DENVER — Almost 40 years ago, Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard University and went on to develop Microsoft, a move that would have made him the richest man in the world today–were he not so generous with his fortune. Since leaving a full time position at his company, Gates has moved on to more philanthropic endeavors with his wife Melinda by his side. Together they have developed the world’s largest charity, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, an initiative that has made strides to change how the world approaches extreme poverty.
Officially established in 2000, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has taken on a wide range of projects, primarily geared toward global health and education in an effort to eliminate the pain and suffering around the world. In the 1990s, when the couple went to Africa for a safari, rather than enjoying the wildlife and sprawling African vistas, they saw starving children and struggling families. They returned home with heavy hearts and a troubling perspective.
It is a startling moment, realizing the struggles of people who seem a world away but are really just as human as the people we see everyday. They have been dealt a different hand of cards and the Gates have made it their mission to shuffle to deck.
Gates learned early on that he was up against a risk-averse world. Even when given the necessary tools to make a difference—the government, pharmaceutical companies, society in general—everyone waits to be presented with an opportunity that has clear and immediate return. A pharmaceutical giant is not going to start mass-producing a vaccine for malaria to provide impoverished countries when there is no profit to be had. The government is not going to funnel aid to a seemingly lost cause unless it is a package deal with a guarantee that political careers will not suffer as a result. People will spend $5 on a Starbucks drink and forgo the donation jar until they start seeing large-scale, tangible results.
It is not a hard system to decipher, but it is a hard system to beat. A challenge like this has Gates’ name all over it. When a well-known, successful person rubber-stamps a cause and starts moving their funds in its direction, they can serve as the figurehead for change. People are given the incentive they needed to support it. And so Gates became a sort of figurehead for fighting poverty. He began developing his foundation in a way similar to how he tackled Microsoft: with a logic and practicality inherent in the mind of a person with his business savvy.
Gates calls his approach “catalytic philanthropy,” a method that requires big investment for a big return, comprised of a two-pronged approach. First: “Narrow the gap so that advances for the rich world reach the poor world faster.” Second: “Turn more of the world’’s IQ toward devising solutions to problems that only people in the poor world face.” It is not an easy plan, but it is effective.
Broken down to measurements and units, addressing poverty–and the rampant health concerns that come along with it–became more manageable in Gates’ eyes. With goals in mind and people to help, he and his wife set out to start waves of change. An issue at the forefront of their mission was eradicating polio.
In 1999, right before formally establishing the foundation, Gates gave $50 million to a global effort to provide vaccinations to regions all over the world. Part of this effort meant reducing deaths from polio by 30,000. In 2013, the foundation contributed to a $5.5 billion initiative geared toward eliminating polio by 2018. Since Gates got involved, polio has been eradicated in India and effective vaccinations have been developed. The problem persists in areas of Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan, particularly difficult areas to target and posing a whole new challenge to the Gates Foundation, undoubtedly a challenge he has been considering for a while.
Outside of polio, the foundation focuses on broader global health concerns, tackling the big issues of getting impoverished countries the tools they need. Transporting vaccines before they spoil is a common issue, seeing as refrigeration is not readily available across areas of Africa and Southeast Asia. The foundation helped to fund a meningitis vaccine called MenAfriVac, the first of its kind to not require refrigeration for up to four days.
Gates receives a fair amount of criticism for his efforts but brushes it off and plugs along. Some accuse him of playing God with his philanthropic efforts, and others feel his money could be given to less expensive efforts than eradication methods. Gates stands by his choice to pursue eradication, explaining, “Zero is a magic number. You either do what it takes to get to zero and you’re glad you did it; or you get close, give up and it goes back to where it was before.”
Regardless of hubristic criticisms or societal doubts, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has made history and painted a very promising future. With a man like Gates fighting to change the hand millions have been dealt, they may just come up with a royal flush.
– Maggie Wagner