Monday, May 07, 2007

Buffett's Role in Sudan Questioned

Warren Buffett was confronted over the week-end by a Sudanese refugee and by Karuk native Americans during the annual general meeting of his business empire. The reason? Buffett continues to make money from his investments in Sudan, despite the ongoing humanitarian crisis, particularly his investments in PetroChina (which is currently hawking its Corporate Social Responsibility Report on its website). According to James Miller, from the Sudanese Divestment Taskforce, CNPC is:

" far the most irresponsible and abusive oil investor in Sudan. At least 70% of the funds they provide to Sudan get funnelled into the Sudanese military."

Buffett's other investments have come under scrutiny in recent weeks. A recent LA Times report exposed the true nature of much of his investments through Berkshire Hathaway. Despite pledging $31 billion of his fortune to the Gates Foundation, which was established to fight disease, poverty and illiteracy, Buffett has been caught up in some dubious investments. According to the report:

About $56.4 billion, or 87% of Berkshire's stock holdings, is invested in companies criticized by the research groups for profiting from environmental irresponsibility, human rights violations and other activities that undermine the foundation's good works or its goals of improving the lot of humankind.

The report adds that:

The holdings of Berkshire Hathaway, totaling more than $4.6 billion in eight companies, came in dead last by a wide margin in a ranking of oil and gas holdings among the 100 largest investors in the United States. The ranking was based on social, environmental and governance performance ratings developed by the investment bank Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and a related ownership analysis by Cary Krosinsky of CapitalBridge, a capital markets intelligence firm.

So just what does Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway invest in? Well, they also own shares in the notorious, union busting Wal-Mart (parent company of Asda in the UK). Berkshire currently owns shares worth $921 million in Wal-Mart Stores Inc, despite its well documented human rights abuses.

Furthermore, despite the stated goals of the Gates Foundation, Berkshire also holds:

$64 million in pharmaceutical companies, for example, whose pricing policies have tended to keep antiretroviral drugs out of reach for HIV/AIDS patients in developing nations.

And here is what the Gates Foundation has to say on Global Health:

Millions of people—most of them children—die each year in developing countries from diseases that are preventable and treatable. Moreover, tragically little research is done to prevent or cure some of the world’s biggest killers, such as malaria and tuberculosis.

The foundation is guided by the belief that all lives, no matter where they are lived, have equal value. The mission of our Global Health program is to encourage the development of lifesaving medical advances and to help ensure they reach the people who are disproportionately affected. We focus our funding in two main areas:

  • Access to existing vaccines, drugs, and other tools to fight diseases common in developing countries
  • Research to develop health solutions that are effective, affordable, and practical.

Berkshire's investment also include tobacco firm Altria (the parent company of Philip Morris - the passive smoking deniers), despite the fact that the Gates Foundation avoids investments in the tobacco industry due to the health implications. Perhaps someone should tell Mr Buffett of the true goals of the Gates Foundation.

During the AGM, Berkshire shareholders were addressed by a woman from the Karuk Indian reservation who explained the how her community has been destroyed by hydroelectric dams operated by PacifiCorp (yet another Berkshire subsidiary). The dams have seriously undermined the community's salmon fishing livelihood. Confronting Buffett she said:

"My people are a river people. Our entire culture, religion and subsistence is centred around the river.

Buffett, I know you care very much about humanity. There are things you can do to help us."

Buffett's response?

"The world runs on electricity and it wants more electricity. We are a public utility responsive to public policy."

Hardly in keeping with social responsibility.

It is time that Buffett put his money where his mouth is. He talks the talk, espousing his support for causes such as the Gates Foundation, yet his investments give lie to his great claim for being a supporter of ethical causes. How can anyone claim to share the same ideals of the Gates Foundation, yet support the oil industry, Wal-Mart, Coca-Cola, pharmaceuticals and PetroChina? It couldn't possible be because there is money to be made, could it?

Further reading: The full LA Time report - Berkshire wealth clashes with Gates mission in Sudan