Jack Ma v. Bill Gates: Does Africa need another benevolent billionaire?

On a grey Sunday morning last month, a high-profile reception committee assembled on the tarmac of Addis Ababa’s international airport. The Ethiopian health minister, Lia Tadesse, was there; as was South Africa’s ambassador to the African Union, Edward Xolisa Makaya.

To underline the significance of the moment, John Nkengasong, the director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control, took a break from overseeing Africa’s response to the coronavirus pandemic to wait on the runway. “This is huge,” Nkengasong said, when the plane from Guangzhou finally arrived.

There were no VIPs on board. But there was plenty of very important cargo. 5.4-million face masks. 40000 sets of protective clothing. 60000 sets of protective face shields. More than a million coronavirus detection kits.

All the kit was courtesy of Chinese billionaire Jack Ma, who was using this moment to announce himself as a global philanthropist. The supplies were a donation, to be distributed equally among African countries.

“This is a huge shot in the arm,” said Rwandan President Paul Kagame.

Jack Ma is no ordinary billionaire, if such a thing exists. He made his fortune — now worth more than $40-billion — during China’s tech boom, by founding Alibaba, the wildly successful online retailer. Not bad for a man who, in his own words, can barely use a computer.

“I’m not a tech guy. Up till now, when I use a computer, I can just send and receive emails,” he said during a recent United Nations panel discussion (much to the amusement of his fellow panellist, Melinda Gates of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation).

Ma no longer takes an active executive role in the company. Instead, he has become, as Quartz put it, the “best-known face of corporate China”: a charming, quirky and altogether more likeable answer to the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk, and a fixture at high-profile international conferences and trade forums.

Whether by design or not, Ma has also become a potent weapon in China’s soft-power arsenal. When it comes to softening China’s image, and projecting a friendly face — well, they don’t come much friendlier than Jack Ma.

Donation diplomacy

Although Ma has dabbled in charitable projects before, mostly within China, his much-publicised response to the coronavirus pandemic — featuring donations not just to Africa but across the world, including 1-million masks and 500000 testing kits to the United States — has catapulted him into the league of the global philanthropists.

This is no accident. On the eve of his retirement, Ma told Bloomberg that he was inspired by Gates, a fellow tech billionaire, to set up his own charitable foundation. “There’s a lot of things I can learn from Bill Gates,” he said.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is the largest private charity in the world. Since 2000, it has disbursed billions of dollars in support of public-health goals that it has identified, pouring money into combating diseases such as HIV/Aids, malaria and tuberculosis.

The foundation is so influential in the public-health arena that it gets its own vote at the World Health Organisation; and its funding underpins the health systems of dozens of African countries. Both Bill and Melinda Gates themselves have a deep interest and expertise when it comes to public health.

If Jack Ma really does want to follow in the footsteps of Bill Gates, he has a long way to go.

“It’s great that Jack Ma has promised some personal protective equipment and diagnostic tests, but it’s not significant in financial terms or in level of effort compared to the investments that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has been making in Africa for decades, and in global health institutions,” said Amanda Glassman, executive vice-president at the Centre for Global Development.

The Gates Foundation has pledged $100-million towards finding a vaccine for Covid-19, in addition to the funds it has already committed to pandemic prevention.

Other commentators have raised questions about Jack Ma’s independence from the Chinese government. “It’s a kind of donation diplomacy,” said Cobus van Staden, a researcher at the South African Institute of International Affairs and the co-host of the China in Africa Podcast.

“It’s always difficult to say how orchestrated this is by the Chinese government. From an outside perspective, it doesn’t look like an official Chinese government initiative, but it certainly has complete support and approval and facilitation from the government.”

No quick fix

For African countries, an even bigger question looms over Jack Ma’s arrival as a charitable force: does the continent really need another benevolent billionaire?

There is no easy answer. “My experience of foreign aid in South Africa around the HIV/Aids epidemic was positive and negative, if that makes any sense,” said Susan Goldstein, deputy director of the University of the Witwatersrand’s Centre for Health Economics and Decision Science.

On the one hand, donors were able to deliver desperately needed funding for treatment for HIV when the government was failing to take responsibility; on the other, donors were simply providing a quick fix for a failing system, rather than pushing for an entirely new system.

“The model of charity — giving money when it’s needed — doesn’t ever look at changing how things function and work in the long term,” said Goldstein. “These billionaires gain from the way that the society functions, so are not about to overthrow it or change it.”

Billionaires also have an unfortunate habit of skewing health priorities towards whatever they have decided to prioritise, said Unni Karunakara, the former international president of Doctors Without Borders and a public-health expert.

“As people who have money, they can put the money wherever they want it, however they want it. But they should be mindful of the fact that it’s not up to individuals to set global priorities when it comes to global health.”

As Jack Ma embarks on his own philanthropic journey, these are words he would be wise to heed. For now, however, pragmatism rules: “As a continent we are going to need all the assistance possible,” said Shakira Choonara, an independent public-health practitioner and member of the African Union Youth Advisory Council.

“Right now, Jack Ma funding African Union efforts on personal protective equipment is needed. It is a crucial part of the response.”

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