Philanthropy and Whitewashing

In our current world, philanthropy is perceived as an empathetic action by the super-rich to improve human welfare. The original word in Greek means “loving humanity” so the term had been historically used to denote any benevolent action without necessarily involving money. As financial transactions became more important in our culture, philanthropy evolved its definition to mean just a generous monetary donation by the very wealthy.

This generosity imparts a blinding golden aura of goodness around the donor and prevents us from questioning its motives and real performance. This blindness tends to be limited to the people in the global West, whose information usually comes through the mass and new media. In contrast, far-away people who experience the reality of the foundation’s actions can see the reality with very clear eyes. This cognitive dissonance has led to a lot of suffering in the world and is perfectly described by the three examples I propose: King Leopold II of Belgium, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Bill Gates Foundation.

Until 2015, and thanks to a petition by writer Marc Wiltz, there was a street named “Leopold II” King of the Belgians and philanthropist in the 16th district in Paris. The street is not long, and most people probably didn’t notice the name and even less the deep irony inherent in the king’s description. How could a king ever be described as a philanthropist, when his actions in the Congo led to such atrocities that caused the death of about 10 million people?

At a time of intense European colonialism, Leopold II didn’t want to be left behind and wanted colonies at any cost. He used his influence in Europe and the Belgian state’s money to get a personal territory and created the Congo Free State in 1885. His declared aim was to bring ‘freedom’ to the natives! It is difficult to reconcile his freedom objective with the real priority of Leopold: to optimize gains to enrich himself and Belgium. In the pursuit of his true objective, Leopold chose cash crops manned by people whose labor didn’t cut much into his gains -in essence, he enslaved most of Congo’s population.

Leopold II of Belgium and the subjects of his draconian quota regime

This enslavement was solidified by the implementation of a draconian regime of quotas of ivory, gold, and rubber in which the slaves’ choice was to work to death or be brutally punished. The punishment for not fulfilling the daily quota was amputation of feet and hands and when this was no longer possible, the person’s wife and children had to suffer the punishment instead.

His regime was not only cruel but unhygienic and devoid of any appropriate nutrition. Any decent accommodations for his slaves would have reduced his profits, an unacceptable proposition for the king. As news of his cruelty arrived in Europe, Leopold II had the brilliant idea to repair his good name with the creation of a supposedly philanthropic organization, the International Organization of the Congo (IAC). He complemented this strategy with an intensive lobbying campaign in Europe and the US that worked wonders to whitewash his image until 1908 when reports of his atrocities in the Congo became too overwhelming and lost his power. While it worked, his pretense of lofty ideals won the hearts of elites in Europe and the US and he was lavishly celebrated in European salons.

European elites celebrating King Leopold II and his wife

Even though more information is available now, the benign false image of the king has stubbornly persisted and this is why it took until 2015 for someone to show enough outrage and forcefully demand the removal of the word philanthropist from the street’s name. But the golden aura provided by the king’s philanthropy persists in such a way that the current king of Belgium refused to apologize for his ancestor’s actions in the Congo. He recently visited this country and expressed his regrets regarding Belgium’s colonial behavior, but never formally apologized for Leopold’s genocide. In many history books, he is mostly remembered as the “builder king” of Belgium.

Rockefeller Foundations gala 2013 with Elton John receiving an award, Judith Rodin, president of the Foundation and David Rockefeller Junior

A later and more globalized example of philanthropic whitewashing is the Rockefeller Foundation. It was created by John D. Rockefeller Jr. in 1917 to perform good works for the “well being of mankind”. In reality, it was created to repair the tarnished image that his father, John D Rockefeller, had acquired through his ruthless Standard Oil business practices. Ironically, though the foundation was supposed to have philanthropic aims, it ended up with the same ruthless cut-throat practices of Standard Oil and even became a tool to improve the oil company’s profitability.

Latin America was not only the backyard of the US but also of Standard Oil and by extension, the Rockefeller Foundation. Its good name in the region was created by the implementation of health campaigns that depended on the help of evangelists and local dictators. With the approval of bribed dictators, missionaries, and health workers, the foundation conveniently implemented health campaigns in the areas of interest for Standard Oil and other corporations.

The Rockefeller Foundation was essential for United Fruit’s success in Guatemala

A good example of this practice is Guatemala, where the health measures of the Rockefeller Foundation helped to open up much-needed space for United Fruit plantations. This was made also possible by the help of Jorge Ubico, elected president of Guatemala in 1931, after a fake one-candidate election. Ubico has been described as “one of the most oppressive tyrants Guatemala has ever known” –the utmost totalitarian. His loyalty to US corporations like United Fruit turned Guatemala into the true “Banana Republic” and the Rockefeller Foundation had a big part in it.

The supposedly beneficial health measures included burning entire towns to get rid of supposed pathogens and creating convenient cordons sanitaires to segregate the Indians and make them easier to displace. United Fruit was able to expand in the areas formerly occupied by the indigenous people, who were offered instead, cramped shanty towns with no adequate sanitation, and little sustenance. These unnecessary and misguided ‘health measures’ increased unhealthy conditions that helped to spread disease, instead of curing it.

Even though some of the health measures of the Rockefeller Foundation did benefit some people, this benefit was mostly limited to those who were considered employable -for the rest, the result was most often displacement and impoverishment. The strategies changed slightly based on the local situation and the needs of Standard Oil or other corporations, but they all had in common a lack of respect for the value of indigenous populations and the ecosystems they occupied.

Another example of the health agenda of The Rockefeller foundation was finally taken to task in 2010. The Rockefeller Foundation, the John Hopkins Hospital, the John Hopkins University, the John Hopkins Hospital, the health system corporations of John Hopkins University, and the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Health were sued by 750 Guatemalans for the gruesome experiments these entities performed on them in the late 1940s.

Guatemalan subjects for the Rockefeller Foundation and John Hopkins University experiments

The experiments involved infecting subjects with various venereal diseases and were truly horrific. Prostitutes were infected on purpose to transmit the disease, syphilis was injected into the spinal fluid or under the skin of subjects, and the genitals of men were scraped and then covered with an emulsion of syphilis or gonorrhea. Their extreme experiments were reserved for psychiatric patients who had gonorrheal pus injected into both eyes. To avoid accountability, subjects were chosen from vulnerable populations like school children, psychiatric patients, orphans, prisoners, and military conscripts.

The real nature of these experiments was never explained and the process never required informed consent from the subjects. Bradley Stoner, MD, past president of the American Sexually Transmitted Disease Association had this to say:

These horrors were never flashed in the news and they only became public after three American lawyers won the case against the Foundation and the University. The case never received much media attention even if it was so egregious, that President Obama had to formally apologize to Guatemala.

This brings us to another modern foundation that has succeeded in convincing people worldwide of the truthfulness of its lofty objectives –The Bill Gates Foundation. Most people accept the ruthlessness of Bill Gates Microsoft’s business strategy, but this is always excused by his philanthropy. After all, nobody that gives away so much money can cause a lot of harm!

This foundation is quite global in scope with interests mostly in education, health, and agriculture. For this example, I will concentrate on the foundation’s goals relative to food security in Africa. This continent is very vulnerable to climate change and is already experiencing the great majority of adverse effects, endangering its population. As a solution, the Gates Foundation has joined the Rockefeller Foundation to create the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa or AGRA.

Agra’s prospectus promises a “farmer-centered and African-led” institution that will solve most of Africa’s food problems. In reality, AGRA is a top-down institution where the opinions of local farmers are not taken into account. The main focus of AGRA is to impose the seeds and chemicals developed by the Gates Foundation research centers and other agribusinesses, and establish networks that promote the use of more pesticides and patented seeds. Some of the money is also used for lobbying African governments to implement policies in favor of the agenda of AGRA and influencing world media outlets to convince the world about the goodness of the Foundation’s plans for Africa.

Small African farmer that the Gates Foundation wants to replace by industrialized, GMO agriculture

Contrary to the Foundation’s hype, the plans of AGRA for genetically modified patented seeds would destroy the informal system of open-source knowledge seed banks, created by the seed recycling and exchange of millions of African small landholders each year. These seeds cost nothing or very little, have a high nutritional value, and promote diversity and ecosystem health. Protecting small landholders with truly sustainable practices would do much more for food security and the environment than the technologically advanced expensive seeds. AGRA seems to ignore that the majority of African countries have a GDP between US$ 5,000 and 9,000, making these expensive seeds ruinous for most small farmers. A strategy that destroys self-sufficient small farms is a recipe for creating more poverty, famines, and refugees.

This is what a Kenyan farmer has to say:

“Farmers have become wary of programs that promote monoculture and chemical-intensive farming. They have lost control of their seeds. Now, they say they are being held hostage on their farms,” says Celestine Otieno, a permaculture farmer from Kenya.

Fletcher Harper, director of GreenFaith, an international network, added:

Water and soil polluted by industrial agriculture fertilizers

It is no surprise to find that the Gates Foundation’s investment in AGRA is mostly given not to Africa, but for research in the US. The aim is to expand the toxic Green Revolution of the late 1950s and early 1960s, which only gave the impression of increasing agricultural productivity for a while. We now see that this monoculture and toxic-based agriculture has produced too much pollution, water depletion, and greenhouse emissions so it is astounding to see anyone proposing its extension to Africa.

The Gates Foundation, following the Rockefeller Foundation’s steps, is allying with corporate interests like Bayer Monsanto, Syngenta, and Cargill, to name a few. Their strategy is repeated around the world like a mantra from Argentina to India, to Africa: promote the use of bio-engineered mono-crops and in the process, displace tons of small farmers and pollute their water and soil.

Though the Gates Foundation has spent nearly US$6 billion over the past 17 years to supposedly improve food security in Africa, the results prove that its real objective is to enrich the pockets of the Foundation and those of other corporations. This foundation’s global power in agriculture and health is so great that it is distorting the direction of international development and policy-making without any accountability.

These three foundations have in common excessive power abuse with no accountability. King Leopold took control of the Congo, imposing slavery and cruel laws that killed 10 million people. The global power of the Rockefeller Foundation has been such that it has managed to greatly influence US foreign policy to shape many misguided agendas that have produced suffering everywhere. The Gates Foundation, also global in scope, has influenced health, agricultural practices, and international development to the detriment of millions.

Their philanthropic glow has prevented any accountability from the powerful and educated rich countries, whose opinions could render them accountable. The powerless in the Global South experience the reality of their policies and continue demanding accountability, but their voices are rarely heard. Who cares about what an African slave, a starving farmer, or an abused Guatemalan says, compared to a rich philanthropist’s voice? Nobody, especially since the philanthropist’s opinion prevails in the media, while the African farmer’s demands for accountability are seldom heard.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store