This article is a collaboration between A Growing Culture and the Community Alliance for Global Justice.
Today, we see a lot of prominent people in the Global North pitching solutions to the world’s problems. They claim that their business savvy, resources, and influence are exactly what’s missing in the quest to save humanity from poverty, hunger, and illness. They believe they’ve “earned” their wealth through “hard work” and “determination.” As a result, they sell the idea that they can solve complex social problems.
This is “white saviorism”: the idea that wealthy white people can save “underprivileged,” “under-developed,” “Third World” countries. White saviorism is commonly practiced by misguided individuals who go on volunteer trips for their personal fulfillment. But when white saviors have enough wealth and influence, their “solutions” can change entire political and social systems. At this level, white saviorism becomes neocolonialism.
What is Neocolonialism?
As Kwame Nkrumah defined it, “The essence of neo-colonialism is that the State which is subject to it is, in theory, independent… In reality its economic system and thus its political policy is directed from outside… The result of neo-colonialism is that foreign capital is used for the exploitation rather than for the development of the less developed parts of the world. Investment under neo-colonialism increases rather than decreases the gap between the rich and the poor countries of the world.”
Powerful Global North governments, corporations, and individuals today don’t need to resort to explicit violence — invasion, seizure, genocide, and enslavement — in order to control other countries. Instead, they can use structural violence — leveraging aid, market access, and philanthropic interventions in order to force lower-income countries to do what they want.
Typically, what they want is more control over markets. The initial interventions end up creating debt for lower-income countries (because they give more power to Global North corporations). That debt ultimately becomes the most deadly form of leverage, giving Global North governments the justification for more interventions and allowing them to shape economic and trade policy in the way they see fit.
In short, colonialism never ended. It just changed form.
Gates and Neocolonialism
So how does Gates fit into all of this? His work through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation perpetuates neocolonialism and white saviorism in several ways: through their development narratives, their strategies for intervention, and their funding choices.
Let’s start with development narratives.
The origin of “development” is deeply rooted in colonial relationships and assumptions. In the 1920s, British colonial administrator Lord Frederick Lugard laid out what he termed the “dual mandate” of British imperial rule in Africa: on one hand, to govern with an interest in improving well-being, and on the other hand, to ensure the development of raw materials and their export from Africa to Europe.
The idea of development suggests that communities of Color are impoverished because of some inherent failing, rather than as a result of having their resources pillaged. Development narratives imply that they don’t have the skills, technology, or education to fix things for themselves.
The Gates Foundation mirrors these narratives, especially in its agricultural development funding in Africa. The vast majority of African farmers still use self-sufficient farming methods rooted in indigenous seeds and low-cost approaches to maintaining soil health. According to Gates, this is the problem, not structural poverty. The problem is a lack of access to the “best” technologies — to “improved” seeds, chemical fertilizers, and data services. Through these technologies, Gates claims, farmers will be able to produce more, which will lift them out of poverty (and, as a result, solve hunger).
It’s a laughably misguided claim, considering that we currently produce enough food to feed as many as 1.5x the world’s population. At best, it’s willful ignorance; at worst, it’s a desire to profit by perpetuating the problem.
Strategies for Intervention
We can see this narrative play out in Gates’ interventions. His foundation (along with the Rockefeller Foundation and donor governments) created the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) to transition farmers from small-scale subsistence farming to industrial farming — from agroecology to agribusiness. To do so, they promote “improved” seeds and chemical fertilizers.
What all these technologies have in common is that they are corporate products, which ultimately turn farmers into new consumers for agribusiness corporations. Instead of extracting raw materials, as under colonialism, agribusiness firms now simply make money by cultivating small-scale farmers’ dependence on their products.
These corporate “solutions” end up driving more poverty. Whereas farmers previously relied on their own locally-adapted seeds and natural fertilizers, they are forced to continuously purchase inputs from agribusiness corporations. The expensive chemicals needed to grow these “improved” seeds deplete the soil. As a result, they have to purchase more and more chemicals over time to compensate for the degradation. This is not development — it’s a vicious cycle that grows corporate profits by trapping farmers in debt.
Lastly, let’s look at funding. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation donates huge amounts of money to agricultural research focused on Africa. On their website, they state: “We believe that solutions to Africa’s greatest challenges can come from within Africa. Our role is to support African partners whose bold ideas and creative approaches have the potential to save lives, improve health, and help families all across the continent.”
Despite the foundation’s claims to be investing “within” Africa, The Nation “examined 30,000 charitable grants the foundation has awarded over the past two decades and found that more than 88 percent of the donations — $63 billion — have gone to recipients in the wealthiest, whitest nations, including the United States, Canada, Australia, and European countries.”
African groups received only 5 percent of their total funding for NGOs.
By withholding critical funding from African institutions, Gates ensures that any technologies developed are owned externally to the continent, keeping power consolidated in Global North institutions.
This allows Gates to control which innovations are funded (and which are not). These are, ultimately, capital- and fossil fuel-heavy technologies that are built not for farmers’ local contexts and environments, but for uniformity, so that they can be marketed and sold as much as humanly possible.
The Devastation of Long-term Colonialism
In the long term, Gates’ interventions erode interdependent community practices that have sustained soils and fed people for millennia. They target locally-adapted seeds and self-sufficient farming methods as a threat to the reach of Global North markets. The Gates Foundation’s strategies and funding force farmers into dependency and debt, but are advertised as “charity.”
And at the end of the day, Gates is not accountable to governments or to communities. He was not elected, and there is no mechanism for him to be recalled, challenged, or held responsible for faulty policies. He could suddenly decide that he was no longer interested in supporting agriculture in Africa. In that case, the new food system Gates is importing to the African continent would collapse. Political and economic systems are being drastically altered, all at the whim of one person, one foundation.
In fact, the differences between this situation — powerful individuals and institutions deciding to mess with the social, political, and economic realities of countries — and the earlier form of colonialism are thin. It’s still advertised as “good intent” and the desire to “civilize” an “uncivilized” people. The only difference is that neocolonialism is quieter and more covert. By design, it provokes less outrage. But the essential power structures remain the same.
The Problem of Individualism
Individuals are flawed. The fact that someone is a billionaire doesn’t make them more capable of solving any of our problems. In fact, the pursuit of that amount of wealth means that they were able to ignore — and in fact directly profit off of — the exploitation and violation of rights that is required to get there. It’s time we stopped indulging the egos of wealthy, powerful people and instead called out projects like Gates’ for what they are: neocolonialism fueled by a white savior.
Ultimately, no individual should be allowed to steer the food system in the direction they please without accountability, under the guise of generosity. African farmers are already feeding themselves and building the solutions most appropriate to their contexts. If Gates, or anyone else, wanted to use their wealth and privilege to support African farmers, they should support their expressed needs and goals — not impose a new, expensive, and corporate-driven system on them.
African farmers don’t need a white savior to show them how to farm; they need the Global North to stop plundering their resources.
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For additional reading: Jason Hickel, The Divide; Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa; Arturo Escobar, Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World; Teju Cole, “The White-Savior Industrial Complex” in The Atlantic; Tim Schwab, “The Gates Foundation Avoids a Reckoning on Race and Power” in The Atlantic; Millon Belay and Bridget Mugambe, “Bill Gates Should Stop Telling Africans What Kind of Agriculture Africans Need” in Scientific American