Few people can claim to have touched the lives of everyone on the planet with their invention. But Bill Gates can. He didn’t invent the computer or the microchip but together with Paul Allen, his development of the Windows operating system and the subsequent revolution in personal computing which it made possible, changed the world and the lives of everyone in it.
It may be that if Bill Gates and Paul Allen had not created Microsoft, someone else might have done something similar. Antonio Meucci was developing the phone even though Alexander Graham Bell patented it. Edwin Belin and Vladimir Kosma Zworykin were working on the television despite John Logie Baird being credited with the first television demonstration. But in an age in which many experts believed computers were of use to only very large companies, Gates helped change the role of computers in the world. He is one of the founders of the modern technological age and that position has given him wealth beyond our imagination.
Positions change in the super league table of the wealthy but Gates is either the world’s richest person or amongst the top two. The financial news group Bloomberg claims that Gates is worth over $85 billion. That is twice the national income of Kenya. It would take the average UK worker over 2 million years to earn that amount of money. It is a level of wealth that places the person in possession of it in an almost singular position.
It was striking therefore that when I flew to Seattle to Meet Bill and his wife Melinda, there was few signs of the enormous wealth and power they wield. While there was the normal grouping of press professionals around him and his wife, there was surprisingly little fanfare about their arrival. Bill dressed unassumingly in a shirt and jumper and sat quietly as we made our preparations for the interview for the start of this latest series of the BBC World News programme, Horizons.
I had come to their hometown of Seattle to talk to them, not about computers but about how they are using their enormous wealth and influence to bring about the change in the world they want to see.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation began after they saw an article by the New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristoff about children dying in India because of diseased water. Bill Gates wrote his father a note saying: “Dad Maybe we can do something about this.” Doing something about this has meant creating a Foundation which now has around £40 billion in it and makes annual grants of £3.4 billion. By my reckoning that makes it the second largest charitable foundation in the World after Ikea.
What is most striking about the Foundation is what is written in the small print. The spending programmes attract headlines and political attention. But hiding behind them is a philosophy which is as important as it is revealing of the intentions and modus operandi of the Gates family. Unlike the other major charitable foundations the Gates’ don’t want the operation to continue giving out money for ever. Normally charitable foundations invest their legacy so that there is a continual stream of income coming in to fund future grants to charitable causes.
The Gates’ have a different philosophy. Within 50 years of their death they want all their money spent. It’s a mission orientated strategy that sounds just like a software designer would operate: Identify your target, fund the project and accomplish your goals.
Everyone knows making money is hard, you don’t hear much about the problems of spending it. But when you have billions to direct in aid, the issues of how to use that wisely, are harder than you think. Gates tries to manage that enormous spending power by giving the Gates Foundation very clear goals in four key areas: Health, Development, US Education, and lobbying especially in a robust stance against tobacco.
Although there are very powerful and important eye catching efforts to improve toilet facilities in the poorest parts of the world, as we have previously featured on Horizons, one of the most significant programmes is to help eradicate malaria. Around 627,000 people died from malaria is 2012 and the Gates Foundation has already spent £2 billion in helping efforts to reduce that number to zero.
Walking round the Gates Foundation offices you do genuinely get a feeling everyone is happy. There are lots of smiles and welcomes and it does feel different to most other offices I’ve been in. But it would be mistaken to think this is some happy clappy bunch handing out cash to every worthy cause that comes knocking on the door.
Two other great billionaire philanthropists, Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockfeller talked about the need to apply industrial efficiency models not just to industry but to charity. The Gates Foundation is similarly analytical in its approach to charity and the measurement of success.
That analytical approach is important. The Foundation has very ambitious goals to improve world health and encourage economic development and despite the huge sums at its disposal, the money it has is still a fraction of national aid budgets. The Gates Foundation annual spend of around $3.4 billion compares to $13 billion given in aid each year by the UK and $30 billion in aid given by the USA. Despite the smaller fire power, the Gates aims are very similar to those of national aid budgets. So how they spend their money, ensuring the biggest bang for their buck, is crucial.
Sitting in the Green Room of the Gates Foundation own TV studio I asked Bill whether he felt a dollar he spends in aid was more effective than a dollar spent by the US or UK government. Did his commercial experience, his analytical approach and the fact that he could determine how the money was spent, make the whole process more efficient?
Like much of what Bill and Melinda said, they gave a guarded response. The Gates are used to dealing with journalists and remain on message. Their role is not to challenge governments but to work with them. Both of them speak with clear honesty about the importance of the work they are doing, about the challenges ahead and their commitment to use their time and money to improve the lot of some of the poorest and most desperate people in the world.
In a previous Horizons episode I interviewed Doulaye Kone about his Gates Foundation funded project to re-invent the toilet. His project is trying to stop the millions of deaths which occur due to poor sanitation. Kone’s testament to the difference the project could make to families like his own where many relatives dies because of poor sanitation, was one of the most moving of any I have done for Horizons.
The Gates Foundation money does have the power to make a real difference. Bill Gates gave up full time work at Microsoft in 2008 and now he and Melinda spend their time trying to spend the money they made. The philanthropist Andrew Carnegie said you should spend a third of your life in education, a third making money and a third giving it away. It may not have been their initial plan, but they are words that Gates appear to be living by.
See the interview with Bill and Melinda Gates on the BBC World News Horizons programme.