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The animal called Gates

How an IT billionaire changed the African research scene

1994 was a historic year for Africa. South Africa held its first democratic elections, ending apartheid rule. But developments further afield also shaped the continent's future. In North America, an IT billionaire set up what was to become the world's largest philanthropic organisation.

The birth of Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation heralded a philanthropic funding boom that would pay dividends for Africa’s researchers. The foundation’s risk-taking, low-bureaucracy approach has made it a popular choice for academics.

But as its influence has grown, so have concerns about its legitimacy in setting research priorities.

Gates in a nutshell

Bill Gates, the Microsoft funder, set up the foundation by an initial stock gift of US$94 million. The foundation’s assets ballooned through a series of additional donations from Gates and other mega-rich individuals. By September last year the foundation’s total endowment had grown to US$36 billion, having paid out US$25 billion to date.

Armed by such monetary firepower, it may not come as a surprise that the Gates foundation now ranks among the biggest spenders on development research in the world. For instance, between 2000 and 2010 it spent over US$200 million on the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, a global consortium that focuses on food security and poverty eradication. This makes it the sixth biggest contributor to the CGIAR, ahead of countries like Switzerland and Japan.

But because the foundation doesn’t provide statistics on exactly in which country their funding ends up, it is difficult to say how much money has gone to Africa. Safe to say, it’s a lot. Global health and agriculture—two of the foundation’s chief priorities—line up with Africa’s own research needs.

An educated guess for the foundation’s African spend is somewhere in the region of US$6 billion over the last decade, says Trevor Mundel, president of the foundation’s global health programme.

Risky business

The Gates funding boost has been warmly welcomed by African scientists. Not only because it fills a need, but also because the funding model—more risk-taking and less bureaucratic—is attractive to the continent’s researchers.

The foundation is open to fund more risky projects than public-sector funders like the European Union, which are accountable to taxpayers. “We are fortunate in that we don’t have governmental oversight that traditional funders have,” says Mundel.

One example of this risk-taking ethos is its Grand Challenges Exploration programme, a US$100 million initiative to encourage scientists to use unorthodox ideas to battle health challenges in poor countries.

The foundation also funds research in risky places. It is one of the few funders to spend money in central Africa, a region that is often shunned due to its lack of research capacity and high levels of corruption.

Going local proves popular

The foundation also increasingly gives its grants straight to African researchers. This sets it apart from many other funders that tend to channel grants through research institutions in developed countries.

The move towards direct funding started last year. It is a consequence of the foundation finding out that research carried out in other parts of the world sometimes failed to translate into development outcomes on the ground.

“We have had cases where we give money to groups for projects that seem good on paper, but because they don’t live in the communities the technology doesn’t take off. If we give money to Africa we know products will meet the needs of the communities,” Mundel says.

Getting money directly is a relief, say African scientists. “If money is given to us directly we don’t have to search for a northern partner,” says Jasper Ogwal-Okeng who received a US$100,000 grant to conduct malaria research in 2010.

It also makes it easier for African institutions to plan financially and build up the accounting expertise that will help win and process future grants. “If we manage [the funding] ourselves we can build capacity to do more quality research and attract more funding,” says Salim Abdulla, executive director of Tanzania’s Ifakara Health Institute.

Accountable to whom?

But while Gates’ millions have put a smile on African researchers’ faces, its role in setting research priorities has been called into question as its influence grows.

It is estimated that over recent years the value of private donations to developing countries have become comparable in scale to official development assistance. ODI is driven by international treaties and is accountable to governments.

So what drives Gates funding? That is the million (or billion) dollar question that development experts have asked.

In the field of agriculture, the foundation has been criticised for funding Monsanto, a biotechnology corporation that is seen by the anti-GM lobby as pushing genetically modified crops onto African markets. The foundation strongly rejects such criticism.

The foundation’s push for vaccine research has also been called into question by global health organisations, which say the health of the poor would be better served by low-technology interventions like better sanitation.

Not so transparent

Meanwhile, those wanting to understand the foundation’s funding decisions face a challenge. The flip side of the low-bureaucracy approach to applications is that such decisions are less transparent than they might be for public-sector funders.

“There is no indication at the point of application how [the application] will be assessed. State-funded agencies make it clear what the criteria are. It’s difficult to know why you didn’t get it if the review process is not transparent,” says Jonathan Blackburn, a biochemist at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, who received US$1m from Gates for a three-year project.

These discussions about the Gates foundation’s accountability will no doubt intensify as private donors like Gates foundation become more commonplace and powerful. However, one thing is certain; the animal called Gates has made a home in Africa. As far as most African scientists are concerned, that is a good thing.