Some billionaires are satisfied with buying themselves an island. Bill Gates got a United Nations health agency in Geneva.
Over the past decade, the world’s richest man has become the World Health Organization’s second biggest donor, second only to the United States and just above the United Kingdom. This largesse gives him outsized influence over its agenda, one that could grow as the U.S. and the U.K. threaten to cut funding if the agency doesn’t make a better investment case.
The result, say his critics, is that Gates’ priorities have become the WHO’s. Rather than focusing on strengthening health care in poor countries — that would help, in their view, to contain future outbreaks like the Ebola epidemic — the agency spends a disproportionate amount of its resources on projects with the measurable outcomes Gates prefers, such as the effort to eradicate polio.
Concerns about the software billionaire’s sway — roughly a quarter of WHO’s budget goes toward polio eradication — has led to an effort to rein him in. But he remains a force to be reckoned with, as WHO prepares to elect one of three finalists to lead the organization.
“All of the candidates are going to have to ally with him in some way,” said Sophie Harman, associate professor of international politics at Queen Mary University of London. “You can’t ignore him.”
Evidence of Gates’ unprecedented influence abounds in ways subtle and showy.
“He is treated liked a head of state, not only at the WHO, but also at the G20” — Geneva-based NGO representative
Already a decade ago, when Gates started throwing money into malaria eradication, top officials — including the chief of the WHO’s malaria program — raised concerns that the foundation was distorting research priorities. “The term often used was ‘monopolistic philanthropy’, the idea that Gates was taking his approach to computers and applying it to the Gates Foundation,” said a source close to the WHO board.
The billionaire was the first private individual to keynote WHO’s general assembly of member countries, and academics have coined a term for his sway in global health: the Bill Chill. Few people dare to openly criticize what he does. Most of 16 people interviewed on the topic would only do so on the condition of anonymity.