5 Questions for Bill Gates: The Daily Beast Interview
The world's most generous donor tells The Daily Beast how to really help Haiti, which companies are setting a good example in the bonus era, what government's role should be in meeting social needs, and what works in public schools—plus, a revolutionary "scuba rice" that fights poverty.
The world’s most generous donor tells The Daily Beast how to really help Haiti. Plus: See our list of Haiti's most effective on-the-ground non-profits, and donate now.
With the philanthropic sector under intense scrutiny in the wake of Haiti's devastating earthquake, the world's most generous donor, Bill Gates, is speaking out about foreign-aid spending and his own charitable giving in an exclusive interview with The Daily Beast and in his foundation's annual public letter.
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Among his goals for the coming year: asking Congress to pass President Barack Obama’s proposal to double American foreign-aid spending. More controversially, the head of the $37 billion Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation worries that increased international spending on fighting global warming could come at the expense of anti-poverty efforts. “I am concerned that some of this money will come from reducing other categories of foreign aid, especially health,” he writes. “If just 1 percent of the $100 billion [Copenhagen Climate Conference] goal came from vaccine funding, then 700,000 more children could die from preventable diseases.”
In an exclusive interview with The Daily Beast, Gates said via email that he hoped the Haiti earthquake would increase the public’s support for robust foreign aid. (The U.S. now spends less per capita on aid than any other developed nation, though it gives more overall.) “Haiti should remind us all that there is an immediate need to invest in and promote long-term development projects that are sustainable, scalable, and proven to work,” the Microsoft founder told The Daily Beast.
And despite his reputation as the ultimate capitalist—indeed, as nearly a monopolist—Gates said he doesn’t consider the concept of “big government” passé. “Governments will always play a huge part in solving big problems,” he said. “They set public policy and are uniquely able to provide the resources to make sure solutions reach everyone who needs them. Markets don’t serve the poor in some important sectors, like health, because the poor can’t afford to pay.”
Unlike many other private charities, the Gates Foundation releases detailed financial statements each year, a commitment to transparency that, as of late, seems to have encouraged Gates to engage the public more personally. Among his newest projects are a personal Web site—Gates Notes—a Twitter feed, and a Facebook page, all of which promote his philanthropy. And these are more than just public-relations ploys; there’s a lot readers can learn about the man from Gates Notes, in particular: He’s perhaps the world’s most celebrated college dropout, but makes up for it by downloading online courses from MIT and The Teaching Company. He went to the Sundance Film Festival in Utah this weekend and looked forward to meeting Robert Redford, whose films he has seen “at least three times” each. “I’m not sure what we will discuss but between movies, politics, and philanthropy I am sure it will be a fun conversation,” Gates writes on the site in his trademark style—a staccato monologue of childlike wonder studded with the confidence that can only come from being a master of the universe.
In the mid-1990s, Gates’ charitable giving was focused mostly on libraries and science education within the U.S., but today, in partnership with Warren Buffett, the Gates Foundation is working actively on six continents, tackling issues ranging from the high-school dropout crisis in American inner cities to malaria in Africa to the lack of access to secure bank accounts in much of the developing world.
The world’s richest man, Gates remains a general promoter of the private sector’s good intentions. One of the Gates Foundation’s newest investments is $7.5 million to link 50,000 poor fruit farmers in Uganda and Kenya to Coca-Cola’s supply chain. The goal is to double the farmers’ income by 2014. Chris McDonald, a business ethicist and Coca-Cola expert, has raised questions about whether the plan could leave poor families economically dependent upon the whims of a multinational corporation, but overall McDonald told the Seattle Times, “This clearly seems like a positive thing.”
In his interview with The Daily Beast, Gates avoided commenting on Wall Street bonuses or investment banks’ controversial efforts to repair their public images by launching high-profile charitable initiatives. “I don’t have a prescription for what others should do,” he said, but added, “It’s great to see companies devoting a small part of their top people’s time to solving [social] problems.”
Last year, the Gates Foundation’s giving topped $3 billion, and with Barack Obama’s election, its influence reached Washington. The White House has embraced Gates’ modus operandi of collecting social scientific data to assess whether philanthropic dollars have actually created change and is using billions of federal stimulus dollars to fund programs that will reward states, cities, and nonprofits that pursue “innovative,” often free market-inspired approaches to addressing poverty. The Obama administration has even hired a few Gates Foundation veterans to staff the new initiatives, such as the Department of Education’s Investing in Innovation fund.
But Gates’ philanthropy does have its critics. Global-warming activists wonder why Gates hasn’t prioritized climate change, which disproportionately affects regions where the poor live; Joseph Romm, the physicist and environmental writer, has urged Gates to commit 15 percent of his foundation’s grant-making to the search for technological solutions to the crisis. Gates hasn’t done so yet, but he explores the topic of alternative energy sources on his personal Web site, posting a series of podcasts on why he believes the U.S. government should aggressively fund such research.
British public-health expert David McCoy has written in The Lancet that Gates’ health spending is too focused on new technologies, which McCoy sees as an overly "whimsical" approach to solving problems in the developing world. And on American school reform, not everyone believes the Gates Foundation’s focus on merit pay for teachers and expanding the charter-school sector—which today educates less than 2 percent of American schoolchildren—will be transformative. Old-guard liberals frequently point out that schools are re-segregating along class and racial lines, for example, creating inequalities that these reforms don’t address.
But Gates is the first to acknowledge that some of his philanthropic pet projects have failed: Between 2000 and 2009, the foundation donated $2 billion to failing high schools, much of it used to break up large schools into smaller ones with the goal of providing students with more one-on-one attention. Last year, in a Washington Post op-ed, Gates wrote, “Many of the small schools that we invested in did not improve students' achievement in any significant way.”
In Monday's public letter, Gates describes himself as disappointed in developing-world governments’ inability to distribute new pneumonia and diarrhea vaccines quickly, writing that his previous goal of getting the drugs to more than half of the children who need them within six years “is going to be a lot harder than I expected.” On teacher merit pay, he acknowledges, “there is a high risk that it could fail” in leading to real gains in student achievement.
Those kinds of blunt, self-critical statements are rare from any public figure of Gates’ stature, but they characterize his approach to what is often referred to as “venture philanthropy”—investing in innovative, yet risky social programs. “If we project what the world will be like 10 years from now without innovation in health, education, energy, or food, the picture is quite bleak,” he writes in the annual letter, imagining a future in which even many Americans can’t afford to send their children to good colleges or get access to cutting-edge medicine, and rising energy costs and food shortages widen the gap between the rich and poor across the globe. “However, I am optimistic that innovations will allow us to avoid these bleak outcomes.”
Dana Goldstein is an associate editor and writer at The Daily Beast. Her work on politics, women’s issues, and education has appeared in The American Prospect, Slate, BusinessWeek, The New Republic, and The Nation.