Humanitarian Imperialism: Charity for Power
The same day Pope Benedict XVI resigned from his post, New York’s wealthy Mayor Michael Bloomberg inaugurated a collaboration between Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Pope and Bloomberg’s announcements on February 28, 2013 were probably unrelated; nevertheless they underlined a victory of corporate over religious charity. As the Catholic church’s credibility plummeted, the Pope publicly admitted his defeat. Evidently, what the Pope cannot do, the super-rich will try. With the world’s 13th richest man Michael Bloomberg on board, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation represents an unprecedented and rapidly growing collaboration of the world’s wealthiest men, including Carlos Slim, Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, and Cyrus Poonawalla: all of whom have devoted most of their lives to acquiring their billions. Does this signal late-onset altruism or something else?
To address this question, one would do well to consider the late 19th to early 20th century that endured the coexistence of John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Andrew Mellon, J. P. Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and many like them. Economically, present-day United States, where the top one percent controls 40 percent of the wealth — and the top five percent about three quarters of the wealth — most closely resembles the gilded age. People spoke more eloquently then and called the rapacious rich in their ostentatious mansions: the robber barons. About the legislatures that slavishly subsidized the projects of these rich men, even as they mechanized their factories to put millions of skilled laborers out of work, Mark Twain wrote: “It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly American criminal class except Congress.”
Nowadays, the name John D. Rockefeller no longer recalls the ruthless founder of Standard Oil who became the world’s first billionaire despite having started out as the son of an elixir salesman called Devil Bill and having had as his only business education a bookkeeping course of less than three months. The record of a pathological accumulation of wealth has been effectively expunged from Rockefeller’s name and replaced by a list of post-retirement philanthropic projects that include the Rockefeller University, the University of Chicago, and the eradication of hookworm disease from the southern US. Andrew Carnegie has become better known for his contributions of libraries, museums, and research institutes to the world than for his frenetic greed as a steel man for weapons production during the US Civil War. The same goes for the rest. Thus it would appear that by undertaking a project of alms giving, these thoroughly sinful men have become virtuous.
Even the most cynical among us would grant that every evildoer has the potential to repent his sins and deserves to be forgiven if this is done in the right spirit. But it would seem instead that the charitable works of these men were motivated, not by altruism but arrogance and a lust for power. To hang on to their wealth, they corrupted those they could and fought the rest. They maneuvered to pay as little tax as possible, the idea being that decisions on how to expend wealth should be up to them but not to a democratic process that involves common laborers.
One billion dollars at the turn of the 20th century would be worth about $700 billion in 2013, and John D. Rockefeller gave away more than half of his wealth. So the level of today’s philanthropy from the super wealthy hardly matches that of the robber barons, even if one considers Warren Buffet’s much lauded $31 million gift to the Gates Foundation in 2006. Nevertheless, the lust for power has grown. The collaboration of today’s super rich in their philanthropy is a kind of humanitarian imperialism meant not only to rehabilitate their names but also impose their views on a global scale.
Mr. Bloomberg has recast himself as a do-gooder despite his origin as a cut-throat Wall Street investment banker and partner at Solomon Brothers. Likewise, Mr. Gates has metamorphosed into a saint, although his fortune originates from a corporation (Microsoft) that has been accused of unfair monopoly practices for bundling its operating system together with its own programs for browsers, etc. Such transformations of the wealthy are facilitated by news agencies like National Public Radio (NPR) that enjoy their donations. They enthusiastically promote, for example, the message that the world must urgently eradicate polio. Bill Gates himself has labeled polio the “world’s biggest problem.” Why?
Back in 2001, when polio was disappearing on its own from improved nutrition and availability of clean water, and fewer than 500 cases remained in the entire world, the Gates Foundation launched a multi-billion dollar polio eradication project. Now that more than $8 billion have been spent on this project, in India in 2011 alone, there were over 47,500 cases of an infectious disease with polio’s symptoms but twice the lethality. This disease is ironically labeled non-polio acute flaccid paralysis (NPAFP), despite its incidence being directly correlated with the number of doses of the oral polio vaccine (OPV) a person receives. India is held up as a success of the eradication campaign because its cases of the standard polio dropped to zero in 2012, and NPAFP is not counted as being a nastier kind of polio. The high incidence of NPAFP in India has been attributed to the administration of more than 10 doses of OPV to many of that country’s poorer citizens. By contrast, the US Army, which is by far the world’s wealthiest consumer of vaccines, administers a single “dose of trivalent OPV to all enlisted accessions.”
Oral polio vaccines, like the one that causes NPAFP, contain a weakened live virus, and such viruses have long been known to be able to mutate to a deadly form. Nevertheless, OPV is the most popular polio vaccine administered today in the third world. In the US, for example, OPV was abandoned in the 1970s in favor of the vaccine that Jonas Salk had developed in the 1950s. The Salk vaccine, which is called inactivated polio vaccine (IPV), is prepared by killing a highly infectious polio virus. Compared to OPV, IPV is more expensive because it must be prepared in special facilities and injected instead of swallowed. On the other hand, people who receive IPV are safely vaccinated with a killed virus that cannot ever be revived. In the US, OPV used to cause about 10 cases per year of a disease called vaccine-associated paralytic poliomyelitis (VAPP) — which sounds like an older, more candid name for NPAFP — and this load of disease was considered to be unacceptable. For the citizens of poorer countries, however, the Hyppocratic principle of primum non nocere (first, do no harm) has been waived.
If one does not count NPAFP as being a type of polio, there were only 291 cases of polio in the world in 2012. Curiously, all of these were reported to be in highly inaccessible areas that are associated with radical Islam: namely northern Nigeria (70 in 2001, 168 in 2012) and the Pakistan-Afghanistan border (143 in 2001, 123 in 2012). The Taliban, which has long accused public-health workers of generating polio and spying on its fighters, recently had its case strengthened by the scandalous numbers of NPAFP cases in India and the discovery that Dr. Shakil Afridi had, under cover of a polio vaccination campaign, collected DNA samples that helped the CIA to track down Osama bin Laden. In December 2012, nine health workers were murdered in Pakistan for vaccinating children against polio. Pakistani civilians, generally, are refusing OPV.
The Gates Foundation claims that it will wipe out polio; but, as clinicians and ethicists Neetu Vashisht and Jacob Puliyel point out, such an eradication has become quite impossible since 2002, when a group of US scientists manufactured the polio virus’ genetic information from scratch based on its genome sequence (about 7,500 nucleotide bases), prepared an infectious version of it in a test tube that could cause flaccid paralysis, and published the genome information and their procedures. With current technologies, the entire process might take as little as one week. Therefore, whether or not every case of polio vanishes from the Earth, Pandora’s box has been opened. The polio virus can be recalled at any time.
The Bill & Melinda Gates foundation also seems determined to control cholera, malaria, and other presumed scourges with vaccines of questionable efficacy. It hardly matters that clean water, mosquito nets, and other simple measures might work better than vaccines. When one is rich and powerful enough to control all the discourse about a vaccine project and smooth its path from the laboratory to publication, to approval by WHO and purchase by UNICEF and heads of state, one is always right. Vaccines aside, the world’s billionaires had challenged Pope Benedict XVI into a battle by developing a keen interest in women’s reproductive rates. On one hand, the Pope had continued to push, according to Catholic tradition, for all women to reproduce without end. On the other, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, with Mrs Gates as its advocate, has initiated a campaign of birth-control education and promotion of contraceptives for African women, while paying scant attention to the reproduction rates of Western people, despite their vastly greater consumption of the world’s resources. One might well ask if a desire to dictate on a global scale — instead of any altruistic need for service — guides our new gilded age’s philanthropic projects. Their participants, from the top executives to the scientists, to the NGO members, revere money and hold democratic decision making in contempt. Thus the truth is suppressed and wealth, paradoxically, subverts its own ends.
UPDATE: On September 4, 2015, polio, which lately seems to have an affinity for anti-NATO strongholds, was discovered in two Ukrainian children.
Editor’s Note: Photograph one by Elyce Feliz. Photographs four and eight by Keso, five by Rick Warden, and six and seven by TEDxTalks. For more from Dady Chery on vaccines, read: We Have Dared to Be Free.