Over the past few months, AGRA Watch’s core members have developed a position statement, responding to the appropriation of our analysis to serve causes we do not agree with (including right-wing and anti-vaccine agendas). We strongly object to baseless conspiracy theories about Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation, which detract from our research and organizing focused on his role in wider structures of power. Over the past 15 years, we have gathered evidence and worked with other research and advocacy organizations to demonstrate problems with the Gates Foundation’s approach to agricultural development. More recently, we have also organized in support of making COVID vaccines (whose effectiveness and safety are widely supported by the scientific consensus) accessible to all countries and people. We believe that it is important to criticize the pharmaceutical industry, mainstream philanthropy, and corporate consolidation—but to do so in a way that is based on evidence, rooted in ideas of social justice, and focused on challenging structural causes.
You can read the position statement in full at its permanent home on our website. It is also available below.
AGRA Watch Position Statement
August 26, 2022
We at AGRA Watch and Community Alliance for Global Justice have spent the past 15+ years investigating and opposing the Gates Foundation’s agricultural programs, especially in Africa. However, there are now a number of irresponsible, non-evidence-based analyses circulating on the Internet and in the public discourse (especially on the Far Right) about the Foundation and Bill Gates himself. We object to these analyses, for the following reasons:
- Although based very loosely on some facts, they draw spurious and far-fetched conclusions that are not supported by data and evidence.
- By aligning themselves with our detailed investigations and analyses, they make it easier for the Gates Foundation and others to dismiss our own research as similarly conspiratorial or overblown. The end result is that it makes any criticism of the Gates Foundation seem similarly exaggerated and unmerited.
- These analyses often emerge from broader ideologies on the Far Right that miss the mark on root causes of contemporary problems and blame Bill Gates for so-called “Leftist” governmental relationships with Big Pharma, fake meat suppliers, and other initiatives to address climate change, public health, or social programs. By contrast, we do not believe that criticism of the Gates Foundation should be used to justify continued practices of fossil fuel extraction, aggressive unregulated capitalism, or racist and xenophobic politics.
AGRA Watch formed as part of a growing movement to oppose initiatives by Bill Gates and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that push industrial agriculture on Africa. In our work, we build solidarity with African farmers, farmer organizations, and civil society groups. We believe that those most affected should be the ones determining policies that affect their lives and food systems, rather than having these policies shaped and determined by US and European interests. As an organization based in Seattle (the same area as the Gates Foundation’s headquarters), we take advantage of our location to monitor the Foundation’s operations, increase public awareness, and hold demonstrations. We have focused on creating cracks in the public perception of Gates as a great humanitarian, and identifying how his approach to African agriculture reproduces inequality and fails to address root causes.
More recently, however, Gates has come under fire from some right-wing factions and politicians, based on misleading analyses of his role relating to the COVID-19 pandemic. These ideas have become widespread on the internet and social media (including some sources that have used our research out of context to support their claims), and are increasingly detracting from our key messages and analysis. Therefore, we want to clarify our positions related to these topics.
What’s wrong with conspiracy theories about Bill Gates?
There are a number of unfounded conspiracy theories about Bill Gates as an evil mastermind, such as that he “intentionally caused COVID-19” or is “microchipping the world” to control the population through vaccines (some comments to this effect have been posted by others on our events and blog posts). There is no evidence for any of these claims. Even if someone as powerful as Bill Gates wanted to do this (which we don’t believe he does), it would be nearly impossible to engineer such an effort and ensure the silence of those involved. Furthermore, this analysis of Bill Gates misses the mark about broader systems that have led to the consolidation of power among the 1%.
Bill Gates — like other billionaires — has benefited from unjust capitalist and colonial systems, and his actions have often reproduced the problems and inequalities within these systems. This allows him to continue amassing more wealth, privilege, and power. There are certainly ways that individuals and corporations have benefited from our current systems, which accord them enormous amounts of decision-making power and the ability to monopolize trade. And there are ways that they feed back into bolstering those systems—such as through lobbying and political donations. However, the core problem is not these individuals or corporations—it is the broader system that allows them to wield the power that they have.
We focus on Gates specifically because he and his foundation are playing an outsized, and in our opinion unwarranted, role in shaping global agricultural development funding, policies, and directions. As an individual, his power is a symptom of a bigger problem—the unjust systems mentioned above. We believe that the main underlying problem is a political and economic system that allows for the creation of multibillionaires — like Gates and others — at the same time that it perpetuates widespread poverty and debt. We believe that in an ideal world, multibillionaires would not exist; in the world we currently live in, we believe that people like Gates should utilize a better model for disbursing grants, such that they come without strings attached and actually work to rectify the problems caused by this system, rather than remaking institutions based on the “successes” of monopoly capitalism.
What’s wrong with conspiracy theories about COVID-19 vaccines?
Misleading analyses have claimed that COVID-19 vaccines are dangerous, and that we’re being lied to by the Food and Drug Administration, federal and state governments, doctors, pharmaceutical companies, and scientists. Moreover, some of the more far-fetched analyses suggest that the vaccines are being used to microchip the global population, change our DNA, or other nefarious actions. Additionally, some analyses have suggested that COVID-19 itself is a scam or is fabricated.
Like many conspiracy theories, there’s a grain of truth to skepticism about medical consensus and the pharmaceutical industry. It is true that there are problems with the kinds of mechanisms used by the FDA to approve new foods and medicines. It is true that some drugs and vaccines have been deemed safe enough for approval, only to later be discovered to have side effects that were felt to outweigh their benefits. And it is also true that the pharmaceutical industry is far too consolidated and profit-driven.
However, the aforementioned concerns about the vaccine itself are baseless. mRNA technology has been extensively studied for many decades; this is one of the reasons why scientists were able to develop the COVID-19 vaccines so quickly — they were based on vaccines that were in development for similar coronaviruses. In any given population, there is some small statistical risk of negative side effects.1 The same is true for any and all medical treatments, vaccines, and interventions. Furthermore, given the widespread availability of other surveillance technologies, from biometrics to phone data to other digital technologies we willingly invite into our homes, there is very little need for the government or companies to risk massive lawsuits from microchipping us through vaccines, against our consent. Furthermore, the technology needed to do this is extremely speculative and doesn’t exist presently.
Although our individual members may have differing experiences and opinions regarding COVID-19 vaccines, we as an organization echo the findings of scientific and medical experts around the world who have found vaccines to be effective and safe. While we acknowledge many problems with the highly consolidated and profit-driven pharmaceutical industry, we believe that access to COVID-19 vaccines (and other life-saving vaccines) should be free and universal. As such, as an organization we are strongly opposed to vaccine apartheid and have mobilized our membership in support of TRIPS2 waivers that would enable COVID-19 vaccines to be made more widely available to all countries and people.
What’s wrong with conspiracy theories about Bill Gates’ support for COVID-19 vaccines?
Some analyses of Bill Gates’ support for COVID-19 vaccines suggest that he personally benefited from kickbacks to pharmaceutical companies. There is no evidence to support this. The grain of truth here is that there are relationships between the Gates Foundation and the pharmaceutical industry, in terms of a “revolving door” of individuals on the boards of directors or staff of both, and in terms of the Foundation’s investment of some of its endowment in pharmaceutical companies involved in developing COVID-19 vaccines. While this is concerning from the perspective of conflict of interest and alignment of priorities among institutions, it does not mean that Gates himself is getting richer as a result of these investments. It is well-known that Gates’ individual net worth has grown over the course of the pandemic—as is also true of Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and many other billionaires whose combined net worth was an estimated $4 trillion in April 2021—but it is not clear whether that is from personal investments in pharmaceutical companies, or from other activities or investments in unrelated companies that have experienced growth, such as IT companies catering to increased demand for digital services.
The bigger problem here is structural—in the midst of a global public health disaster, pharmaceutical companies have been legally allowed to retain their exclusive patents and profits, keeping the vaccine from people who need it. Our work has focused on Bill Gates’ and the Gates Foundation’s support for upholding intellectual property rights (IPRs) over patented vaccines, largely due to their own deep-seated ideological commitments to IPRs, private property, and the role of the private sector in solving social problems. (The Foundation later reversed course, favoring a limited, temporary waiver.) Upholding IPRs in this case has exacerbated global inequality in access to vaccines, and has contributed to severe lags in much of the world, as wealthy governments grabbed up most of the early supplies and as the approved vaccines were too expensive for many poorer governments to purchase in sufficient quantities. Promised donations by wealthy countries have also failed to close the gap.
Additionally, we object to the Foundation’s undue influence over international public health agendas. The World Health Organization (WHO), for example. has largely relied on the leadership of private-public partnerships, many of which are funded and led by the Gates Foundation, in developing a COVID-19 vaccine portfolio. As a non-democratic organization with an unelected board, the Foundation has been able to sway multilateral institutions like WHO in favor of for-profit vaccines and its own priority approaches.
There are many ongoing discussions about public health protocols and potential treatments for COVID-19, but this is not within our area of expertise or focus. Instead, we focus on critiquing and working to dismantle the international structures of power that inhibit people from certain countries and backgrounds from having access to the same range of medical options as people with economic and racial privilege.
1 For example, a study of 192,405,448 people who received mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccines between December 2020 and August 2021 found that there had been 1,626 instances that met the case definition of myocarditis, a rare side effect of COVID-19 vaccines. This means that 1 out of every 1,250 people (a rate of 0.0008%) may experience this side effect. By contrast, COVID-19 infection is estimated to result in death for 1-2 out of every 100 people (a rate of somewhere between 0.5-2%), which is a considerably higher risk than that of the vaccines. Of course there are people who have experienced negative effects from vaccines, but this doesn’t invalidate their overall safety for the general population.
2 TRIPS refers to trade-related intellectual property rights, which are embedded within the World Trade Organization (WTO) and commit WTO member countries to establish and protect private property rights over innovations. This has been especially controversial when applied to things like patenting seeds and enabling private profit-making over publicly necessary inventions, like vaccines.