Bill Gates and poverty

Bill Gates and … what?

It’s a huge credit to the man that it makes sense to put “Bill Gates” and “poverty” in the same breath.  Not that Gates is strapped for cash (hardly!), but he’s sure doing a lot to reach out to those who are.

Last week Gates released his first annual letter about his work at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  I must say, it’s a very impressive document.  It’s nicely laid out, with some good pictures as well as helpful graphs and charts, and is written at an intelligent but not over-complicated level.  (I mention that admiringly because, let’s face it, computer guys aren’t exactly known for their skill at using laymen’s terms to explain what they’re doing.)  More importantly, the content is both highly informational and, in its own way, inspiring.

The letter is available to read or download (PDF) from the Gates Foundation website.  It’s well worth a read.

Gates’s letter includes a lot of interesting information, as well as some telling commentary.  It’s clear that this letter is meant not only to inform readers about what the Foundation is doing, but also to direct their attention to some big problems that could use some big help finding solutions.  Perhaps because he really has nothing to lose in speaking his mind at this point, he is refreshingly frank about the usefulness and shortcomings of different  sectors — non-profits, businesses, governments, individuals — engaging global health, development, and other issues.  He’s also not afraid to try to goad the rich into following his example:

I am impressed by individuals who continue to give generously even in these difficult times.  I believe that the wealthy have a responsibility to invest in addressing inequity.  This is especially true when the constraints on others are so great.  Otherwise, we will come out of the economic downturn in a world that is even more unequal, with greater inequities in health and education, and fewer opportunities for people to improve their lives. There is no reason to accept that, when we know how to make huge gains over the long term.

It does a person good to hear sanity coming from the mouth of a billionnaire, especially since we’ve spent the last few months learning more than we ever wanted to know about the truly jaw-dropping spending habits of certain super-rich Wall Street figures (John Thain, for example), not to mention the overall culture of greed that has done so much to send the world economy tumbling down on our heads.

Some more highlights from Gates’s letter:

*  Some interesting comments on how working full-time at the Foundation compares to working full-time at Microsoft (page 1).

*  A graphic representation of encouraging statistics on child deaths, as well as some fascinating insights into how reducing child mortality actually helps slow population growth in places where overpopulation is putting serious strains on all kinds of resources (page 2).

*  An interesting discussion of agricultural initiatives.  Gates also performs a much-needed service by pointing out that climate change and fighting poverty should go hand in hand (page 3):

climate change will be making weather conditions more extreme—triggering both droughts and floods—in the tropical areas where most of the poor live. The negative effects will fall almost entirely on the poor, even though they did not cause the problem.  I hope that the increased public interest in reducing climate change will also increase the political will to provide aid that will help the poor mitigate its negative effects. It is interesting how often the impact of climate change is illustrated by talking about the problems the polar bears will face rather than the much greater number of poor people who will die unless significant investments are made to help them.

*  A discussion of progress on AIDS, with an interesting focus on the role of technology (page 6).

Basically, my advice would be: read the whole thing!  The Gates Foundation website also looks like a very useful resource.  It’s slick and well-designed — as one would expect, given the source — with a lot of information about the projects the Foundation is funding.  (On a totally unrelated note, I’m intrigued about the fact that the site is marked “beta” — it makes it seem vaguely google-ish … not that that’s a bad thing.)

I’ll close this post by pointing out my favorite thing about the Foundation’s website.  As part of the header at the top of the site, these words appear in big, clear letters:  “ALL LIVES HAVE EQUAL VALUE.”

What a fundamental message that is!  How often, how tragically, it is forgotten.

And, however unintentionally, how well it reflects the claims of Christians, when we insist that all people were made by and for the same God, and are treasured  by Him.


~ by h.e.g. on February 8, 2009.

4 Responses to “Bill Gates and poverty”

  1. I agree with your overall comments, but think Bill Gates actually leaves some big misleading shadowa about HIV in that part. First, his statistics are about AIDS in Africa, but he neglects the Africa part. Second, he focuses on medical treatment as being only pharmacology. I’ve seen in Africa as well as in the US that treatment includes much more than medicine. Finally, while he advocates using technology to develop a cure, he completely misses talking about using technology for prevention – through education, promoting testing, etc. Yes, I know people can only do so much, but so often I have been directed to the Gates Foundation for support for our work, only to find he has a narrow scope. And yet, because of his popularity and influence, people think his scope is broad, and this has an adverse impact on all of us who are working outside both his geographic and treatment/cure scope.

  2. Brad, nice to hear from you!

    I really appreciate your comment, and it actually gives me the chance to bring up something I thought about while writing the post. I think a big part of Gates’s success is that he is very focused on one aspect of health/development that he and the people he knows (and can influence) are very familiar with — technology. He’s comfortable in the hi-tech world, he knows that language, he knows how to think in those terms. So from my perspective it makes sense that his foundation would focus on the more technological aspects the issues it addresses (e.g. funding vaccine development research, and so forth). In a sense, I think that’s a good example of someone using the skills and knowledge they have to contribute to the big picture of global health and development.

    All that being said, I definitely understand where you’re coming from with your comment. Gates has a lot of clout and name recognition, so his work naturally overshadows a lot of other great stuff. That’s very unfortunate, and I appreciate the reminder in your comment.

    Hope you’re doing well! Thanks again.


  3. Thanks for replying. I am working on a letter to the Gates foundation to pitch the idea that they use technonogy for not only a vaccine, but to spread education and testing messages, and to even work on developing remote-access treatment programs (where the MD can sit in Nairobi, for example, and meet patients with a health assistant in remote places). If he can use his technology in the present as well as for future vaccines, imagine how many less people could need treatment.

  4. Brad, that’s a really cool idea. I’ve read some interesting things about how high-tech media has been used in prevention campaigns. The remote-access treatment idea presents some fascinating possibilities as well. I can imagine situations where even a relatively simple video conference set-up could be hugely helpful. Good luck with the letter. I’d love to hear how things go!

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