On Saturday afternoon I nearly broke the habit of a lifetime and got on a plane.
Sitting in a bar in Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital, I watched Bill Gates climb on to the stage at the Live8 concert in London and make a speech about African poverty and the need for global justice.
Gates is of course the mega-rich head of Microsoft and, for Live8’s purposes, a great philanthopist.
Gates does give away quite a lot — $450 million quite recently for health projects. But I don’t feel grateful.
For one thing, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was only set up after the US government began an anti-trust suit against Microsoft accusing the firm of abusing its monopoly.
Secondly, Gates has a lot to give away. His wealth is presently estimated at $29 billion, and it has touched $100 billion when the stock market was booming.
So half a billion here and there doesn’t really hurt much.
Gates is the symbol of extreme wealth, of the turbo charged growth of inequality in the US and across the globe.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the number of millionaire households in the US grew in 2004 to a record 7.5 million, up 21 percent in one year.
This very wealthy segment of the population now controls an astounding $11 trillion in assets. Business magazine Forbes reports that there are now 691 billionaires in the world.
The aggregate wealth of this handful of men and women has reached $2.2 trillion. On average the net worth of each is nearly $3.2 billion.
These people did not get rich by working hard — on the US minimum wage it would take you 630,000 years to get Gates’s money.
The super rich got their wealth by heading a system of exploitation and imperialism which shatters the poor and wrecks lives—not least in Africa.
They profit from the “free market”. This is not some neutral tool — it is a historical product which has been created by capitalism, based on free labour (peasants driven from the land) and the freedom of capital to exploit.
Slavery, colonialism, the World Bank and IMF’s programmes — all of these are features of this market.
The rich rob us and then drop a little loose change as they run away.
This is bad enough, but I didn’t expect to see a top robber baron at an event supposed to be about ending poverty.
I was brought up a good Christian — Scottish missionaries, since you ask —and therefore remember well Proverbs chapter 13, verse 20: “He who walks with the wise grows wise, but a companion of fools suffers harm.”
If you have Gates on your platform, you’ve not just lost your way but are systematically distorting the reasons for poverty. You are also acting as a cover for exploitation.
Karl Marx was right when he said that change comes not through the “weakness of the strong, but always by the strength of the weak”.
I nearly got on a plane to march with the anti-war and anti-poverty protesters in Edinburgh — and to drag Bill Gates off that London stage.