Saturday, January 06, 2007

Gee, this helping people gig is complicated!

No good deed goes unpunished, the saying goes. And so Bill and Melinda Gates found out this week as the LA Times uncovers the seamy underside of their philanthropic foundation.

Ebocha, Nigeria - Justice Eta, 14 months old, held out his tiny thumb.

An ink spot certified that he had been immunized against polio and measles, thanks to a vaccination drive supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

But polio is not the only threat Justice faces. Almost since birth, he has had respiratory trouble. His neighbors call it "the cough." People blame fumes and soot spewing from flames that tower 300 feet into the air over a nearby oil plant. It is owned by the Italian petroleum giant Eni, whose investors include the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Justice squirmed in his mother's arms. His face was beaded with sweat caused either by illness or by heat from the flames that illuminate Ebocha day and night. Ebocha means "city of lights."

The makeshift clinic at a church where Justice Eta was vaccinated and the flares spewing over Ebocha represent a head-on conflict for the Gates Foundation. In a contradiction between its grants and its endowment holdings, a Times investigation has found, the foundation reaps vast financial gains every year from investments that contravene its good works.

In Ebocha, where Justice lives, Dr. Elekwachi Okey, a local physician, says hundreds of flares at oil plants in the Niger Delta have caused an epidemic of bronchitis in adults, and asthma and blurred vision in children. No definitive studies have documented the health effects, but many of the 250 toxic chemicals in the fumes and soot have long been linked to respiratory disease and cancer.

"We're all smokers here," Okey said, "but not with cigarettes."

The oil plants in the region surrounding Ebocha find it cheaper to burn nearly 1 billion cubic feet of gas each day and contribute to global warming than to sell it. They deny the flaring causes sickness. Under pressure from activists, however, Nigeria's high court set a deadline to end flaring by May 2007. The gases would be injected back underground, or trucked and piped out for sale. But authorities expect the flares to burn for years beyond the deadline.

The Gates Foundation has poured $218 million into polio and measles immunization and research worldwide, including in the Niger Delta. At the same time that the foundation is funding inoculations to protect health, The Times found, it has invested $423 million in Eni, Royal Dutch Shell, Exxon Mobil Corp., Chevron Corp. and Total of France — the companies responsible for most of the flares blanketing the delta with pollution, beyond anything permitted in the United States or Europe.

Indeed, local leaders blame oil development for fostering some of the very afflictions that the foundation combats.

Oil workers, for example, and soldiers protecting them are a magnet for prostitution, contributing to a surge in HIV and teenage pregnancy, both targets in the Gates Foundation's efforts to ease the ills of society, especially among the poor. Oil bore holes fill with stagnant water, which is ideal for mosquitoes that spread malaria, one of the diseases the foundation is fighting.

Investigators for Dr. Nonyenim Solomon Enyidah, health commissioner for Rivers State, where Ebocha is located, cite an oil spill clogging rivers as a cause of cholera, another scourge the foundation is battling. The rivers, Enyidah said, "became breeding grounds for all kinds of waterborne diseases."

The bright, sooty gas flares — which contain toxic byproducts such as benzene, mercury and chromium — lower immunity, Enyidah said, and make children such as Justice Eta more susceptible to polio and measles — the diseases that the Gates Foundation has helped to inoculate him against.

Gee, life is a tradeoff, no? Economic growth causes some problems, it seems. Workers and soldiers use prostitutes, which spreads AIDS. So do we just innoculate the poor and leave them with no opportunities for economic growth? Do we keep the soldiers away and allow their oil jobs to be sabotaged by gangs?

Noone is for sweatshop labor or dirty oil refineries, unless the alternatives are worse. What is the alternative for these people if the oil companies go away? Is it possible that the future for these people's grandchildren will be brighter because the current generation of Nigerians are willing to suffer the growing pains of economic development?

My grandparents and great-grandparents worked in the dirty, dangerous sweatshops of 19th century and early 20th century New England. The idea that they would be better off without the opportunity to do so would strike them as sheer lunacy. If not for the mills of New England, they'd be stuck trying to scrape a living off of the poor agricultural soils of Quebec, or in the asbestos mines. But I never heard one of them complain about the sacrifices they made there. They were actually proud that their sacrifices provided better opportunities for their children and their grandchildren. Gee, that's a radical concept!

These third world development critics can't get their minds around that concept. They expect multinational companies to come into these underdeveloped nations and somehow provide employment to the uneducated, unskilled natives in conditions and compensation levels that equal those of the trained and educated workers of the West and far East, with none of the benefits of infrastructure or political stability that the developed workd can provide. Anything less is rank exploitation and greed.

It will be a wonder if Africa manages to make any progress at all in the current century. If it does, it will be in spite of the do-gooders.


Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Well, as a general rule, I agree.

In this specific case, there are two jokers:

1. If it weren't for the Muslims, there wouldn't be any polio, hence no need for vaccine. (Justice is, apparently and very likely from his residence, a Christian.)

2. The people who live around those flares are not likely benefitting to any extent from them. The place used to be called Biafra, you know.

January 06, 2007 3:46 PM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home