Bill Gates has spent the last five years working alongside his wife Melinda at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, pouring the ocean of cash he made cornering the market on desktop computer software into projects that improve the health of the world’s poorest people.
Alongside Warren Buffett, Gates has persuaded 186 of his fellow billionaires to sign the Giving Pledge, affirming their intent to give — during their lives, or at least in their wills — half of their amassed wealth to charitable causes. But he’s still outstripped them all when it comes to charitable giving, disbursing more than $45 billion through his foundation on the distribution of vaccines and initiatives to fight tuberculosis, HIV, and malaria.
Each year, the Gateses publish a letter to reflect on their foundation’s work and focus attention on issues they care about. Last year, the billionaires asked themselves tough questions, such as why they don’t give more in the U.S. (answer: because a dollar spent in poor countries has a bigger impact than in the developed world) and whether it’s fair that they have so much power (no).
Since then, the world has seen globalist ideals of open borders and free trade crumble in the face of trade wars and reactionary anti-immigrant policies. So maybe it’s not surprising that this year’s letter focuses on what surprised the couple in 2018.
Some surprises stay in their global health lane — at-home DNA tests can help stop premature births, mobile phones empower poor women. Others reach farther. “There’s a nationalist case for globalism,” they write, arguing that America’s foreign aid helps ensure stability and reduce health crises that lead to mass migration. “Data can be sexist” is another surprise, based on Melinda’s discovery that good data on most aspects of women’s lives around the world are hard to find.
The Times spoke with the charitable couple in late January.
Your comment on globalism being good for nations feels pretty pointed. Are you disappointed with the American government these days?
Melinda: Certainly the proposal that came out from the administration on the first round of the budget was disappointing to us, incredibly disappointing. But the good news is that Congress actually disposes the money, and Congress knows the importance of foreign aid.
It’s less than 1% of the U.S. government budget, but if you invest in people around the world you will get peace and prosperity and you won’t get ebola and disease crossing the borders.
A lot of other wealthy people interact with the government by funding politicians who support their vision or choosing to run for office themselves — Howard Schultz and Michael Bloomberg come to mind. Do you see that as a good use of your money? Is there no return on investment in pushing the huge governmental machine toward what you believe in?
Bill: Our expertise across all government issues is pretty specific — we make visits, meet with scientists, meet with heroes in the field in global health and in the U.S. education work we do.
So in those two areas we do have opinions about, you know — making Pell Grants more effective for education, and spending the NIH research dollars, where the U.S. is very generous on the diseases of the poor.
A lot of that is meeting with the congressional committees that work on those issues. So we speak out, and to really make our money effective we’ve had to focus in on what we chose as priorities.
The makeup and disposition of congressional committees can potentially be influenced by a relatively small amount of money, when it comes to campaign finance contributions. Have you considered throwing your weight behind changing the balance of power to make your work easier?
Bill: If you saw that education was fantastic in the states run by one party and terrible in the states run by the other party, then you might say to yourself: Wow, somebody seems to have the answer, let’s make sure that the other party hears about it, the voters ought to know that.
But these are complex issues about how to invent new vaccines, or in education, where does a better curriculum come in. There’s a lot to be learned which doesn’t boil down to, hey, one party has the solution and the other party doesn’t.
You write in the letter about funding research into a new type of toilet, and have talked in the past about philanthropy stepping into gaps left by market and government forces. What is it about something like toilets that requires philanthropic intervention?
Bill: The tricky problem is that in upper-income countries and middle-income countries, there was a huge investment put into sewer systems. If you do that early, the economics can be reasonable. But in many cities, particularly the poor parts of them, the sewer solution just is never going to happen — the cost would be too high
So we’re trying to bootstrap a product, which is a non-sewered sanitation toilet. We’ve already spent a few hundred million, and think that by spending a few hundred million more on R&D, we can make it very cheap. It’s sort of a new category that wouldn’t emerge without risk capital showing that it’s possible.
Melinda: What the foundation focuses on are the inequalities, the gaps that exist in society, and a lot of times because these problems — as Warren Buffet reminds us — are hard, and so societies left them behind. Capitalistic structure isn’t necessarily going after some of these problems, and so we look at where can philanthropy be a catalytic edge.
Both of you are in the middle of a successful and seemingly happy second career outside the tech world. The past year has seen tech companies and their leaders come under fire for issues of data privacy, monopoly, labor — and their influence on society at large. Would you recommend a shift to philanthropy for these high-profile CEOs?
Bill: Well, each of those people will decide what works for them and their company. And I wouldn’t go so far as to say this is the first time that CEOs of tech companies have been criticized. But I agree that it’s at a broader and stronger level than before. That’s partly because tech is so successful in terms of how people communicate and get news and organize things and so it’s societally more important to make sure all of that’s working well.