about a php/mysql system that combines Forums, Blogs, Wiki, and other Web 2.0 AJAX interface kind of truth system. I believe even though “the Internet user are not a good representation of the real world” that the Internet users represent all possible opinions and arguments about any subject. Now if there could just be made a system that lets users see all the arguments and opinions, then I think people can vote for the correct conclusions and the truth can be highlighted. And once there is a system that reliably highlights the truth, then no politician or philantropist can act against the public opinion anymore.

3.0 rating

John on July 10, 2006  · 

Good article. I agree that the power that is now in the hands of the Gates Foundation may have it’s downside. Power corrupts, and what will happen with the Gates Foundation in the future? As you have said, it’s an authoritarian organization, not a democracy…

Check out this angle:

3.0 rating

Wondering on July 10, 2006  · 

“For example, Bill Gates initial plan of vaccinating a huge number of children in Africa sounds perfect until you start wondering who will take care of those children later on in life.”

Are you suggesting that it would be better to allow the children to die?

3.0 rating

Aijoovai on July 11, 2006  · 

Oh Man, Martin! You can’t be serious?!

I find it very difficult to see the downsides of Bill’s philantrophy. In fact I think it’s a great thing. I don’t hear you saying that the world should become a communist one. It just happens in our world that some people have gathered more than others. Some have gathered tens of billions more. I very much appreciate the efforts of the wealthy to leverage the playfield rather than keep the billions to themselves (like most wealthy do, including you and I, and all – or at least 99% of the readers of this blog!)

I know a number of down-to-earth normal feet-on-the-ground people who are working with development issues, some in projects financed by the Gates foundation and other foundations. All-in-all it’s good work. There are many good examples in Africa, too, about the upsides of improved health conditions. People can start to do things and be productive when they’re not dying and taking care of the ill.

One thing that you mentioned. Democrcy. Democracy in large scale e.g. national, not to mention global referrendums is good for deciding wether money should be put to e.g. wars or into healthcare, etc. Referrendums are not good in deciding wether this or that method should be applied in heathcare. That’s what specialists are for. I don’t want to go to surgery to hear that the latest poll has decided that I should only take aspirin for that problem. Specialists know better.

C’mon. Some logic sense, I ask.

3.0 rating

Martín Varsavsky on July 11, 2006  · 


I am sugesting that issues are complex and deserved careful consideration by many different people and used that as an example. Personally, I think vaccination is better than no vaccination, but I think than vaccination and nutrition is better than vaccination alone.


3.0 rating

Marcelo Levit on July 11, 2006  · 

Ok Martin, but vaccination + nutrition + education + jobs is better ….. but quite impossible in our “modern” world ….

Better dead than starving ???
Who knows?

3.0 rating

Aijoovai on July 11, 2006  · 

Ok, Martin. Your “refined” point of view sounds a *lot* better, if I now get your idea. Development issues are complex for sure and they definitely deserve careful consideration. But I really don’t think that global democracy or referrendums would do any good. I’m all for transparent democratic processes and organisations but I don’t think that that’s the same as all people voting for alal issues in the world. That I would see as clear victory for populist short-sighted movements and a loss for intelligence. At least super unefficient.

There’s no denying that there have been horrible mistakes in the history development issues made even by good intentions (not to mention the bad ones). And still are. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t any progress at the same time! Nor does it mean that the foundations are totally rotten. 100 disasters and 1000 failures too easily cover 10,000 successes. The best way to avoid disasters and failures is to do nothing. Ranting (and doing nothing) is another related way.

Did you read the Economist’s article about Bill’s “Billantrophy” (last week, I think)? I think that was a solid and good story on what Gates is after and how his actions might change things. I don’t have the article available here but I think there where two major points.

For one Gates foundation is not trying to do it all alone. This meaning that they’re looking for and financing projects and approaches which have already proved to be good (ie. that make living conditions better), but which lack funding. With Gates money these projects can be scaled up fast and big.

The other thing is that they’re very results oriented (in most projects). This means that if a project doesn’t live up to its expectations they have no trouble pulling out. I think this is a very interesting business type approach that established development organizations (both publicly and privatly funded) haven’t used enough. This is a complex issue in itself but I think that the large development agencies are sometimes in some ways (not always nor in all ways!) a bit crippled by politics (both international – ironically deriving from democracy – and internal) where as smaller groups are crippled or blinded by their ideologies (again, not all, not always!). Just to take two examples:
– USA doesn’t want to fund *any* projects that include abortion as any kind of option even though any rational thinking would conclude otherwise – politics derived from democratic US elections and thank God(?), the Vatican, too. Result: nobody can force anyone to pay on an international level (it’s called autonomy of countries, and it’s good) and the US gets its way (to certain extent).
– Many NGOs seem to have strong issues about a lot of inrastructure projects, especially dams and such because they think that it’s bad for the people and their livelihoods. While I’m not saying that these questions are simple I’m just saying that often even the local people support the outcomes of the projects. Some NGOs are excellent in finding smallish groups of people to oppose projects by agitating with biased ‘facts’. Stuck with ideologies.

As we agree that these are complex issues and I’m no expert it seems difficult to make good and short points without derailing to sidetracks.

To finish I just want to state that I don’t really think that Marcelo’s equation is in any way impossible. It’s been possible for so many nations in recent history that I see no reason it should be impossible in the future for the rest of the people in the world (sure there will always be disadvantaged people, but I’m talking about nations or other large groups of people). This is unless we want to give up. Different players in the field (including national, international, NGO, foundations, etc players) efforts and their resources will all be needed in this.

3.0 rating

Marcelo Levit on July 12, 2006  · 

# 12 Aijoovai

I say impossible, because there is no will to change it …
Anyway I will try ….

3.0 rating

Pelle on July 12, 2006  · 

I would just like to warn you. Millions of people in modern history have been killed because people mistakenly believed there is such a thing as an absolute truth. I believe that every living being is entitled to his version of the truth and that while you might after some level of propaganda be able to create a majority “truth” it will never be the absolute truth.

And well that is the absolute truth 😉


3.0 rating

Aijoovai on July 12, 2006  · 


Either neither of us don’t undertand each other’s point or then we just see the issue differently.

I don’t quite understand what you’re referring to when you’re saying there’s no will to “change it”. Change what?

In previous post you mentioned vaccination + nutrition + education + jobs being an impossible equation. As I wrote, I disagree. Quite a number of nasty diseases have been either totally wiped out or are (quite) well in control even in the the developing countries (not all, though). Same goes for nutrition. And education. And jobs, too. The indicators have improved in many many contries (again, not all, but there’s clearly progress). There are serious problems in some areas such as sub-saharan Africa, former Soviet Union and some Latin American contries. Also the differences within countries and areas have become larger. But in average things are getting better. They’re maybe lagging the bold golas, but getting better.

I’m also quite confidently claiming that development related issues have higher priority now than, say, 30 years ago, and that this will be good for development in the long run.

The globalization has and will create the jobs part of your equation and boost the economies of many developing countries even if “nothing” is done (i.e. if the current global situation would remain as is). Who (sane person) would’ve believed 30 years ago, that China and India could have a slightest chance of becoming a greater economic power than the US in 50 years (sorry commies & ex-commies)?!

I certainly do agree that it will not be an easy ride. And future is altogether impossible to predict. But I can’t agree that there’s no will to change the situation of the poorest and the most disadvantaged in the world. All this discussion, Gates’ and Buffet’s recent donations, and all the other donations & initiatives in the world show it. We most probably need more (probably much more) initiatives, and especially political will – and a lot of work and coordination – to make things better for the most diadvantaged, too. But there surely is quite an amount of will to make things better.

3.0 rating

Martin Varsavsky on July 13, 2006  · 


While no Bill Gates my foundations have started projects such as, and the largets conference on terrorism ever organized at Interestingly in all these projects I was a donor but a minority donor and got many, many other companies and foundations inolved. This makes it more chaotic but more democratic. And these projects have all blogs and open fora where people can write what they think about them. So I practice what I recommend. Having said this I believe that what Bill Gates is doing is absolutely fantastic. I just think that adding elements of internet democracy makes a lot of sense for his foundation.

3.0 rating

Aijoovai on July 14, 2006  · 


I think we’re fully on the same page here. Listening to peoples’ opinions – both the vast general public as well as the specialists – is absolutely necessary. I just sometimes get a rash when people demand global or web-wide referrendums on various issues, especially concerning the use of private donors’ funds. And again, I want to emphasize that I’m not saying that people shouldn’t be heard. Quite contrary. There are just various ways of doing it.

Internet is one, relatively easy and a good, way to get participation. But it’s also quite a scewed sample in some situations. Traditional data sources or ways of gathering information on people’s needs and wishes are in many situations at least as good. It really depends.

Anyways. You seem to be a person with heart in just the right place – democracy and education (and healthcare) are the cornerstones of welfare and prosperity. Good luck to all your projects (including FON – anxiously waiting for my router to arrive :).

3.0 rating

obi michael on August 10, 2006  · 

I would like to use medium to thank bill gates for his philanthropic support in Africa. and i would like to add that people like me still need his succour. In case to reach me here is my number +2348027432766.Thanks.

3.0 rating

Leave a Comment

Español / English

Subscribe to e-mail bulletin:
Recent Tweets