Bill Gates has quit from his day-to-day role at Microsoft Corp, but he’s not exactly “retiring” — the 52 year old is dedicating himself to full-time philanthropy through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the world’s largest charitable foundation with a war chest of US$37.5 billion, four times the size of the next largest foundation. The amount is set to rise to US$100 billion by the end of Gates’ lifetime (Note: The US philanthropy sector is now at US$300 billion).
Non-profit pundits say when a man like Bill Gates commits himself to philanthropy, taking with him the same energy and vision he once directed toward information technology to solve some of the world’s most pressing problems today, he could fundamentally alter the face of philanthropy. Bill Gates, they say, will apply his hyper-logical way of problem-solving and harness the power of technology to address inequities and inefficiencies, improve resource allocation, and establish best practices among non-profits. Already, the Gates Foundation is making its presence felt in the areas of health and education.
Here is the China-relevant portion of an interview Bill Gates gave to Seattle Times reporters Benjamin J. Romano and Kristi Heim days before he moved full-time with the foundation:
Q: What are you doing to prepare yourself in the couple of months ahead? What’s on your reading list, and are you taking some fact-finding trips?
Gates: I’ve done a lot of foundation trips over the years, and I’m in China this summer doing some foundation stuff. I’m in India in the fall doing foundation stuff. I’m in Africa next January doing foundation stuff.
So I’ve got a good schedule of those kind of hands-on things.
I do a lot of foundation reading, both to understand the science and the possibilities there, and the specifics — what was going on with the foundation. …
Q: How can the foundation do work in China?
Gates: Well, the foundation has done a number of things in China, grants for a hepatitis B vaccination, because the disease burden in China, particularly in their poorer regions, is one of the highest in the world. So we helped out with that.
We’re doing some AIDS-related things in China. Also, when you think of China, they have capabilities that now that they’ve improved their economy a lot, they can be a factor to help poorer countries. And so our agricultural people have spent a lot of time in China because China has agricultural expertise that could help raise crop yields significantly in Africa. We’re looking at some exchange programs there that would draw on the good work, and the expertise that’s in China, and help get Africa up to that same type of level.
China is kind of interesting, because it’s in some ways, it’s not large, it’s a recipient, but in a lot of ways it’s a participant in the things that need to get done.
Q: Is China accepting of the role of outside nonprofit organizations coming in and trying to work on the significant problems? How have you been able to deal with the leadership when you approach that country?
Gates: Well, we worked with the health ministry on a lot of things. On some, like the AIDS thing, they were very welcoming, and it’s good collaboration.
It will be interesting to see on tobacco how much they cooperate on that. The U.S. was at a much, much higher level of wealth before it did anything about tobacco, so China has a chance to act well before the equivalent time that the U.S. did. It will vary by topic how much you get government cooperation on those things.
Some things, like delivering vaccines, you’ve got to get the government to help. And in China they do quite a good job of that. Vietnam [has] actually a higher vaccine-coverage rate than the United States. There are parts of Africa where the vaccine-coverage rates are quite low.
Q: And how does the Gates Foundation, as you said, work to bring some of what’s going on in China in terms of seed development and agriculture into Africa?
Gates: Well, for example, the two leading places for rice research are one international group down in the Philippines and a group in China. And so figuring out what would it take for them to think about the particular needs of Africa in terms of the varieties grown there, and how we get these traits, say drought resistance, into those, in some cases they’ve just cooperated with us without us funding any activity. In some cases, we fund them to pay particular attention to the problems in the case of that crop out of Africa.
Photo from Domain Barnyard