EBOCHA, Nigeria --Justice Eta, 14 months old, held out his tiny thumb.
But polio is not the only threat Justice faces. Almost since birth, he has had respiratory trouble. His neighbors call it "the cough." People blame fumes and soot spewing from flames that tower 300 feet into the air over a nearby oil plant. It is owned by the Italian petroleum giant Eni, whose investors include the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
The makeshift clinic at a church where Justice Eta was vaccinated and the flares spewing over Ebocha represent a head-on conflict for the Gates Foundation. In a contradiction between its grants and its endowment holdings, a Los Angeles Times investigation has found, the foundation reaps vast financial gains every year from investments that contravene its good works.
In Ebocha, where Justice lives, Dr. Elekwachi Okey, a local physician, says hundreds of flares at oil plants in the Niger Delta have caused an epidemic of bronchitis in adults, asthma and blurred vision in children. No definitive studies have documented the health effects, but many of the 250 toxic chemicals in the fumes and soot have long been linked to respiratory disease and cancer. "We're all smokers here," Okey said, "but not with cigarettes."
The oil plants in the region surrounding Ebocha find it cheaper to burn nearly 1 billion cubic feet of gas each day than to sell it. They deny that the flaring causes sickness. Under pressure from activists, however, Nigeria's high court set a deadline to end flaring by May. The gases would be injected back underground, or trucked and piped out for sale. But authorities expect the flares to burn for years beyond the deadline.
The Gates Foundation has poured $218 million into polio and measles immunization and research worldwide, including in the Niger Delta. At the same time that the foundation is funding inoculations to protect health, the Times found, it has invested $423 million in Eni, Royal Dutch Shell, Exxon Mobil Corp., Chevron Corp. and Total of France - the companies responsible for most of the flares blanketing the delta with pollution, beyond anything permitted in the United States or Europe.
Indeed, local leaders blame oil development for fostering some of the very afflictions that the foundation combats.
Oil bore holes fill with stagnant water, which is ideal for mosquitoes that spread malaria, one of the diseases the foundation is fighting. Investigators for Dr. Nonyenim Solomon Enyidah, health commissioner for Rivers State, where Ebocha is located, cite an oil spill clogging rivers as a cause of cholera, another scourge the foundation is battling.
The bright, sooty gas flares - which contain toxic byproducts such as benzene, mercury and chromium - lower immunity, Enyidah said, and make children such as Justice Eta more susceptible to polio and measles - the diseases that the Gates Foundation has helped to inoculate him against.
At the end of 2005, the Gates Foundation endowment stood at $35 billion, making it the largest in the world. Then in June 2006, Warren E. Buffett, the world's second-richest man after Bill Gates, pledged to add about $31 billion in installments from his personal fortune. Not counting tens of billions of dollars more that Gates himself has promised, the total is higher than the gross domestic products of 70 percent of the world's nations.
Like most philanthropies, the Gates Foundation gives away at least 5 percent of its worth every year, to avoid paying most taxes. In 2005, it granted nearly $1.4 billion. It awards grants mainly in support of global health initiatives, for efforts to improve public education in the United States, and for social welfare programs in the Pacific Northwest.
It invests the other 95 percent of its worth. The endowment is managed by Bill Gates Investments, which handles Gates' personal fortune. Monica Harrington, a senior policy officer at the foundation, said the investment managers had one goal: returns "that will allow for the continued funding of foundation programs and grant making." Bill and Melinda Gates require the managers to keep a highly diversified portfolio but make no specific directives.
By comparing these investments with information from for-profit services that analyze corporate behavior for mutual funds, pension managers, government agencies and other foundations, the Times found that the Gates Foundation has holdings in many companies that have failed tests of social responsibility because of environmental lapses, employment discrimination, disregard for worker rights or unethical practices.
One of these investment rating services, Calvert Group Ltd., for example, endorses 52 of the largest 100 U.S. companies based on market capitalization but flags the other 48 for transgressions against social responsibility. Microsoft Corp., which Bill Gates leads as board chairman, is rated highly for its overall business practices, despite its history of antitrust problems.
In addition, the Times found that the Gates Foundation endowment had major holdings in:
Companies ranked among the worst U.S. and Canadian polluters, including ConocoPhillips, Dow Chemical Co. and Tyco International Ltd.
Many of the world's other major polluters, including companies that own an oil refinery and one that owns a paper mill, which a study shows sicken children while the foundation tries to save their parents from AIDS.
Pharmaceutical companies that price drugs beyond the reach of AIDS patients whom the foundation is trying to treat.
Using the most recent data available, a Times tally showed that hundreds of Gates Foundation investments - totaling at least $8.7 billion, or 41 percent of its assets, not including U.S. and foreign government securities - have been in companies that countered the foundation's charitable goals or socially concerned philosophy.
This is "the dirty secret" of many large philanthropies, said Paul Hawken, an expert on socially beneficial investing who directs the Natural Capital Institute, an investment research group. "Foundations donate to groups trying to heal the future," Hawken said in an interview, "but with their investments, they steal from the future."
Moreover, investing in destructive or unethical companies is not what is most harmful, said Hawken and other experts, including Douglas Bauer, senior vice president of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, a nonprofit group that assists foundations on policy and ethical issues. Worse, they said, is investing purely for profit, without attempting to improve a company's way of operating. Such blind-eye investing, they noted, rewards bad behavior.
At the Gates Foundation, blind-eye investing has been enforced by a firewall it has erected between its grant-making side and its investing side. The goals of the former are not allowed to interfere with the investments of the latter.
With the exception of tobacco companies, asset managers do not avoid investments in firms whose activities conflict with the foundation's mission to do good.
"Because we want to maintain a focus on the programmatic work," Harrington said in a written response to Times questions, "we have made it a policy to not comment on individual investment holdings."
Finally, the foundation does not invest any portion of its endowment in companies specifically because they advance its philanthropic mission.
Much of the rest of philanthropy, however, is beginning to address contradictions between making grants to improve the world and making investments that harm it. According to recent surveys, many foundations, including some of the nation's largest, have adopted at least basic policies to invest in ways that support their missions.
Major foundations that make social justice, corporate governance and environmental stewardship key considerations in their investment strategies include the Ford Foundation, worth $11.6 billion, the nation's second-largest private philanthropy; the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation; the Rockefeller Foundation; and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.
Moreover, nearly one-third of foundations participate directly in shareholder initiatives, voting their proxies to influence corporate behavior. A few have become shareholder activists. In recent years, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, with an endowment of $481 million, has sponsored proxies to force corporations to address environmental sustainability and political transparency.
Harrington said the Gates Foundation's investment managers vote proxies but declined to give specifics. The foundation would not make its chief investment manager, Michael Larson, available for an interview. In May, Harrington told the Chronicle of Philanthropy that the Gates Foundation did not get involved in proxy issues.
Bauer said that the Gates Foundation's resources give it the unique power to move the debate. If Gates adopted mission-related investing, he said in an interview, the shift in the world of philanthropy would be "seismic."
The foundation did not respond to written questions about whether it might change its investment policies.
Charles Piller, Edmund Sanders and Robyn Dixon write for the Los Angeles Times.