Gates Foundation Investments Sometimes at Odds With Global Health Efforts

Although it has an endowment of $35 billion and awards more than $1.4 billion in grants annually, much of that in support of public health initiatives in the developing world, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation also has holdings in many companies that fail tests of social responsibility and may contribute to some of the maladies the foundation is working to alleviate, the Los Angeles Times reports.

Thanks to a vaccination drive supported by the foundation, for instance, children in Ebocha, Nigeria, have been immunized against polio and measles. But people in the town claim that some of those children also suffer from respiratory problems caused by fumes and soot emitted by an oil plant owned by the Italian petroleum giant Eni, whose major investors include the foundation. And while the foundation has poured $218 million into polio and measles immunization and research worldwide, the Times found it also has invested hundreds of millions in Eni, Royal Dutch Shell, ExxonMobil, Chevron, and Total of France — companies responsible for most of the oil flares spewing pollution over the Niger Delta region.

In addition to investing in energy companies that some claim are partly responsible for health problems in impoverished nations, the foundation invests heavily in pharmaceutical companies. In 2005, the foundation held nearly $1.5 billion worth of stock in drug companies whose practices have been widely criticized as restricting the flow of key medicines to poor people in developing nations. Critics of the big pharmaceutical companies argue that the foundation could do more to pressure the companies to make sure drugs get to the places where they're needed most.

According to Monica Harrington, a senior policy officer at the Gates Foundation, the foundation's investments are managed with one goal: to generate returns "that will allow for the continued funding of foundation programs and grantmaking." Increasingly, however, other foundations and philanthropies are examining the tension between grantmaking that aims to make the world a better place and investment practices that may undermine those activities. According to recent surveys, the Ford, MacArthur, Rockefeller, and Charles Stewart Mott foundations have adopted at least basic policies to invest in a socially responsible manner.

Harrington said the foundation tries to guarantee that discoveries made in partnership with for-profit companies also help people in developing nations. "The foundation's goal is to help ensure that new scientific knowledge is broadly shared...and that lifesaving health advances are created and made available and affordable to those most in need," she said. "We recognize that private industry needs adequate incentives to develop new drugs."

Charles Piller. "Dark Cloud Over Good Works of Gates Foundation." Los Angeles Times 01/07/2007.