Anonymous global health worker: The problem with Melinda Gates’ family planning crusade

*This is a guest post submitted by someone who wishes to remain anonymous because they work in the global health field and could lose their job for voicing these opinions. This post does not necessarily reflect the views of Feministing contributors or editors. 

The press coverage has been glowing: Melinda Gates launches global crusade for contraception; Gates summit aims to fill family planning gap, Melinda Gates takes on the Vatican.

These are just a few of the headlines that appeared following this week’s London Summit on Family Planning.  Sponsored by the Gates Foundation and the UK Government, the Summit aimed—and succeeded—in mobilizing big name funders and governments to invest in expanding contraceptive access in developing countries.

It can’t be denied that throughout the world, millions of women want—yet can’t access- modern contraception methods.  And it’s great that Melinda Gates used her influence and tremendous financial assets to raise the profile of women’s health in the mainstream media and among powerful global health donors.

But the problem is that despite the media’s characterization of her role, Melinda Gates did not start this “crusade” against conservative forces that try to limit women’s access to the basic health services they need.

The UK Guardian wrote on July 11 that “Gates…predicted that women in Africa and Asia would soon be ‘voting with their feet,’ as women in the west have done, and would ignore the church’s ban on artificial birth control.”  In the article, Gates is quotes as saying that “it would have been nice to stay as a private citizen but part of the reason why I’m so public is that it does take a woman to speak out about these issues.”

I couldn’t agree more.  But does it have to be a white woman?

For decades, grassroots women’s organizations throughout Asia, Africa and Latin America have been fighting entrenched cultural norms and dominant religious forces to fight for women’s rights and access to sexual and reproductive health care.  From Nigeria to Mexico, women have been speaking out on these issues and challenging their governments—or “voting with their feet”—often at their own peril.

The problem is that many women don’t have the financial resources Gates does, or the connections or access needed to make their voices heard in large traditional media outlets.  And like so many other well-meaning white people, Gates has not fully grasped the extent that her privilege provides a forum, a forum that is not only out of reach for women in developing countries, but also inaccessible for millions of women in this country who wish that her “crusade” against the Vatican would include advocacy for the abortion rights we’ve worked so hard to secure.

If Gates is, truly, dedicated to giving a “voice to women all over the planet,” then why doesn’t she pass the megaphone?

Join the Conversation

  • Sam Lindsay-Levine

    Why does it have to be her with the megaphone? I would say because she’s the billionaire, and that gives her a platform and global influence, sufficient to address and help solve some real problems but not sufficient to, you know, dismantle the entire world’s economic structure and social patterns suddenly making everyone equal.

    I mean, you’re factually correct in everything you say, and I completely acknowledge your good points and your positive intent, but how is this not a “the perfect is the enemy of the good” type situation? Do we really need to ensure that no good deed goes un-complained-about?

  • Emily

    Unfortunately, we live in a world where money is power. Rich, well-known people such as Melinda Gates can wield an incredible amount of influence because of their status. Is there something wrong with our society respecting the opinion of rich white people more than others? Absolutely.

    But Melinda Gates is using that privilege to do good. Of course, it would be better to have a woman from the developing world, who has had to live a life facing the hardships that women in developing countries confront, acting as the voice of this campaign. But would people have listened to her in the same way that they listen to Melinda Gates? Would it have garnered the same amount of media attention? Sadly, I do not think so. So why not appreciate what the Gates Foundation is doing? Until we improve our society to the point where women of the developing world will be able to have the influence that is needed, I think the best option is for powerful women such as Melinda Gates to step up and do what they can for causes they believe in.

    I believe that this foundation does incredible work. Bill and Melinda Gates are unfathomably rich, yet they’ve managed to turn that wealth into something good. They’ve pledged to donate over 90% of their wealth to charity. They have made massive progress on a large array of development issues. So maybe everything about this isn’t perfect. But, really, there are rich people that deserve to be criticized a lot more than the Gates. There are people abusing the privilege they have been given; these people are using it to try and change the world for the better.

  • Mercedes Allen

    I’m going to do the weird thing and agree with what you just said, and poo all over it, at the same time.

    This is largely because I monitor a lot of the far-right from web presences like OneNewsNow to HLI International, and see how much of the rhetoric against reproductive rights is generated, spun and refined into memes for mass market use.

    And this sort of coincides with where the far right strategy against Melinda Gates’ initiative has been going. It’s a quest for a divide, co-opt and conquer strategy in the same way that LifeSiteNews tries to package Planned Parenthood as “racist” via Margaret Sanger’s historical dalliances with eugenics; in the same way that the “sex-selective” argument is designed to divide women over an aspect of abortion; in the same way that the right has tried to package Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann as the new ideal and paint feminists, therefore, as “anti-woman.”

    This is not a direct attack on the author, since (anonymity notwithstanding), this could be written by someone who has been influenced by this tactic and some of its real and valid points, without realizing the original proponents’ intended direction. I presume nothing about the author’s motives for writing.

    I’m a strong believer that advocacy has to be more than partly self-directed: that any outreach designed to assist a group needs to be done with full consultation of and deference to that group. This is why I’m critical of efforts to ban the burqa, for example, given that the consequence is often that the wearers are criminalized, and the end result is often that women affected are made to simply stop travelling in public spaces. Western solutions are not necessarily the ideal solutions, and it’s arrogant to always assume that.

    That said, Melinda Gates’ efforts are barely out of the gate. We haven’t seen how they’re to be implemented, and more importantly how that will evolve as work happens in (and hopefully with extensive communication with) international womens’ communities. This is sort of like deciding it’s time to cry wolf because we’re already standing too close to the forest.

    So while I’d agree that the efforts being undertaken need to empower women in Africa and Asia to direct their own activism (which they can’t always do publicly, so they may be less able than Anonymous to step up to the megaphone) and that’s something we should call for and encourage, I’d also caution against being divided over the need for and the value of this summit on family planning.

  • Virginia Dare

    I agree that Melinda Gates as an advocate for family planning is not the perfect enemy of such good. I would argue that the author’s point is that if only Melinda speaks, she does great disservice to her crusade (that’s she only recently joined). The Gates Foundation does not have a very good record of inclusion, and especially inclusion of the people who are most impacted by the problems they are trying to “solve”. Their obsession with metrics and effectiveness can be paralyzing at best and a serious set back to those who are already in this space and measure change, specifically systemic change, differently. [I recommend reading "Metrics Mania: The Growing Corporatization of US Philanthropy" by Alison Bernstein for a solid critique of "coercive accountability".]

    Melinda is the face but listen to the chorus of voices that echo her – most are white, upper class men. I can say with confidence and experience that the Gates Foundation’s strategy and theories of change do not account for the complexity of sexuality and culture. That is dangerous and unstrategic philanthropy.

    If Melinda hands the mic over to others – women who are leaders and activists in reproductive justice – I will know that she is serious about reproductive freedom for all women.

  • athenia

    Well, I think the question is–what does “passing the megaphone” look like? Does that mean Melinda Gates should appoint a spokesperson? Have a team of spokespersons? Who should these spokespersons be?

    I also think we need to be aware too that even if she does pass the megaphone, the megaphone may no longer be a megaphone.