It's not easy to criticise philanthropy when the need for giving seems stronger than ever. And criticising the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation – royalty of the philanthropic world – is particularly difficult.
But that is precisely what Linsey McGoey, a lecturer in sociology at the University of Essex, takes upon herself in her new book. It's a critique of philanthrocapitalism in general and the $42bn Gates Foundation in particular.
She argues that the many foundations set up in the past two decades have had little effect on reducing economic inequality. "What to make of the fact that growing philanthropy and growing inequality go hand in hand?" she asks. "Does philanthropy actually make the rich richer and the poor poorer?"
She does not deny that the Gates Foundation has achieved significant improvements in public education in the US and made a huge contribution to fighting disease. But she questions why, unlike the Walton Foundation run by the Walmart dynasty, for example, it has received little critical attention.
One reason is the speed of the Gates Foundation's rise, says McGoey; others are that it does considerable good and has changed the discourse on philanthropy for the better – for example, through the Giving Pledge, exhorting billionaires to give away half their fortunes.
But she restores the critical balance with an examination of thornier questions such as the foundation's defence of patents on medicines, its resistance to wealth taxes, its philanthropic partnership with Coca-Cola and its collaboration with Monsanto to introduce its seeds and fertilisers to Africa.
This book is a lively and well-argued antidote to the comfortable but superficial assumption that giving money away is, by definition, good: it helps you understand why things are more complicated than that.