Cholera cure or basketball: What’s the best way to spend $2 billion?

Steve Ballmer, left, shakes hands with former NBA players Bill Russell, right, and "Downtown" Freddie Brown.
(Elaine Thompson / Associated Press)

Kevin Outterson of Boston University’s School of Public Health raises the question, a little mischievously, of whether Steve Ballmer’s $2 billion is really being put to the greatest possible social use.

He highlights the following quote from a recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine about the desperate need for cholera treatment in the Third World. (The emphasis is Outterson’s):

“Cholera is a disease of poverty, linked to poor sanitation and a lack of potable water. Establishment of an adequate sanitation and potable-water system is the most definitive way to prevent and limit its spread. However, the cost of instituting adequate sanitation systems, one of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, is prohibitive for the countries that are affected by cholera: it would cost an estimated $2.2 billion, for example, to adequately improve access to water and sanitation in Haiti.

“In unrelated news,” Outterson adds, “Microsoft billionaire Steve Ballmer plans to buy the LA Clippers for $2 billion.”


Of course, this isn’t an either/or proposition. Ballmer has more than enough money to buy the Clippers and fund cholera treatment across the Third World.

To be fair, Ballmer, whose net worth is in the neighborhood of $20 billion, hasn’t had much time to establish himself as a philanthropist since he announced his resignation from Microsoft last August. But his potential impact is vast: As Inside Philanthropy observed, “Ballmer’s fortune is some five times greater than the assets of the Rockefeller Foundation. It’s the kind of money that allows for big, bold initiatives. If the Ballmers choose to focus on children and youth, they could be one of the largest givers in that space.”

So far, it’s mostly potential. Relief from cholera, which strikes especially hard at children, would be a good start. Think of how much more karma that might yield, compared with rescuing the Clippers from the Sterling family.