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An Impoverished View of Poverty - Linguistic Analysis of Gates Foundation Annual Letter

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The purpose of this report is to make clear the ideological biases evident among leadership at the Gates Foundation—using the words of Bill and Melinda Gates as the “data” for linguistic analysis. Armed with this information we can each make our own assessments about what is needed to address the interconnected web of challenges confronting humanity in an increasingly unequal world.

It may be helpful to start with the larger context. Widespread poverty and growing inequality threaten the stability of global civilization. They are linked to political instabilities, regional conflicts, and environmental decline in every region of the globe. For any transition plan to achieve a state of planetary thriving, it will be essential that chronic inequality and the life-crippling impacts of widespread poverty be brought to an end. It is in service of this mission that I provide a linguistic analysis of the Gates Foundation’s 2014 annual letter.

As the world’s largest and most powerful philanthropic institution, the Gates Foundation is poised to do a great deal of good if it can find the bold leadership necessary to rise up and face the epic challenges now confronting humanity. Yet if it fails to deliver the substantive changes needed to make such a transition, the Gates Foundation can also be a harbinger of tremendous harm by continuing down a path that vast evidence shows will only lead to collective ruin—pulling many of the largest nonprofit organizations down with it as it goes.

An Impoverished View of Poverty - Linguistic Analysis of Gates Foundation Annual Letter

  1. 1. An Impoverished View of Poverty Linguistic Analysis of the Gates Foundation’s 2014 Annual Letter Prepared by: Joe Brewer Culture Designer August 27, 2014 Change Strategist for Humanity T 206.914.8927 joe@culture2inc.com http://www.changestrategistforhumanity.com
  2. 2. Waterfall by M.C. Escher, 1961 “Shift your perspective and you will see a different world. Act in the new perspective and you create a different future.” An Impoverished View of Poverty: Linguistic Analysis of the Gates Foundation’s 2014 Annual Letter 2
  3. 3. Table of Contents Executive Summary Page 4 A Brief History Leading Up to This Report Page 5 The Research Approach Page 6 What the Annual Letter’s Title Reveals Page 7 Analysis of Myth #1 Page 9 Analysis of Myth #2 Page 13 Analysis of Myth #3 Page 16 What Conclusions Can We Draw? Page 17 Where Might We Go From Here? Page 18 An Impoverished View of Poverty: Linguistic Analysis of the Gates Foundation’s 2014 Annual Letter 3
  4. 4. Executive Summary The purpose of this report is to make clear the ideological biases evident among leadership at the Gates Foundation—using the words of Bill and Melinda Gates as the “data” for linguistic analysis. Armed with this information we can each make our own assessments about what is needed to address the interconnected web of challenges confronting humanity in an increasingly unequal world. It may be helpful to start with the larger context. Widespread poverty and growing inequality threaten the stability of global civilization. They are linked to political instabilities, regional conflicts, and environmental decline in every region of the globe.1 For any transition plan to achieve a state of planetary thriving, it will be essential that chronic inequality and the life-crippling impacts of widespread poverty be brought to an end. It is in service of this mission that I provide a linguistic analysis of the Gates Foundation’s 2014 annual letter.2 As the world’s largest and most powerful philanthropic institution, the Gates Foundation is poised to do a great deal of good if it can find the bold leadership necessary to rise up and face the epic challenges now confronting humanity. Yet if it fails to deliver the substantive changes needed to make such a transition, the Gates Foundation can also be a harbinger of tremendous harm by continuing down a path that vast evidence shows will only lead to collective ruin—pulling many of the largest nonprofit organizations down with it as it goes. The motivation for writing this report now is that a recent announcement by the Gates Foundation of its “Narrative Project”—an effort to bring NGO’s together and change the conversation about development and aid—shows that it is moving the international community in the wrong direction. We simply don’t have the luxury as a species to delay any longer. Either the Gates Foundation needs to become the philanthropic leader for a global replacement of destructive policy instruments. Or it needs to get out of the way of an increasingly powerful and decentralized Civil Society that is working on all fronts to bring about the structural changes that will be essential to our collective survival on Earth. 1 For a historic analysis of inequality trends as they relate to societal well-being, see War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires by Peter Turchin (2007). 2 Download the annual letter at http://annualletter.gatesfoundation.org/?cid=gf_em_ll0_grantee An Impoverished View of Poverty: Linguistic Analysis of the Gates Foundation’s 2014 Annual Letter 4
  5. 5. A Brief History Leading Up to This Report Four years ago, I worked closely with collaborators in the United Kingdom to bring frame analysis to bear on the discourse around poverty alleviation, charitable giving, and economic development. My two roles were to provide subject matter expertise from the obscure field of cognitive linguistics and to characterize the dominant frames of the conversation about global poverty. This effort culminated in the publication of a highly influential report called Finding Frames: New Ways to Engage the UK Public in Global Poverty,3 authored by Andrew Darnton and Martin Kirk, that has since unleashed waves of discussion and debate about activism and NGO management throughout Europe, North America, and Australia. It has also recently become a guiding document for strategic investments by the Gates Foundation in its efforts to bring global poverty to an end. Among the key findings in the Finding Frames report were these observations about the discourse: ✦ Emphasis on charity and aid perpetuate notions of Western dominance that are vestiges of post-colonialism and empire from a past era. ✦ Promotion of charity as a legitimate response to mass poverty both reduces the scale of action understood to be needed and draws attention away from the political and structural causes of growing inequality that make poverty so widespread. ✦ A paternalistic treatment of “the poor” as passive, voiceless victims who cannot play any active role in shaping their destinies—the “moral order” frame of superiority. ✦ Stereotyping “the poor” as a homogeneous group of dark-skinned people lumped together under terms like “Africa” and the “Global South”, thus perpetuating implicit racism and sentiments of Western superiority. ✦ The belief that poverty is “natural and unavoidable” that conceals the real causes of poverty and therefore excludes any approach capable of actually bringing it to an end. ✦ Massive “loss of faith” in NGO’s that have over promised and under delivered (a la Make Poverty History), undermining public confidence in these institutions and further diminishing the prospects for success in the long run. All of these findings point to the need for deep and substantive changes in the approaches taken to address global inequality and poverty. The dominant narratives of this arena need an update— with profound implications for structural alterations of management practice and business models across the nonprofit, philanthropic, entrepreneurial, and governmental sectors. Sadly, as the analysis below makes clear, the Gates Foundation has failed to learn these lessons. 3 Download at http://www.findingframes.org An Impoverished View of Poverty: Linguistic Analysis of the Gates Foundation’s 2014 Annual Letter 5
  6. 6. The Research Approach - Revealing Hidden Structures of Language A central theme running throughout the cognitive sciences is that human thought is fundamentally embodied, which means the kinds of minds we have are profoundly shaped by (1) the kinds of bodies we have, (2) the way information gets processed in our brains, and (3) the physical and social environments we find ourselves in. Words convey the understandings, beliefs, assumptions, and judgements we have about the world.4 Thought has structure. It can be analyzed using the tools of neuroscience (to see inner workings of the mind), social science (where patterns of story and collective behavior arise in communities), and in the language we use (to observe patterns of understanding that help us navigate our social worlds). Taken together, the existence of structures like these enable us to analyze the use of language to see conceptual representations, implicit logics, and emotional sensibilities—all of which go by the label “frame analysis” as an analytic tool set. I analyzed the language used by Bill and Melinda Gates in their 2014 Annual Letter to uncover these patterns of thought. What I found is a detailed map of the ideological mindset shaping how they lead the direction of the world’s largest and most powerful philanthropic institution. Linguistic analysis enables us to see the implicit values, ideological beliefs, and unstated assumptions that drive social behavior. When Bill and Melinda Gates drafted the text of their annual letter, they laid bare the raw data from which to extract insights about these aspects of their thinking. What we will see in the following pages is an exposition of the thought space guiding strategy development at the Gates Foundation—viewed through the lens of linguistic analysis. The format of presentation will be as follows: ✦ Deconstruct the media framing of the title to reveal strategic considerations in the way it has been conceptualized. ✦ Delve into each of the “3 Myths That Block Progress for the Poor” and explain the conceptual underpinnings shaping how Bill and Melinda Gates think about global poverty. 4 An expansive reading list of books on cognitive science for social change can be viewed at http://www.cognitivepolicyworks.com/blog/2012/05/11/the-best-reading-list-youll-ever-find-for-cognitive-science-and-so cial-change/ An Impoverished View of Poverty: Linguistic Analysis of the Gates Foundation’s 2014 Annual Letter 6
  7. 7. ✦ Provide a general overview of the strategic challenges/opportunities that are revealed by this analysis. ✦ Offer suggestions for next steps that take into account the potential pitfalls that must be navigated to make progress in the coming months and years. My hope is that this analysis stimulates further discussion and debate so we can all be more effective at moving our global economy toward a state of shared prosperity and planetary thriving. What the Annual Letter’s Title Reveals Media framing focuses on the titles given to news articles and the narrative archetypes that are used to communicate newsworthy events to the broad public. These are design choices that influence how issues come to be understood and talked about, thus influencing public perceptions while setting the boundaries for in-the-box strategic thinking.5 The Gates Foundation letter has been framed in a particular way with it’s title “3 Myths That Block Progress for the Poor”. Two things stand out immediately. First is the Debunking Myths Frame that gets wide use in public relations efforts to correct one or several misunderstandings about a topic. Second is the Barrier Metaphor that gets activated by the words “block progress”. Each is significant for different reasons. Breaking Down the “Debunking” of Myths The Debunking Myths Frame evokes an event scenario where there is (a) some misunderstanding of a topic; (b) an audience who has the misunderstanding; (c) authoritative knowledge of the “correct” understanding; (d) a credible expert who has this authoritative knowledge; and (e) a transactional event whereby the credible expert communicates the “correct” understanding, thereby replacing the wrong facts with the right ones in the minds of audience members. The event scenario of this frame makes use of a commonplace metaphor about communication— the Conduit Metaphor—which asserts that communication is the movement of a “thought object” from the mind of Person A (the speaker) through some pipeline (or conduit) into the mind of Person B (the recipient). It is like the telephone game many of us played as children where we pass an idea from one person to the next. Unfortunately, as the telephone game teaches us, the message is usually lost because there is no “thought object” that can be passed along with fidelity. This is because it is a faulty frame that misrepresents how real communication works. What actually happens is that each person’s mind constructs a concept for the idea consistent with the information they received that gets shaped through a filtering process based on prior learning. As the telephone game plays out, each person constructs an understanding as they 5 For a scholarly overview of media framing, get a copy of Framing Public Life: Perspectives on Media and Our Under-standing of the Social World edited by Reese, Gandy, and Grant (2003). An Impoverished View of Poverty: Linguistic Analysis of the Gates Foundation’s 2014 Annual Letter 7
  8. 8. interpret what they heard and speak it to the next person down the line. This is why the message at the end of the telephone game can be so different from the one at the beginning. Most attempts to “debunk” a myth end up being ineffective, sometimes inadvertently reinforcing the misconception they were intended to dispel, because they are based on this incorrect representation of human thought. The variety of psychological and cognitive processing mechanisms that cause this to occur are well known among communication theorists. Relevant for our purposes are two observations: 1. Bill Gates is overlooking a large body of science about communication that would help the Gates Foundation be more effective at influencing cultural narratives and shaping policy outcomes. 2. The tone is condescending, evoking the “moral order” frame that imposes an authoritarian hierarchy, by presuming that everyday people are “ignorant of the facts” and need to be taught right from wrong. Recall from the central discoveries in Finding Frames that the Moral Order Frame is both ubiquitous in the poverty discourse and that it reinforces paternalistic attitudes of superiority by people who are Western, mostly white, male, and wealthy. Bill Gates himself is emblematic of this troublesome pattern in his opening statement of the annual letter—both in terms of his demographic makeup (which can’t be helped) and the disposition he takes on the topic of poverty (which can be addressed through better use of strategic communications). Importance of the Barrier Metaphor On a more positive note, the letter does make use of a helpful metaphor for conveying how inequality is understood. In Anat Shenker-Osorio’s research on the language of inequality, three metaphors stood out as having strategic implications for shaping public understandings— Inequality as Imbalance; Inequality as A Gap; Inequality as A Barrier.6 A benefit of framing problems as a barrier is that it enables us to talk about who put the barrier in place and what we can do to remove it. This implies human agency may be involved. It also opens up the possibility for deeper inquiries into who does what to whom as a causal pathway for creating poverty and inequality—which can also be used to articulate in concrete terms how it can be brought to an end. Sadly though, this barrier metaphor is applied to understanding “the facts” and not to the root causes of poverty itself. Still it is nice to see here. As we will see in the analysis below, there are many well-documented structural causes for poverty and inequality that have been put in place by intentional design to serve a powerful elite at the 6 An overview of Anat’s work can be found in this frame analysis conducted for TheRules.org in 2012: http://www.slideshare.net/joebrewer31/the-rules-report-final An Impoverished View of Poverty: Linguistic Analysis of the Gates Foundation’s 2014 Annual Letter 8
  9. 9. expense of the majority. These structures range from tax subsidies and other corporate benefits gifted to financial investors to trade agreements and clandestine logistics systems for hiding money, concealing the true identities of criminal activities, and excising many kinds of wealth through debt peonage. These various structural causes are nowhere to be found the Narrative Project or any activities promoted by the Gates Foundation to address global poverty. They have been concealed in the debate through selective framing of issues, as we can see in the way poverty and international development are presented. Analysis of Myth #1: “Poor Countries Are Doomed to Stay Poor” Now let’s dig into the substance of the annual letter. The first topic that Bill Gates explores is the notion that people are trapped in poverty (a framing that treats poverty as a prison or cage of some kind—one of many possible ways to conceptualize the meaning of poverty). Right off the bat, any hint of who creates poverty is obscured by passive language. People are presumed to be placed in a state (or location) of poverty with no mention of the institutional structures or policy decisions that created this condition. This removes from discussion any possible reference to people who might be responsible for creating poverty and—more fundamentally—glosses over any possible “creation story” that makes clear how poverty came into being in the first place.7 The world of human endeavors is filled with motives and agendas. Any time that a topic about society glosses over the role of humans, either overtly or by accident, it will hide the political agenda that created the situation. This is true for poverty. Extensive evidence has been gathered by historians, economists, policy analysts, and other social researchers about the consolidation of wealth through specific policy interventions. A coherent ideological agenda lurks behind this effort —referred to by the labels Neoliberalism, Free Market Capitalism, and Laissez-Fair Economics. Is Bill Gates concealing an ideological agenda in the blend of focus and redirection that gives shape to his perspective on poverty? The writings of this letter are consistent with a Neoliberal position. 7 In another frame analysis of the poverty discourse, we discovered this lack of a creation story, which plays into the false notion that poverty is just a natural occurrence. If no original cause is attributed to poverty, there is no way to properly understand how it might be solved. An Impoverished View of Poverty: Linguistic Analysis of the Gates Foundation’s 2014 Annual Letter 9
  10. 10. Consider the following ways that terms are defined and stories presented: ✦ Progress is measured as increasing income which treats money as wealth. Nothing is said about increasing inequality or the many forms of structural corruption that negatively impact human security. ✦ Progress is infrastructure (construction of roads, schools, hospitals, etc.) which masks the controversial Structural Adjustment Programs imposed by “free trade” agreements over the years, strapping national governments with high-interest loans that lead to austerity measures and loss of public programs when debts cannot be repaid. ✦ “Most people are middle class” when referring to Mexico City and Shanghai, masking the empirical patterns of wealth distribution that skew strongly toward the super rich in an extremely unequal world (more on this below). ✦ Narrative arc of nations climbing the income ladder which uses a single bulk measure (average per capita income) to mask growing inequality within countries. ✦ Aid is development which conflates foreign aid and philanthropic investment with opening of new markets and the spread of capitalism as the primary investment vehicle for societal improvement. The use of personal income (rather than total financial wealth, inflation-adjusted purchasing power, or any other more comprehensive metric) paints a simplistic and misleading story of progress. On page 5 of the annual letter, Gates declares: “The global picture of poverty has been completely redrawn in my lifetime. Per-person incomes in Turkey and Chile are where the United States was in 1960. Malaysia is nearly there, as is Gabon. And that no-man’s-land between rich and poor countries has been filled in by China, India, Brazil, and others. Since 1960, China’s real income per person has gone up eightfold. India’s has quadrupled, Brazil’s has almost quintupled, and the small country of Botswana, with shrewd management of it’s mineral resources, has seen a thirty-fold increase.” Two things are happening in this passage. Firstly, the central metaphor is Nation as Person— lumping entire populations of real people into a conceptual category with one representative member. This conceals all the nuanced structure of real-world economics, including the importance of of wealth disparity and its multifaceted relationships with political power. Secondly, the passage uses income as the sole measure of progress. Equating societal well-being with the lone metric of annual wage or salary and thus removing any consideration of health outcomes, disparities in political influence due to consolidated wealth and its impacts on electoral outcomes, or any of a host of other vital features of a functioning community. Take a look at the graph Bill Gates used in support of his misleading perspective: An Impoverished View of Poverty: Linguistic Analysis of the Gates Foundation’s 2014 Annual Letter 10
  11. 11. This graph shows a single “hump” for the 2012 distribution of income—reinforcing the false notion of a Middle Class by displaying the information on a logarithmic scale. The horizontal axis increases by powers of ten ($1, $10, $100, ...) to distort a very skewed and unequal income distribution (which is not nearly as skewed as measures of total wealth would be if we chose to graph them instead) such that it appears to have a large midsection. In a previous frame analysis, I deconstructed the mythical Middle Class by comparing two images.8 One is a single hump curve (what statisticians would call a “normal distribution”) and the other is a chart showing the distribution of income in the United States. Here they are side by side: 8 Download the report at http://www.slideshare.net/joebrewer31/the-framing-of-solidarity An Impoverished View of Poverty: Linguistic Analysis of the Gates Foundation’s 2014 Annual Letter 11
  12. 12. The image on the left is the schematic form for how people tend to think about the Middle Class— envisioning a balanced collection of people where the low-income earners are equidistant from the high-income earners. The image on the right shows that this impression is wildly incorrect. A tiny number of people make astronomical amounts of money while the vast majority of people barely scrape by. This kind of conceptual misdirection underlies Bill Gates’ assertion that the world is improving because average per capita income has increased. A starkly different reality is masked by this false equivalence. When he says on page 6 that “By 2035, there will be almost no poor countries left in the world” the growing strain of social cohesion from massive inequality is, quite literally, removed from the picture. If the reality of rigged political and economic systems is ignored to paint a naive picture of progress, what is there to take its place? This quote from page 7 is highly suggestive: “The bottom line: Poor countries are not doomed to stay poor. Some of the so-called developing nations have already developed. Many more are on their way. The nations that are still finding their way are not trying to do something unprecedented. They have good examples to learn from.” Note the Moral Order Frame yet again. Less developed nations are inferior to more developed nations. As more countries “learn from” the industrial West, they too can achieve the outcomes of improved economic performance. This is the classic Neoliberal story. It ignores the facts about how the industrial nations acquired their wealth (much of it by pillaging the natural resources of other lands during and after the Colonial Era). And it conceals the fact that wealthy nations like the U.S. are among the most unequal in the world and are strapped with massive inflation, structural problems with consumer and national debt, and largely dysfunctional political systems that serve financial elites to the detriment of the populace writ large. And all of this says nothing about the looming ecological crisis—the myopic focus on economic growth in GDP that drives consumption patterns while destabilizing planetary climate and harming the precious ecosystems we all depend on for our survival. This isn’t the model of economic development that other countries should imitate in the decades ahead. A perspective on poverty informed by the environmental sciences (as well as the social and behavioral sciences) would quickly move beyond this status quo approach to societal improvement and focus on the structural dynamics of fragility and resilience in a complex social world. An Impoverished View of Poverty: Linguistic Analysis of the Gates Foundation’s 2014 Annual Letter 12
  13. 13. Analysis of Myth #2: “Foreign Aid is A Big Waste” It is within this section of the annual letter that we see the thrust of the Narrative Project mentioned at the beginning of this report. One may ask why the Gates Foundation chose to ignore the primary evidence of Finding Frames and push an agenda that exclusively promotes foreign aid instead. It appears that the ideology of Neoliberalism guiding the thoughts of Bill Gates is keeping the Gates Foundation from doing what the science tells us that we need to do—move away from the aid narrative and focus on structural causes. The research tells us to move away from antiquated stories about development and aid and toward a more structural approach that incorporates the role of governing institutions in the creation (and abolition) of poverty. This is exactly the opposite of what the Gates Foundation is doing today. Here is how the section begins in the annual letter: “You may have read news articles about foreign aid that are filled with big generalizations based on small examples. They tend to cite anecdotes about waste in some program and suggest that foreign aid is a waste. If you hear enough of these stories, it’s easy to get the impression that aid just doesn’t work. It’s no wonder that one British newspaper claimed last year that more than half of voters want cuts to overseas aid.” Two ironies can be noted right away. Firstly, the claim that people don’t support foreign aid because of “small examples” that run amok in the minds of everyday citizens (again presumed to be ignorant of the facts). Finding Frames explored this issue at length. Public perceptions about foreign aid are multifaceted, with some views contradicting others, that largely reveal the harmful fallout effects from years of poorly framed campaigns by anti-poverty NGO’s. One example of this is the ubiquity of stories about starving children in Africa—which framed the poor as voiceless children who are victims of widespread harm with no agency of their own. Should we be surprised that the public has come to doubt the efficacy of foreign aid when malnutrition continues to be widespread in the world? Even more so, after NGO’s boldly declared they would Make Poverty History when there is no end in sight after all these years? Bill Gates may not have read Finding Frames (or any of the numerous subsequent studies of public perception around charity and aid) but the people behind the Narrative Project have definitely been informed. An Impoverished View of Poverty: Linguistic Analysis of the Gates Foundation’s 2014 Annual Letter 13
  14. 14. The second irony worthy of note is that “small examples” of corruption and waste conceal the grand scales of corruption evident in the structural policies that create poverty! Said another way, the very same structural causes that are absent from discussion in the annual letter paint a picture of the real culprit—what my colleagues and I call The Architecture of Wealth Extraction. In brief, a vast system of policy tools and economic practices have been put in place to convert natural resources into private wealth, increasingly consolidated in the hands of a tiny elite. This system includes tax havens, trade agreements, debt repayment programs, business rankings established at the World Bank, and a lot more.9 It is this system of policies and institutions that made it possible for 85 individuals to hoard the same amount of wealth as the 3.5 billion poorest among us.10 It may also be noteworthy that Bill Gates is one of these individuals. Does his personal use of tax havens create a schism in the operational mission of the foundation?11 Even more revealing is the way that aid is framed in the annual letter, treated as all international development funds. It is described as a tool for economic development, consistent with the Neoliberal agenda discussed above. This passage on page 9 is revealing: “And aid is only one of the tools for fighting poverty and disease: Wealthy countries also need to make policy changes, like opening their markets and cutting agricultural subsidies, and poor countries need to spend more on health and development for their own people.” This suggestion that the solution is “opening their markets and cutting agricultural subsidies” conceals how multinational companies routinely pit governments against each other to ensure that their hard-won lobbying efforts to secure corporate welfare in rich countries align with tax incentives that undercut smaller companies and distort entire market sectors in the impoverished regions of the world. Treating the poor as blameworthy for failing to “spend more on health” for their own people masks the role of structural adjustment programs imposed by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund that require money to be spent on debt repayment before it ever gets into budgets for public expenditures like education and health care. This is the root cause of all “austerity measures” that have become fashionable in the aftermath of the recent financial collapse. 9 An enlightening overview of the harmful impacts from this wealth extraction system can be seen in this short video about global wealth inequality: http://youtu.be/uWSxzjyMNpU 10 http://www.theguardian.com/business/2014/jan/20/oxfam-85-richest-people-half-of-the-world 11 Additionally, it has recently been reported that Microsoft conceals $92 billion in offshore accounts, avoiding payment of an estimated $26 billion in US taxes. This problem is truly systemic. See here: http://www.ibtimes.com/microsoft-admits-keeping-92-billion-offshore-avoid-paying-29-billion-us-taxes-1665938 An Impoverished View of Poverty: Linguistic Analysis of the Gates Foundation’s 2014 Annual Letter 14
  15. 15. In both cases, structural causes are masked by the way that aid and development have been framed. The Neoliberal agenda gets to hide in plain sight by the way that the issues have been conceptualized. Language really matters! Aid as Economic Transaction One of the harmful frames deployed by Bill Gates is the treatment of aid as an economic transaction. This is made explicit in the title for a large infographic on page 11, explicitly declaring “WHAT AID BUYS”. Why is this a problem? Because it reduces the discussion to concerns about money by treating everyone involved as part of a consumer market system. There are many ways to frame interactions between people. They might be supporting their families or creating a civic space as citizens, as just two examples. Many important situations do not involve the exchange of money. And yet, just as we saw earlier when progress was measured solely by personal income, the principal unit of value is once again described exclusively in monetary terms. Corruption as Dictators Far Away The section on corruption (beginning on page 12) makes use of the Bad Apple Frame, casting out the systemic concerns presented above in lieu of a more simplistic story about the occasional corrupt individual who gives kickbacks to cronies in some far off land. Another feature of the system that extracts wealth for the few at the expense of the many is a major focus of Global Witness in their campaigns—the veil of secrecy enabled by a lack of public registries for ultimate owners of companies that keep us from seeing who the real culprits are behind all clandestine networks.12 This is a political issue involving gun running, drug and sex trafficking, and various forms of criminal activity. It is also what enables noncriminal forms of corruption to occur, like when a Russian Doll labyrinth of shell companies within shell companies lead to the breakdown of price structures (as happened with the banks in the collapse of 2008-09). Structural issues like this are central to the discussion of corruption and poverty. Furthermore, the impacts of money influence on elections (a major problem in the United States, for example), stand as a sobering reminder that corruption doesn’t just happen over there. It is systemic, leaving no community untouched. This further reinforces the need for emphasis on structural causes. The central narrative of this section in the annual letter is aid is the best tool for ending poverty. It may be necessary that some forms of aid continue in the years ahead, but it is a far cry from the most important or potentially transformative place to leverage effort. 12 http://www.globalwitness.org/campaigns/corruption/anonymous-companies An Impoverished View of Poverty: Linguistic Analysis of the Gates Foundation’s 2014 Annual Letter 15
  16. 16. Greater impacts can be achieved by redesigning the structures of power and the social norms that keep them in place. Analysis of Myth #3: “Saving Lives Leads to Over-Population” This is the only section of the annual letter written by Melinda Gates, enabling us to see how her thinking differs from that of her husband. In her opening remarks on page 19 she refreshingly states: “We make the future sustainable when we invest in the poor, not when we insist on their suffering. The fact is that a laissez faire approach to development—letting children die now so they don’t starve later—doesn’t actually work, thank goodness.” While this does inadvertently lump all impoverished peoples into the faceless category of the poor, it also implies that rules and practices can influence social outcomes. This is a double-edged sword in that it humanizes the victims of poverty while simultaneously patronizing them as helpless victims. The Moral Order remains at play, despite what appear to be good intentions on her part. The principal narrative is to advocate for the empowerment of women to take control of their reproductive rights. This is a helpful way to frame the issue, showing that Melinda leads from a place of compassion for the plight of women and girls who suffer violence and oppression in patriarchal systems. This perspective hints at the dynamics of power politics, albeit indirectly, by describing the outcomes of reproductive rights. Still missing is elucidation of the interwoven systems of militarism, corporate finance, and what might reasonably be called masculinized economic incentives for male conquest to acquire wealth and status in both corporate and political arenas. A harmful frame that Melinda continues to use is the Developing Country as Maturing Child. This is another ubiquitous concept that plagues the entire discourse on international development. Employing the metaphor that a nation is a person (which we saw earlier in the discussion of Myth #1 on economic metrics), the “level of development” gets conceptually mapped to the life course of a human being—where less developed nations are like children and more developed nations are the role-model adults. An Impoverished View of Poverty: Linguistic Analysis of the Gates Foundation’s 2014 Annual Letter 16
  17. 17. This re-introduces the Moral Order frame with the logic of moral superiority applied to “adult” nations that have achieved industrialization. It is a difficult challenge to overcome, and something that perpetuates post-colonial biases from an earlier period in history. That said, there is more good to be seen in this section of the annual letter. Take this passage on page 23, for example: “On the other hand, the virtuous cycle that starts with basic health and empowerment ends not only with a better life for women and their families, but also with significant economic growth at the country level.” We see a mixture of empowering stories that highlight how education and access to health services enable impoverished peoples to better their own lot in life—attributing agency to those who struggle in life. And also the persistent intrusion of moral superiority and passivity applied to those same people. Here is an opportunity to be more consistent and strategic in the use of frames. What Conclusions Can We Draw? Hopefully by now the power of linguistic analysis has become clear. Not only can it help us see the strategic implications of our unstated assumptions, it is also possible to reveal hidden agendas for us to grapple with in open discussions through our diverse communities of practice. One of the important things to take away from this report is that frame analysis deserves wider application in philanthropy, community organizing, campaigns, and investment considerations. The internal logics and emotional sensibilities conveyed at an unconscious level by the way we conceptualize our social world can be profound in their impact and reach. What we see in this analysis is a combination of the following: ✦ The Gates Foundation continues to employ frames that conceal structural causes and advance a Neoliberal agenda. The structural issues revealed in the Finding Frames report continue to persist across the linguistic landscapes of philanthropy and NGO activities four years after its release. ✦ Efforts to promote charity and aid in the Narrative Project go in the wrong direction. People no longer trust in these stories for good reasons, including that NGO’s have over-promised and under-delivered in the past and that chronic inequality has continually worsened over time—in large part due to the structural harms from the very same Neoliberal agenda that shapes the thinking of Bill Gates. ✦ An empirically rigorous alternative exists, informed by cognitive science as well as the many domains of social and historical research. The structural causes of poverty An Impoverished View of Poverty: Linguistic Analysis of the Gates Foundation’s 2014 Annual Letter 17
  18. 18. are increasingly well documented by scholarly work at universities and among those NGO’s working in this space. All of this points to a need for the Gates Foundation to re-align its moral compass—embracing a comprehensive scientific approach and joining with the diverse social movements of the world that have sprung up in recent years. From Tahrir Square to Zuccotti Park, millions of people have aligned around the shared understanding that the game is rigged to benefit the few at the expense of the many. The world is increasingly decentralized and non-hierarchical. Social entrepreneurs routinely join forces with “culture hackers” and impact investors to flip standard scripts and change the rules of play. As I noted at the beginning of this report, the Gates Foundation is uniquely positioned in this landscape of social change. With the right combination of introspection, analysis, and transformational leadership, it truly can help change the game. Yet, if it remains a tool of status quo political and economic power—as this analysis suggests it to be at this time—it will only delay progress on the structural issues at the heart of humanity’s transition to a sustainable world. Where Might We Go From Here? We have all entered the time of consequences. With more than 7 billion people on the planet, accelerating patterns of ecological decline, and many burgeoning lights in the shadowy places as more people awaken to their calling to help guide our fledgling civilization toward resilience and thriving, now is the time to get real about the structural issues and their cultural counterparts. This analysis would not be possible without major advances in a hundred different fields of research. Among them are linguistics, anthropology, political economy, neuroscience, psychology and the many sciences of the dynamic Earth System. For what may be the first time since the birth of civilization some 8,000 to 10,000 years ago, we can actually bring chronic poverty and extreme inequality to an end. In order to do so, we will have to: 1. Tell the Creation Story of Poverty informed by the best anthropological research available to us.13 2. Focus on Structural Causes and “Un-Rig the System” by including the network of tax havens, corporate subsidies, transnational institutions, and more that enable a tiny elite to place all of humanity at risk. 13 I recommend the book Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame by Christopher Boehm (2012) as a good starting point. An Impoverished View of Poverty: Linguistic Analysis of the Gates Foundation’s 2014 Annual Letter 18
  19. 19. 3. Collaborate Openly and Critique Each Other by employing tools like frame analysis to help us bring ideological bias and implicit assumptions into the light of day. Ideology may be unavoidable, but there is no need for it to operate without our knowledge of its impacts on our thinking. 4. Host A Gathering of Researchers and Campaign Staff to hash out these issues in greater detail and set a new course for collective action. Whether we take this approach or some variant on it, a central question will be whether there truly is enough abundance in the world to support a human population that is billions strong. It is increasingly clear that extreme hoarding behavior threatens everyone. There simply will not be enough to go around if half of the world’s wealth is held in the hands of a few hundred people. This glaring oversight by the Gates Foundation and other elite institutions is both an indicator of just how powerful the cognitive blinders can be at concealing key truths and of the depths to which ideological agendas can shape institutional behavior at subconscious levels. The path forward may be difficult for all of us. We will have to come to grips with some uncomfortable truths about ourselves—acknowledging the unintended consequences of past actions and taking seriously the findings from cognitive science that show how much of our thoughts are shaped outside of conscious awareness. Yet the benefits of taking this path easily out weigh the harms. A comprehensive scientific approach will reveal blind spots in our thinking. It will ensure that we understand as fully as possible how cultural systems evolve and change with time. And it will enable us to measure structural changes, paving the way to reliable metrics of social impact that include the semantic frames that shape how societies think and talk about different issues. It is my hope that this analysis brings more light into an obscure space. Taking serious the call to address those aspects of our global civilization that make it fragile—chronic inequality being a dire threat in this regard—will only make our efforts stronger and more effective over time. Please don’t hesitate to contact me about what is written here. This study is by no means complete and leaves much for us to explore together in the months and years ahead. Sincerely, Joe Brewer Seattle, WA An Impoverished View of Poverty: Linguistic Analysis of the Gates Foundation’s 2014 Annual Letter 19

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