Making a difference
Meeting human needs
In 1997, I went to South Africa to dedicate a community center in Soweto, one of the poorest parts of the country. Microsoft had given a computer to this community center, and when I was out there they wanted to show me their appreciation. But in the end they unintentionally showed me something else. The community center didn't have electricity, so they had run an extension cord more than 200 yards to a noisy diesel generator. And sure enough, the computer was up and running.
But I knew that the minute the press left and I left, the generator would be used for some more urgent task, the computer would be largely irrelevant to the people who used the community center, and they'd go back to worrying about the very basic challenges they face in their lives - problems that a computer was not going to solve.
So even though PCs and technology can often be part of a solution, we need to remember to put technology in the service of humanity. It's not just taking what we do in the rich world and subsidizing its use in the developing world. Doing that elevates technology as if it were the end goal, but we're just trying to use technology to meet human needs.
Meeting human needs, of course, is the starting point for all philanthropy. The challenge is to do the most you can with your time and money, to take advances in science and learning and make sure they get applied to the most urgent needs.
Philanthropic dollars have the best chance to make a big impact when you find a problem that's been missed and you can gather together unique expertise to formulate a unique approach.
Take malaria, for example. The world has known about malaria for a long time. In the early 1900s, Nobel Prizes were given for advances in understanding the malaria parasite and how it was transmitted. But 100 years later malaria is setting records, infecting more than 400 million people every year, killing over a million people every year. That's more than 2,000 children every day.
In 1999 the Gates Foundation gave $50 million to malaria research, and I was told that we had just doubled the amount of private money going to fight that disease. And I thought, That's the worst thing I've ever heard, that just can't be right.
When you look at all the other causes that generous people give to, why wouldn't stopping this killer have risen to the top? Is it because people thought the science was too difficult? Absolutely not. It's because malaria became a disease that nobody worked on.
Technology is often driven by market forces. You develop a technology when there's a buyer for it. Here there was no market for discoveries in fighting malaria, no institution that was charged with filling that vacuum, and so the work simply didn't get done.
This same basic story extends to tuberculosis, yellow fever, acute diarrheal illnesses and respiratory illnesses. Millions of children die from these diseases every year, and yet the advances we have in biology have not been applied, because rich countries don't have these diseases. The private sector hasn't been involved in developing vaccines and medicines for these diseases, because the developing countries can't buy them.
So more than 90 percent of the money devoted to health research is spent on those who are the healthiest. About $1 billion is spent each year to combat baldness. That's great for some people, but if we're setting priorities, perhaps baldness should rank behind malaria.
Philanthropy can step in when market forces aren't doing the job. It can draw in experts. It can give awards, it can make novel arrangements with private companies, it can partner with universities. Every year the platform of science that we have to do this on gets better.
Technology is a central focus of our foundation partly because it can help us see what's really going on in the world. Right now we don't make eye contact with the people who are suffering in developing countries.
If you took the world and you randomly resorted it so that rich people lived next to people in developing-world conditions, you'd walk down your block and say, "Those people are starving. Did you meet that mother over there? Her child just died. Do you see that guy suffering from malaria? He can't go to work." Basic human instinct would kick in and we would change our priorities.
Technology can help us see how others are living halfway around the world. In the last few years, for example, some of these inequities have started getting more media coverage. And as people see these problems, they start demanding that something be done about them.
Just as technology allows us to see the world's inequities, it can also help us address them. Technology doesn't have to be complicated or even expensive; in fact, the best technology is often the simplest.