Bill Gates Talks Toilets, Polio Efforts at CGI

The tech mogul and philanthropist spoke at CGI on Tuesday about how private foundations can take big risks to have a wide impact, and on the unglamorous but necessary technologies that the developing world desperately needs.

Mehdi Taamallah/AFP/Getty

No one is more qualified to sit on a panel titled Big Bets Philanthropy than Bill Gates, co-founder of the world's largest private philanthropic group, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Gates was joined on stage at the Clinton Global Initiative on Tuesday by Nigerian investor Tony Elumelu, chairman of Heirs Holdings Limited, and Geeta Rao Gupta, UNICEF's assistant secretary-general.

Early on during the panel, Gates steered the topic toward philanthropic organizations and the role they play within the public and private sectors. “You have to pick something risky and not likely to be taken up by aid budgets,” he said of private foundations. Roads and electricity are key, but so are vaccinations. “Philanthropy should be taking much bigger risks that business. If these are easy problems, business and government can come in and solve them.”

Later, moderator Matthew Bishop, New York bureau chief of The Economist, broached an unlikely lunch topic, asking Gates about his focus on toilet innovations, something “most of us thought was a settled technology.”

“Well, it's a fantastic example of where trickle-down doesn't work,” Gates deadpanned. He discussed efforts to bring the functionality and safety of Western toilets to the Third World. His less-than-romantic aspirations are unsurprising for the tech maven. Bishop questioned Gates about his near-successful campaign to eradicate polio, noting critics who say money is better spent elsewhere now that the goal is near completion. He defended his ongoing program, which is being implemented in the world's most remote areas, saying the “credibility of global health endeavor is very tied up” in fully eradicating the disease.

But money and scope and "big bets" aren’t everything. Elumelu of Heirs Holding talked about the need for an enabling environment toward entrepreneurship as a foremost goal for countries hoping to bolster their economies. “The private sector has a key role to play in Africa,” he noted. From that, private, public, and government partnerships can follow suit.

These issues will all come to a head in three years, when the international community will name the next set of Millennium Development Goals, currently set to expire in 2015. Here is where partnership is exhibited on the largest scale. But the panelists acknowledged that it’s the small stuff that lays a foundation for the successful completion of a goal.

“When it works well, it works incredibly well,” Gupta said. “[But] just increasing numbers of [partnerships] doesn't solve the problem. We have to make them more effective.”