by Zahra Moloo
May 30, 2021
Zahra | My name is Zahra Moloo. I'm a journalist and filmmaker. I currently work with an international organization called the ETC Group; we monitor and track the impact of emerging technologies and corporate concentration on biodiversity, agriculture, and human rights. I am also doing a Ph.D. in Geography at the University of Toronto. I'm from Kenya and have spent the last 10 years or so doing investigative stories and documentaries from east and central Africa, some parts of West Africa, Libya, the West Bank, and Canada.
Initially, I worked a lot on investigating the impact of multinational mining companies and their practices and later began to work on neoliberalism, philanthrocapitalism, and conservation issues.
frank | When did philanthropy start coming up in your work?
The issue of philanthropy and philanthrocapitalism first became of interest to me when, as a journalist, I went on a fellowship with the International Women's Media Foundation, the IWMF, to write stories from the Great Lakes Region of Central Africa. The fellowship was funded by Howard Buffett, the son of Warren Buffet, who, as many people know, is one of the richest men in the world. We were told that the Foundation was interested in agriculture and conservation stories. I was especially interested in looking at indigenous people that have been displaced from the Virunga National Park in Congo, and I realized that Howard Buffett was also funding the national park. While I was there, people told me that you can't really go anywhere in Eastern Congo without eventually touching a project funded by Howard Buffett. He was funding hydroelectric projects in Eastern Congo, the IWMF’s reporting trip, as well as projects in eco-tourism and conservation. Buffett is also good friends with the president of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, and has given a lot of money to his government. This is a government that has killed people, disappeared people, and waged a really terrible war on the press.
Here Buffett is partnering with Paul Kagame on one hand, and then giving money to this media project on the other. And while the IWMF does do stories on Rwanda and calls out governments for their treatment of local journalists, I had not seen a story critical of Paul Kagame and his treatment of journalists. So it became clear to me the insidious ways in which money from Buffett was influencing media narratives and development projects. That is when I started being interested in the power of philanthrocapitalism.
Is it obvious to you what the driving interest is of someone like Buffett or Gates in this part of the world?
I think that's a difficult question to answer because there are numerous aspects. It is quite interesting to look at where philanthropy comes from. The very first foundations in the 20th century were set up to shield businessmen from taxation, to give them a voice in global affairs, and to build prestige. I think this does inform their interest in influencing agricultural projects in the Congo or in East Africa. As well, if you look at the projects they are pushing, they constitute a very market-based vision of agriculture that is beneficial to agribusiness and agrochemical companies. The push is towards a privatized model of agriculture.
The DRC has been completely devastated by colonialism, by extractive practices by mining companies, by neoliberal policies which destroyed the public sector, and now these very powerful, wealthy foundations are coming in and pouring money into various projects.
They are not pushing public solutions to these problems. They are not pushing for public participation. They are not listening to what the people actually want. They are pushing their own solutions.
What is the response to these outside investments from people where you are?
I think that there are different responses. For instance, in Kenya, the proliferation of NGOs is part of the entrenchment of neoliberalism in this part of the world. Very few people doubt that people like Bill Gates are doing good. He's all over the news. He wrote his book about climate change and went on a book tour. There's a film about him on Netflix that paints him in a positive light. So while there are people challenging the influence of very wealthy, white, often American, philanthropists in East Africa and Central Africa, they are up against powerful narratives. The case of gene drives and Bill Gates’ influence on this technology, in particular, is quite astounding.
What is a gene drive?
Some call a gene drive GMO 2.0 — it's the next stage of genetic engineering in which you can use CRISPR-Cas 9 technology to modify the traits of particular organisms and enable those traits to spread through a whole population.
For example, if you want to turn fruit flies yellow, you can modify the gene of the fruit fly. It's not just modifying one organism, it's modifying an entire species. That is the technology behind gene drives. There are several projects in which institutions are trying to experiment with gene drives.
One of them is funded by Bill Gates. Since 2003, his organization has poured millions of dollars into research on gene drives. He's funded a number of university institutions, and one particular research institution called Target Malaria. Their aim is ostensibly to eradicate malaria by genetically modifying the DNA of the anopheles gambiae mosquito species in order that they will eventually go extinct: future generations will either not be able to reproduce or will not be able to produce female offspring. The first experiment of this technology, outside of the lab, will be in Burkina Faso.
Why Burkina Faso?
What's fascinating about this case is that it shows the extent to which the Gates Foundation is able to influence the whole debate – basically, they're able to influence lobbyists, regulators, the media, and public narratives around gene drives in order to facilitate their adoption.
Not only has the Gates Foundation financed a lot of the research into this by giving money to UC Irvine and to the Cornell Alliance for Science, but they have also paid a PR firm, Emerging Ag, to coordinate a fight against opponents of gene drive technology.
They have influenced the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. They've created a network on gene drive research whose intention is to raise awareness about the value of gene drive research for the public good. They even paid for some African delegates to be present at UN negotiations to advocate in favor of gene drives. They publish op-eds in media publications, which are themselves financed by the Gates Foundation. You see this whole machinery at work.
The reach of this foundation on this particular technology is incredible, and it is not overt. This information has only come out through investigations and through freedom of information requests. It's totally antidemocratic.
You know, I hear “be for the future, it's coming anyway,” – so I don’t mean to sound square, but the notion that you have to eradicate a species in order to eradicate malaria, feels like the beginning of a bad movie.
What is even more frightening about this is that malaria eradication is not the main purpose of gene drives. That is the front that the Gates Foundation and others are pushing. There is actually a lot of interest from agribusiness companies in using this technology in the food system, but that's not being made explicit. It's even more frightening if you think about what can come in the future.
Do you know what the relationship looks like between the science community and researchers and the foundations that fund them?
I don't know about the particular personal relationships between researchers, but if you look at Gate’s approach, it is very similar to the approach he takes at Microsoft – he has a monopoly on technology and that is the same kind of approach that he uses towards vaccines, towards this gene drive research.
It is a very technocratic approach to two very long-term structural problems: climate change, in the case of geoengineering, and malaria, in the case of gene drives.
It places innovation at the core. Do you believe innovation comes from competition?
I think you can probably deduce that I don't.
I mean, look at the COVID vaccines. The only reason we have these vaccines is because they were publicly funded. The research was funded by taxpayers. It is not only competition, and maybe not even competition, that leads to innovation. I think that's a very simplistic way of looking at the world and one that comes from a very particular worldview. To do any kind of research, you need resources. If scientific institutions in Africa actually had resources from their governments to do research, or if African scientists did not have to receive money from the Gates Foundation to do Gates-funded research, we would see very different things coming out of the continent. But because there are no resources in the public sector and for public research, there is no room for that.
The word innovation needs to be interrogated.
What does it mean? Innovation and technology do not just come from the west, but that is what we are taught. This is about imperialism. This is about imposing certain ways of seeing the world.
Not to mention this is not sustainable. We have no idea what might happen with gene drives and what may happen when you start fiddling with extinction technologies. What if this technology jumps to other species? What happens to the ecosystem? All these things are very, very dangerous.
How are people pushing back?
There is a whole range of civil society groups and social movements on the continent here that have been fighting back against gene drives and have been trying to reframe the philanthrocapitalism narratives.
They are trying to say that this is not about a new technology that's going to help Africans fight malaria, this is actually very colonial.
This is about using people in Burkina Faso as guinea pigs to test this very dangerous technology.
But it has been difficult, if you look at the media, almost all the reporting on gene drives has been more or less quite positive. They give very little time to opponents of gene drive research.
In the case of the Democratic Republic of Congo, there is a very interesting movement called Lucha, that called on the government to provide basic public services, like running water and proper infrastructure. They are also fighting for increased political participation. However, they also faced a great deal of repression. People fighting back and changing the narrative on these sorts of projects is really essential to the future.