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Why Bolivia turned away Bill Gates' chicken donation

Why Bolivia turned away Bill Gates' chicken donation


It's about more than a few ruffled feathers

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A Bolivian woman works a field on Isla del Sol
A Bolivian woman works a field on Isla del Sol
Lindsey J. Smith

Bolivia's outrage yesterday at being a beneficiary of Bill Gates's "Coop Dreams" — a project with Heifer International to donate 100,000 chickens to poor countries — shocked many. But upon closer examination of Bolivia's political climate, none of us, Gates included, should be surprised. Under its current president Evo Morales, Bolivia has a robust history of rejecting US aid, whether governmental or philanthropic.

Over the last decade, the landlocked Andean country has undergone sweeping political changes. Morales, an activist and prominent coca farmer (yes, it's legal to grow coca in Bolivia; no, it's not legal to turn it into cocaine), became Bolivia's first indigenous president in 2006. He won hearts and minds with his socialist party, Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS), which campaigned on a pro-environmental, pro-indigenous platform. Since then, he has been reelected twice and along the way enacted sweeping reforms. In 2008, he established a new constitution and renamed the country Estado Plurinacional de Bolivia, the plurinational state, in recognition of its cultural diversity. (Bolivia has 37 official languages.)

Two concepts sit at the core of Morales' and MAS' decade-long agenda. The first is Buen Vivir — a vision of the world as interconnected and interdependent, where economic, social, and environmental priorities coexist in a balance. The second is La Ley de Derechos de la Madre Tierra, or "the Law of Mother Earth." The law, which passed in 2010, grants nature equal rights to people, including the right to persist without human intervention.

Under Morales, Bolivia has a robust history of rejecting US aid

Part and parcel to this pro-environmental platform is a rejection of Western capitalism and traditional development aid. Morales threw out the US Ambassador and the US Drug Enforcement Agency in 2008, and the US Agency for International Development in 2013 — none have yet to be welcomed back. Although Gates' offer is nongovernmental, with such chilly diplomatic relationships, it shouldn't come as a surprise that it was rebuffed.

Good as Gates' intentions are, it's easy to see why a nation so hostile to foreign aid would bristle at the offer. Hell, his comment, "In fact, if I were in their shoes, that's what I would do — I would raise chickens," rubs me the wrong way, too. It rings insincere (c'mon, do you really believe Bill Gates would be content to simply raise chickens given different, impoverished circumstances?) and a little smug. There's nothing like having the rich neighbor next door tell you he would live just like you — if he had to.

While chickens could expand economic opportunities for some Bolivians, it's a gift with little forethought. The charity examiner GiveWell argued that very little information exists on the effectiveness of giving livestock, and that the gifts are tricky to implement. Are there systems in place to teach people to care for their new animals? Who determines who gets a chicken and who doesn't, and will that distribution foster ill will? How would introducing livestock to a community or region impact existing economies? And, most importantly, do the recipients even want the gift? In Bolivia's case, the answer to that last question seems to be a resounding "no."

Little information exists on the effectiveness of giving livestock

But the issue is larger than philanthropy of dubious effectiveness and a few ruffled feathers. Assuming that a project like this was wanted and well-implemented, it could actually do some good for the 600,000 farmers in Bolivia, 68 percent of which have small farms. But the true issue is the Morales government has little interest in supporting the type of small farmers Gates' "Coop Dreams" targets, which MAS views as economically insignificant. When the MAS government does turn its eye to agriculture, it's to promote industrial production of soy and corn, driven by foreign investment. Although the majority of Bolivia's farms belong to smallholders, 91 percent of the country's agricultural land is tied up in just 4 percent of the farms. Small farmers will not drive the economy, and, therefore, they get little love from MAS.

Morales has done much for Bolivia, and the hand-over-fist growth he's created by focusing on oil and gas exports has made Bolivia one of the strongest economies in South America since 2009. He has used profits from these exports to fund subsidies for the elderly, school children, and pregnant women. But the country's economic health is tied to a volatile market, and their gas reserves are projected to run out in the next decade. In this climate, Morales would do well to begin to diversify the economy, investing more in farmers large and small, foreign and domestic, so that his country can maintain the independence from foreign aid and chicken-wielding philanthropists it so craves.