The problem with the Gates Foundation’s award to Narendra Modi

A welcome guest
A welcome guest
Image: REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton
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When the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation presented Indian prime minister Narendra Modi with an award earlier this week, not everyone cheered.

Another award winner, pan-African activist Aya Chebbi, said during her own acceptance speech that, “We live in a world where it’s okay to trade human rights for a sanitation project.” It was a gutsy jab at the Gates Foundation, and at Modi, a Hindu nationalist with a questionable human rights record.

It also struck at the heart of an ethical dilemma in philanthropy. Is it possible to separate a world leader’s achievements in development from their political conduct?

The backlash clouded what is normally a pretty anodyne event. Three Nobel Peace Prize winners and 37 academics and development professionals sent letters demanding the award be rescinded. Even Gloria Steinem took a stand against it. At another Gates event a day later, the Indian poet-activist Aranya Johar—who Gates awarded last year—held up a sign asking, “Why Modi?” And a Gates Foundation staff member in India resigned over it, writing an op-ed in the New York Times explaining her decision.

It was the fourth year for the Gates Foundations’ Global Goals awards ceremony, which took place on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. The awards are meant to recognize individuals for their contribution to the advancement of development goals. Modi was being recognized for the apparent success of a countrywide sanitation project.

The sweeping Indian initiative aimed to promote cleanliness, partly by bringing millions of toilets to communities all over the country. The Indian government says the program is responsible for installing more than 100 million toilets in a span of five years, and bringing toilet access in the country from under 40% to nearly 100%.

Critics question both the veracity of such numbers and the program’s effectiveness, however. A recent study found the problems had not been solved. And increasing access to toilets is a limited way to measure the larger problem of sanitation and public health in India.

“It’s important to have outcomes and indicators that we all can agree on,” Melissa Berman, the president and CEO of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, told Quartz. “But it’s also true that some of these things that are easier to measure tend to be relatively short term. You can count the number of schools that have been built, but that doesn’t mean anyone has learned anything.”

Whether effective or not, for many critics of the Gates award, the bigger issue is how it serves to prop up a leader like Modi.

Modi campaigned on a populist platform and was elected with a strong majority. He took that mandate and rescinded the special status of Kashmir, a mostly Muslim semi-autonomous region split between India and Pakistan. Modi then sent in police to make mass arrests. He’s also cut off mobile and internet service. At the same time, India is building mass detention camps in the northeastern state of Assam to hold what it considers “illegal immigrants,” mostly Muslim inhabitants who don’t have the paperwork to prove their citizenship. Modi’s rhetoric, meanwhile, has both incited Hindu violence around the country and inflamed tensions with Pakistan, a mostly Muslim country and India’s neighbor.

“[Modi] has a huge history of inflammatory hate speech, nationalistic violence against minorities and a lot of criticism of any dissent,” Lyla Mehta, a researcher at the Institute of Development Studies, told Quartz. “Democracy, freedom of speech, and human rights are all under threat in India.”

In this context, it seems imprudent at best for a charitable organization like the Gates Foundation to give Modi an award during the UN General Assembly, a week of meetings that is watched by the whole world.

“Civil and political rights and socioeconomic rights go hand in hand. You can’t really distinguish between one freedom and the other,” Mehta said.

The power of a global stage

Modi has made the most of the attention. Ahead of the UN General Assembly, he held a huge rally in Houston, at which spoke his fellow nationalist, US president Donald Trump. They both railed against the threat of “Islamic terrorism” in front of tens of thousands of people. After the Gates event, the Bloomberg Business Forum gave Modi its keynote address.

“Populist leaders have a huge advertising and propaganda machine around them, and it is sad that even a global foundation like the Gates Foundation is on their side,” Mehta said.

It doesn’t seem like a misplaced concern. At the award ceremony, a video painted Modi’s efforts to build toilets in heroic tones, barely falling short of government propaganda. Then Modi gave a long speech in which he listed the successes of the sanitation program without having to answer any questions about Kashmir, Assam, or the growing violence against minorities and lower caste members many believe his government encourages.

Big western philanthropic organizations hold enormous power, and arguably none tops the Gates Foundation. A running UN joke is that the Gates are the 194th member state, and that’s hardly an exaggerated representation of their role in development. According to a newly released report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the foundation invested more than $9 billion in health between 2013 and 2015. That is nearly 15 times as much as the second-highest donor, the Buffett Foundation.

At such a size, it’s inevitable that, while their intent may not be political, their stage ends up lending political capital. Modi is not the only leader to benefit. Rwandan president Paul Kagame, as just one other example, has been widely celebrated (including by former president Bill Clinton’s charitable organization) for his achievements in development, despite ongoing reports of human rights violations.

While recognizing questionable leaders helps legitimize their actions, some think there could be a potential upside. Stuart Holliday, former US ambassador to the UN for political affairs, said that while the public recognition afforded to leaders may seem like approval, the intent could be different: Giving global visibility to somebody’s work is also a way to ensure there is higher scrutiny of their actions.

“There are two ways to look at it,” he told Quartz. “In diplomacy, you have carrots and sticks, incentives and disincentives. Are awards an incentive to be integrated in the system of nations?”

Quid pro quo

Giving an award to someone like Modi, or any other controversial leader, also has practical purpose. India gets the most global philanthropic money for health, according to the OECD report. And the Gates Foundation provides more than half it. So staying on India’s good side is essential to make sure its money is spent the way they intend.

Mo Ibrahim’s foundation,  for instance, which works in Africa, gives out an annual award specifically to the continent’s leaders.

“Philanthropy is a lever, and the enormous thing it is pressing on is either the public sector or the capital market,” Berman said. But, as with Modi, that can mean being placed in an awkward position. “What gets complicated is that global development involves policy, and policy can lead to politics.”

The choice to work with a certain country on a certain project can be an ethical question that philanthropists have to confront, and answer with transparency. They must be clear about the reasons why they are making those choices. “You have to make a decision. Can you legitimately focus on one part of what they do, without looking at everything that they do?” Berman asked.

It is a question that applies the other way around, too: Is it ethical to accept money from organizations or people independently from their actions or political positions?

Johnathan Marks, who directs the bioethics program at Penn State, warns specifically against this. In his book, The Perils of Partnership, he notes that the belief that partnership between private corporations and public bodies is a good, efficient system to achieve public interest goals should face scrutiny.

“The drive to reach common ground with industry in public health,” he writes, “can undermine rather than promote the common good.” He provides an example: Say you are a public official in charge of a community that doesn’t have a playground, and the fast-food chain that’s promoting bad eating habits in the very same community wants to finance one, would you take the money?