Giving with one hand and taking with the other?

It’s the world’s largest charitable foundation, but a string of controversial investments has seen public opinion of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation plummet.

Peter Iantorno March 25, 2015

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The largest private foundation in the world, it is recognised all over the globe as an outstanding philanthropic organisation, having raised more than $43 billion to enhance healthcare, reduce poverty and expand opportunities for education, helping millions of people in need throughout America and the rest of the world.

In terms of generosity, very few even come close to Gates, who has pumped in more than $28 billion of his own money to help fund the ambitious project, which he launched back in 1997. So why, then, is he and the foundation now coming under fire?

Well, despite the undoubted good that the foundation is doing around the world, it is still very much run under the same principals as a business, and therefore some of the foundation's investment decisions are somewhat controversial and, in many cases, represent a direct conflict of interests between the companies' interests and the very causes the foundation is supposedly fighting for.

For example, among the companies it's previously invested in, pharmaceuticals, tobacco, alcohol, petroleum, genetically modified crops, military contractors, private security and media outlets all feature. With a portfolio that reads like the who's who list of evil corporations, it's easy to see why an organisation that claims in its mission statement that it "works to help all people lead healthy and productive lives" is coming under so much criticism. Bill and Melinda Gates

However, on the other side of the fence, it can't be denied that the fact that the foundation is run using the same principles as a business is a big reason why it has had so much success and made so much money. And after all, the more money it makes, the more it can donate to worthy causes around the world.

So maybe it is justified, and investing in the likes of Coca-Cola ($2.2 billion, according to the 2013 company tax report), McDonalds ($871 million) and ExxonMobil ($824 million) that might not necessarily have the best interests of the charity at heart yet are likely to pay the best dividends is a necessary evil?

Professor Anne Glover, who was chief scientific adviser to the European Commission until last year, certainly thinks not: "It's like giving with one hand and taking with the other," she said in an interview with The Guardian just this week.Professor Anne GloverThe British newspaper has launched a major campaign entitled 'Keep It In The Ground' to encourage the Foudation, along with fellow charity the Wellcome Trust, to sell their investments in leading fossil fuel companies. Already a petition directly addressing Bill and Melinda Gates and imploring them to stop undermining the Foundation's long-term ambitions by investing in fossil fuels has received more than 140,000 signatures.

The paper launched the campaign after it emerged that the charity, which claims on its website that "imminent action against climate change" is needed, actually holds more than $1.4 billion of investments in the world's biggest fossil fuel companies.

And to make matters worse, those big names include BP, the company behind the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster in the gulf of Mexico; Vale, a Brazilian mining company that was voted the corporation with most "contempt for human rights" in the Public Eye Awards; and Anadarko Petroleum, which was recently forced to pay out over $5 billion in a settlement over pollution it had caused. Deepwater Horizon oil spillThe list of investments isn't easy reading for a foundation that has such strong ties with the environment, and such a powerful green ethos to uphold, but according to a statement on the foundation's website, "[when picking investments] Bill and Melinda consider issues beyond corporate profits, including the values that drive the foundation’s work. Bill and Melinda regularly re-assess the endowment’s holdings.”

And to be fair, there are signs that the charity is starting to reconsider its investment choices. For example, it has now banned tobacco investments, it cut ties with security company G4S following its controversial prison contracts in Israel, and recently it even sold off its investment in oil giant ExxonMobil for $766 million.

It's certainly a start, but the fact remains that the largest foundation in the world still holds massive investments in fossil fuels, and if it was truly committed to taking action against climate change, it would surely divest all of its endowments in the very companies contributing towards the issues they claim to be fighting so hard against.