Is the Gates Foundation’s new visitor center inspiring, or insulting?

Photo from flickr user Lester Public Library.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s six-floor headquarters, across from the Seattle Center, is an imposing complex of glass and curved architecture.

Hence the need for an inviting, accessible new visitor center!

Opening to the public this Saturday, the visitor center’s high-tech interactive exhibits invite participation, not just passive observation.

But how exciting is philanthropy and development aid to the average person, especially in these tough economic times?

At a pre-opening event this week, I asked Microsoft founder Bill Gates what a young kid should take away from the center. Across the street are less pretentious attractions like the Space Needle and Experience Music Project.

Stepping back, and with a couple of long pauses, he said:

“Well, hopefully they’ll know a little more about people who live in different conditions and there’s a lot we can do to help them. And you know, hopefully they can be inspired to do some giving when they get a chance to do it. And you know, it’s supposed to be fun and broaden your view of what’s going on in the world.”

I’m not sure how convinced he was about the “fun” part. To be honest, he seemed a little bored.

There is some stuff for kids to do here – gears and knobs to turn, and one play area with constructible bits.

But I’m not sure a twelve-year-old will be very engaged with floating info screens about genetically-modified agriculture assistance. Or captivated by a looping video of the Gates Foundation president talking about biotechnology.

Still, Carl Ferret, one of the visitors center’s staff, told me a troop of girl scouts had a blast when they visited last week. “It was hard to pull them out.

The kids really just get into everything. It was just amazing,” he said. “A lot of folks are very interested, but they just don’t know a lot about what the Foundation does. They think we have research labs here.”

He said there are tour groups booked all the way into the Fall of this year.

On the flip side, for adults who have learned to be skeptical of the aid industry, as I have after two years working in post-earthquake Haiti, there’s just not enough information about specific projects.

We all want to “ensure that all people have the chance to lead healthy and productive lives.” But there are few nitty-gritty details to make the case that the Gates Foundation is effectively doing around the world.

Politically, there are intriguing questions around whether the Gates Foundation’s philanthro-capitalist model is a just one in the first place.

Clearly, the Foundation does some great things. But a red flag went up for me when I saw a “Shoes for everyone” poster. It spotlights Tom’s Shoes, a company that donates a pair of shoes to a child in need “with every pair you purchase”.

Critics have pointed out that there’s no great need in the developing world for shoes. I never met a person who couldn’t afford to buy shoes in Haiti, the poorest country in the hemisphere.

In fact, I’m sure my Haitian friends would be offended by the notion of accepting a pair of donated, flimsy shoes from the United States.The donated shoes sometimes undermine local vendors, anyway.

The Foundation’s Visitor Center, on the corner of 5th and Mercer, opens to the public on Saturday and admission is free. Check out the photo gallery below for a preview.

There’s a “What would you do if you had your own foundation?” interactive board. Maybe if Microsoft was less aggressive in exploiting Washington’s tax loopholes, I’d have more money in my pocket. Another poster asks, “Could you carry water for your family?” accompanied by fake water buckets.

So is the visitor center more inspiring than insulting? A little of both? You can probably tell where I stand, but judge for yourself.

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Freelance journalist Ansel Herz reported from Haiti for two years for Inter-Press Service and Free Speech Radio News. His work has been published by ABC News, the New York Daily News and Al Jazeera English, among other media outlets. Ansel is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin School of Journalism.

8 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks for raising important questions. Does their display highlight their deep relationship with Monsanto? Very troubling indeed. I feel like Monsanto and the threats to our food system are one of if not THE biggest danger on the planet… and Gates Foundation is speeding it along and spreading it to Africa now. They believe in techno-fixes on a large scale which wreaks havoc on the environment as well as the delicate threads of local, small scale, self sustaining economies (such as the shoe situation you mention). How can we in Seattle help create firm yet gentle pressure on Gates to help open their minds and perceptions to these concerns? How can we Occupy Gates Foundation – such a huge player on the planet, supposedly wanting to do good for the 99%? or just more for the 1% like Monsanto?

  2. Thanks for raising important questions. Does their display highlight their deep relationship with Monsanto? Very troubling indeed. I feel like Monsanto and the threats to our food system are one of if not THE biggest danger on the planet… and Gates Foundation is speeding it along and spreading it to Africa now. They believe in techno-fixes on a large scale which wreaks havoc on the environment as well as the delicate threads of local, small scale, self sustaining economies (such as the shoe situation you mention). How can we in Seattle help create firm yet gentle pressure on Gates to help open their minds and perceptions to these concerns? How can we Occupy Gates Foundation – such a huge player on the planet, supposedly wanting to do good for the 99%? or just more for the 1% like Monsanto?

  3. Too bad your experience with aid has left you so cynical. There are plenty of examples where aid has had an overwhelmingly positive impact in the world.

    If the Gates Visitor Center has done a poor job of showing those, it’s good feedback to them. But I think a more accurate view would be, “Gates’ foundation is generous and trying to do great things in the world and having a way for the public to interact with that is great too but they should show more concrete results they have had…”

    By the way, your initial premise was that the Center didn’t seem fun so I don’t imagine a well-done, independently-run cost/benefit analysis would add much fun to the place. And even if it existed my sense is that you’d be cynical about the results.

  4. Too bad your experience with aid has left you so cynical. There are plenty of examples where aid has had an overwhelmingly positive impact in the world.

    If the Gates Visitor Center has done a poor job of showing those, it’s good feedback to them. But I think a more accurate view would be, “Gates’ foundation is generous and trying to do great things in the world and having a way for the public to interact with that is great too but they should show more concrete results they have had…”

    By the way, your initial premise was that the Center didn’t seem fun so I don’t imagine a well-done, independently-run cost/benefit analysis would add much fun to the place. And even if it existed my sense is that you’d be cynical about the results.

  5. I will take the kids and see for myself. Like the comment about self interest of a shoe company donating a pair of shoes for every shoe sold. If shoe sold has a 200% mark up what is the contribution by the shoe company? I spend time in Kibera Kenya a slummed filled with the financially poor but so much richer in spirit and self worth than most wealthy that I encounter in Seattle. The shoe manufacturer makes shoes for school children, the shoes they need have to meet a standard, not tennis shoes. They are so well made they get passed down at least three times.

  6. I will take the kids and see for myself. Like the comment about self interest of a shoe company donating a pair of shoes for every shoe sold. If shoe sold has a 200% mark up what is the contribution by the shoe company? I spend time in Kibera Kenya a slummed filled with the financially poor but so much richer in spirit and self worth than most wealthy that I encounter in Seattle. The shoe manufacturer makes shoes for school children, the shoes they need have to meet a standard, not tennis shoes. They are so well made they get passed down at least three times.

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