Great expectations

Melinda Gates is a mother, a wife, and one half of the world’s most generous private philanthropic organisation. In an exclusive interview, she talks women, Middle East giving and her hopes for the future

Melinda Gates will tell you she’s an impatient optimist. She is impatient for the world to get better, and optimistic that it will. And as co-founder of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), she is doing all she can to make that hope a reality.

Now in its 15th year, the Gates Foundation has given away in excess of $33bn – more money than anyone else in history – largely towards combating disease and hunger among the world’s poor. It has changed, or saved, millions of lives, on a scale that is difficult to comprehend. That polio, a paralysing disease that once affected 350,000 a year, is now teetering on the brink of eradication, owes much to the foundation’s tireless work. Next on the hit list of diseases is malaria. It is not just about the money. Equally unprecedented is the way Melinda and her husband Bill, the co-founder of Microsoft, have turned philanthropy into their full-time jobs. Much of her year is devoted to travelling – both in the field, and to global events – or to rallying the world’s best and brightest to tackle its biggest problems.

“Melinda is a total-systems thinker,” Judith Rodin, president of the hugely influential Rockefeller Foundation, has said. “She and Bill dive into issues.” Warren Buffett, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway and the world’s third-richest person, goes a step further. “[Bill is] smart as hell, obviously” Buffett, who has pledged much of his wealth to the Gates Foundation, told Fortune magazine. “But in terms of seeing the whole picture, she’s smarter.”

In their annual letter last year, Bill and Melinda Gates predicted that the lives of the poor will “improve faster in the next 15 years than at any other time in history”. It was a heady vision, and a staggering bet in a world currently beset by war, terrorism and economic uncertainty. Yet Melinda still believes it can be achieved – and here’s how:

The BMGF has changed the global philanthropic landscape. What was your goal when you launched the foundation 15 years ago?

The work we do is grounded in the principle that every life has equal value. We were inspired to act after reading a newspaper article about rotavirus, a diarrheal disease that was killing about half a million children in developing countries each year. We’d never even heard of the disease, and were shocked to learn that while most children get it, for the most part only children in poor countries were dying from it. This motivated us to use our resources to accelerate development of a vaccine to protect children everywhere, and that led us to get more deeply involved in some of the other problems that face people living in extreme poverty.

In terms of impact, we’re a large foundation, but even our resources can’t begin to solve the world’s biggest challenges. Almost everything we do is in conjunction with partners in government, the private sector, and civil society – whether it’s delivering lifesaving vaccines to children, ensuring that women have access to contraceptives, or tackling the world’s biggest killer diseases: HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria.

"We don’t have any kind of magic formula for prioritising the world’s problems" How does private philanthropy differ from aid?

Each has a role to play, but they complement each other – and, more than that, they rely on each other. In 2013, countries around the world contributed more than $150bn in development assistance: that’s 60 times the average annual budget of our foundation. In our view, the role of private foundations is to operate as a catalyst to accelerate impact. We can’t match the giving capacity of governments, but we have more flexibility to take risks, knowing some ideas may fail. Foundations also have convening power: the ability to bring together actors from the public and private sectors and others to align interests and ensure that every dollar spent goes as far as possible.

How do you and Bill set your giving priorities for the foundation?

As Bill has said before, we don’t have any kind of magic formula for prioritising the world’s problems. But we knew we wanted to invest in areas where we could have the greatest impact on the most number of people. So we looked for issues where a relatively small investment could spur meaningful and sustainable progress – accelerating the development of a rotavirus vaccine, for example. Data also helps us to set priorities. We spend a lot of time in developing countries to help us understand more about what life is like for the people who live there. We’re honest about the fact that we’ll never be able to change people’s lives from our offices in Seattle, so we need to be out in the field, meeting people, and letting their real life experiences shape our work.

You have close ties with GCC governments. How important are those to your regional work?

Middle Eastern countries have serious challenges, but the region also has incredible ingenuity, and some of the most generous governments and philanthropists in the world. We rely on our partners’ generosity, and also on their knowledge of geographies, development challenges, and their relationships with communities that can be difficult for us to reach. As an example, we’ve worked closely with the UAE on a number of initiatives, most notably in the fight against polio. In 2013, we co-hosted the Global Vaccine Summit with the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. It raised more than $4bn toward making polio only the second disease ever to be eradicated.

We are also part of a giving circle, the Shefa Fund, made up of Saudi Arabian families, each of whom support eliminating meningitis A in Africa and polio worldwide. The Islamic Development Bank (IDB) is another important partner for us in the Middle East. We share a number of priorities centered on lifting the burdens of poverty and disease for people across the region. We’ve helped to make IDB loans more affordable for impoverished countries to use, to invest in their futures.

"If you want to improve lives, empowering women is a good place to start"You are a vocal advocate for female empowerment. Why are women and girls so critical to global development goals?

If you want to improve the lives of people in any community, empowering its women is a good place to start. There are a number of reasons why, but here’s one of the most important: if a woman has a dollar in her pocket, she uses about eighty cents of that to provide for her family, purchasing things like healthy food, doctor visits, and education.

In my travels, I talk to women about finances quite a bit. Almost universally, one of the first priorities they mention is their children’s school. Whether they talk about schoolbooks, fees, or supplies, it’s the first thing on their minds. Their investments pay off. When mothers decide how their families’ money is spent, their children are 20 per cent more likely to survive, and much more likely to thrive. Focusing on women and girls is the most direct way to ensure healthier and more prosperous families, and greater economic progress around the world.

What more can be done to help shift the paradigm for women and girls in developing countries?

As I’ve taught my three children, it’s crucial that those of us who do have a voice use it to speak up for the women and girls who don’t. It’s our responsibility to advocate for women and girls everywhere to ensure that they grow up healthy and respected, and able to create a better future for themselves and their families. We are not there yet. Every single day, 800 women die in childbirth, mostly of preventable causes. That’s unacceptable, and the world needs to do more to address it.

In the Muslim world, strong voices are speaking up for women’s empowerment. For years, Saudi Arabia’s Prince Alwaleed bin Talal has been an advocate for women’s rights, and I was glad to hear that women’s empowerment will be a primary focus as he invests his fortune in philanthropy. And last year, when I met Lana Nusseibeh, the UAE’s ambassador to the UN, she spoke powerfully about the country’s commitment to equality.

Men and boys have a role to play too. When I was in Malawi last year, I met with a group of men who are known as ‘male champions’ in their village because they’re helping change their community’s gender norms. They told me that they’re starting young with their own kids, teaching their sons that they, too, have a role in building a more equitable world. More voices, more support, more education, more collaboration – these are just a few of the actions anyone reading this can take right now.

When you reflect on the work you’ve done over the past 15 years, what are you most proud of?

We are very proud to be part of GAVI, the vaccine alliance. GAVI coordinates efforts between businesses, governments, and aid agencies to deliver lifesaving vaccines to children in poor countries who need them most. So far, GAVI has enabled more than 500 million children to be vaccinated, saving more than 7 million lives – with half of that money invested in Muslim countries.Another important moment for me was helping organise a family planning summit in London in 2012. Dozens of countries came together at the summit to commit to helping more than 100 million women get access to the contraceptives they want to plan and space their pregnancies. The effort raised more than $2bn, the first time the world put a ‘b’ in front of a fundraising effort for women and girls. That’s something I’ll never forget. "To maximise impact, look for a problem that markets and governments aren’t paying much attention to"What advice would you give to would-be philanthropists at the start of their giving journey?

One way to maximise impact is to look for a problem that markets and governments aren’t paying much attention to. Find something that moves you that not many people are working on, and start learning about it. For us, as I’ve said, it started with rotavirus. The sad reality is that there are no shortage of problems calling out for attention, compassion, and solutions. Then, keep learning. That never stops. You have to be talking constantly to experts and partners and using the data to help you evaluate honestly what has worked and what hasn’t. And also understand that you can’t do it alone. You need partners who share your vision, but also offer complementary skills, experience, and knowledge. The motto of my high school in Texas was ‘Serviam’, which means ‘I will serve’. That’s something I’ve always taken very seriously. It’s not so much advice as it is a reminder that we’re here on this planet to use our resources and abilities to lift up those around us.

What would your current self tell the couple who started the BMGF more than a decade ago?

The last 15 years have been an incredible learning journey for everyone involved. Because Bill and I both come from a technology background, we had a natural bias towards technological solutions, like vaccines or higher-yielding seeds for farmers. And while those are important – essential, even – we’ve also learned that designing a solution that makes sense in the daily realities of people’s lives, is as important as the technology itself to broader success. You really have to understand the context of the culture in which you’re operating, to have an impact.

I’d also want to reassure us that incredible progress is possible. You can’t solve problems like newborn mortality, hunger or extreme poverty – problems that have been around since the beginning of human history – overnight. And sometimes, the pace of change can be frustrating. But we believe the next 15 years will unlock the fastest progress for people living in extreme poverty that the world has ever seen. It’s going to be an exciting thing to be a part of. I’d urge you to get involved.