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When solidarity depends on the magnanimity of a few
by Damien Millet
7 August 2006

On Monday 26th of June, the two most wealthy people in the world made the headlines together. The first one, Bill Gates, heads a charity to which the second one, Warren Buffet, promised a large share of his fortune. At first sight, the generosity of these two philanthropists is good news for everyone. However one can easily feel vaguely that something is going wrong.

Bill Gates, who founded the IT transnational Microsoft, owns 50 billion dollars. This fortune was created thanks to an aggressive strategy aiming at imposing everywhere in the world an operating system [1] and very expensive software that are far from perfect. Today, those who buy a low-budget computer are caught in the Microsoft trap, and need a great deal of determination to get out of it. They join the millions of people compelled to click on the « Start » button to turn their computers off.

This is how the Bill and Melinda Gates’ charity has about 30 billion dollars at its disposal, which it devotes to the improvement of health system and the development of new technologies in poor countries. Sceptical critics point out that this development will probably include Microsoft software, thus looping the loop.

Warren Buffet’s fortune, which amounts to about 44 billion dollars, comes from more classical economic sectors such as food (cola sodas, ice cream) or insurance. As he is approaching death, this business shark promised to give 85% of his fortune to charities, including more than 30 billion dollars to the Gates’ charity. A record, through which people such as Rockefeller, Carnegie or Ford could almost be considered as small fry.

With such proper fundings, the annual budget of the Gates’ charity is going to double, reaching about 3 billion dollars. It is five times as high as the budget of the UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation. It is almost as much as the 2006-2007 budget of the World Health Organisation (3,3 billion dollars)... Nevertheless, it will not be enough to fill in the financial gaps : each year, the governments of developing countries pay back 200 billion dollars for debt service to rich creditors, that are probably quite generous as well.

While the amount of Buffet’s gift is exceptionally high, such announcements from rich individuals are getting more and more common. But can’t we consider that this race towards larger and larger gifts emphasizes the failure of the collective organisation of solidarity? Without any control over the use of these gifts, it is likely that, once again, visible and immediately profitable projects will be selected, without any sufficient long-term, global analysis. In fact, Bill and Melinda Gates said they were « impressed by the decision of our friend Warren Buffet to dedicate his fortune to the treatment of the most glaring inequalities in the world ». Does that mean that less glaring inequalities have to be accepted?

In our current globalised economy, the very principle of solidarity between human beings is being confiscated by a fistful of individuals, with passive complicity of the States. After having considered that they were allowed to do whatever they wanted to get rich, the best at this game can now set up the rules through which the most needy in this world can be helped. Who bothers to inquire among the poor, who are primarily concerned, what their expectations are ? Can the rich be legitimately entrusted with the fight against poverty? And incidentally is it normal that the fortune of the two richest people in the world should be four times as high as the annual official development assistance of rich countries to the 50 least developed countries?

States’ responsibility is clearly involved because neoliberal politics they have been applying since the 1980s sabotage any welfare system: governments give up their role as a guarantee for common well-being and social justice. In France, initiatives such as « le Téléthon », « l’Opération pièces jaunes » or « les Restos du cœur » are replacing the State in this field, leaving the financial effort for solidarity to a compassionate population. One of these operations is even organised by the President’s wife, thus revealing the duplicity of the political power...

The reasons why Gates and Buffet have managed to get rich, and, as a consequence, to seem infinitely generous, are the very reasons that have placed billions of human begins within poverty and need. The search for maximal profit has led the world into a dead end. With the reduction of the States’ role and the rise of all-powerful private donors, the poorer are going to be compelled to count on the generosity of protecting lords or perish, as was the case during the Middle-Age. This unacceptable retreat is orchestrated from the wings by the debt system, a subtle instrument of oppression, which organises a huge transfer of wealth from the Southern populations towards creditors, as well as a transfer of the decision-making process to the IMF, the World Bank, the great powers and transnational corporations. In order to put an end to the actual hold-up over solidarity at global level, this debt slavery must be abolished. It will then be possible to question the neoliberal economic model that structurally organises an unfair sharing of wealth, of which Gates’ and Buffet’s hyper fortunes are only the visible part.

Translation : Aurélie Vitry, completed by Christine Pagnoulle.

Footnotes :

[1In French, “système d’exploitation”... How cruel can words be!

Damien Millet

professeur de mathématiques en classes préparatoires scientifiques à Orléans, porte-parole du CADTM France (Comité pour l’Annulation de la Dette du Tiers Monde), auteur de L’Afrique sans dette (CADTM-Syllepse, 2005), co-auteur avec Frédéric Chauvreau des bandes dessinées Dette odieuse (CADTM-Syllepse, 2006) et Le système Dette (CADTM-Syllepse, 2009), co-auteur avec Eric Toussaint du livre Les tsunamis de la dette (CADTM-Syllepse, 2005), co-auteur avec François Mauger de La Jamaïque dans l’étau du FMI (L’esprit frappeur, 2004).