Ideas to change the world

He is the world’s richest man, and now he is its most influential philanthropist. Bill Gates talks giving, the Gulf, and his plan to help combat poverty in the Muslim world

Of the 1 billion people worldwide existing in extreme penury, 40 per cent live in the Muslim world. For these stricken households, life may be looking up. Last June, to little fuss, Bill Gates, cofounder of the world’s wealthiest private foundation, and the Jeddah-based Islamic Development Bank (IDB) unveiled a $2.5bn fund aimed at hoisting some 400 million people over the poverty line, and out of destitution.

“We have the expertise, and IDB knows how to get things done in the region,” Gates says of the partnership. “Those are really the things that count.”

The plan hinges on cheap loans. Over five years, the IDB will disburse $2bn to projects in health, agriculture and infrastructure in the 30 poorest Muslim countries. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) is raising $500m in grants to trim the interest payments on these loans and put them in reach of the most impoverished states, chipping in $100m itself. The IDB-backed Islamic Solidarity Fund for Development has pitched in a further $100m, while Qatar in April put in $50m. Gates, beating the drum for further donors, hailed it as “an incredible opportunity for anyone who cares about driving social change”.

“It’s a pretty significant fund,” he says today. “I’m hopeful.”

At 60, Gates is still seeking out new frontiers. A Harvard dropout, he made his name as a tech titan, building the world’s first software fortune in the totemic Microsoft Corp. The company listed in 1986 and within a year, Gates, at 31, had become the youngest self-made billionaire. He stepped down in 2008, as one of the world’s richest men, to devote his time to the foundation launched eight years earlier with his wife, Melinda. Today, BMGF is the world’s biggest private philanthropic foundation, doling out close to $4bn a year to causes as diverse as education, sanitation and women’s health, in the pursuit of battling poverty and disease. By all accounts, Gates is the most influential philanthropist on the planet.

“The goal of philanthropy is to be a laboratory of innovation for breakthrough work."

For all involved, it’s been a rapid ride. The foundation’s approach is catalytic philanthropy; or seeding high-risk innovations that could offer outsized payoffs for some of the world’s biggest social and economic ills. This giving exists in the gap between government and market forces and its role – as Gates explains it – “is to get things started” where others can’t, or won’t.

“The goal of philanthropy is to be a laboratory of innovation for breakthrough work; to have that willingness to think about things,” he says.

Malaria is a case in point. The mosquito-borne disease killed 438,000 people in 2015, mostly children under the age of five. There are 200 million cases of the illness each year. Yet because its victims are mainly poor, there has been little appetite for finding a breakthrough vaccine.

The BMGF is changing this. The foundation has funnelled millions of dollars into efforts to eradicate the disease, most recently in January unveiling a $4.28bn fund with the British government. Its end goal is audacious: a malaria-free world by 2040.

BMGF is not without its critics. Some argue the foundation has disproportionate sway: with its $40bn clout, it can skew the thrust of research and aid priorities, potentially smothering rival approaches. In answer, BMGF points to its transparency, and its close ties to the myriad governments, nonprofits and partners that help drive its giving priorities. “The way that people can hold us accountable is to look at what we’ve achieved,” CEO Sue Desmond-Hellmann told the FT in March.

Moving the needle takes more than just money. Gates has brought the same unflinching intellect to bear on philanthropy as he did business. From rethinking the vaccine cold chain, to reinventing the toilet, no issue is too mundane or unglamorous to escape scrutiny, if the gains are big enough. (Meeting the press after a 2011 meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and then-president Christian Wulff, Gates memorably told waiting journalists they had not talked politics, but instead had discussed the idea of the “ultimate toilet”.)

“The generosity in the Gulf is very, very strong. But some of it tends to favour the pure charity side”And BMGF’s goals, rather like its budget, are huge. Its vaccine strategy calls for the global rollout of existing, lifesaving jabs – from rotavirus to measles – to all people, in all communities by 2020. The plan, which has the backing of 194 countries, has the potential to prevent more than 11 million people dying worldwide and some 3.9 million disabilities.

In sub-Saharan Africa, it wants to ignite a green revolution. Taking its lead from the post-war shake-up that transformed agriculture in Asia, BMGF believes farmers in Africa could, with the right help, bolster their productivity by 50 per cent. By 2030, the continent could feed itself – scrapping a food import bill that currently weighs in at $50bn a year.

“Africa’s agricultural productivity is currently a sixth of the United States’ and getting it up to half is very doable,” says Gates. “That’s how you get rid of malnutrition; that’s how you feed the world. That’s how you raise incomes to help parents to pay for school fees.”

The foundation has spun more than $2bn into helping small farmers beef up crop yields and earnings, and gain better access to markets. Ideas it has backed range from snazzy hybrid seeds able to resist disease and drought, to systems able to deliver vital data on soil, livestock, prices and more to farmers’ mobile phones.

Then there is the issue of persuading states to repair shoddy roads, and fund vital infrastructure projects. It currently costs up to four times as much to move goods along roads in Africa as it does in developed nations. Fixing these bottlenecks could do far more than aid alone to reverse poverty and encourage inclusive economic growth.

“If you can manage to get health and education and stability right, then you get miracles like China where they lifted more people out of poverty between 1980 and today than any country ever has,” adds Gates. “What we see in Africa is very encouraging.”

Saving the world is not a one-man job. Coaxing others into the fray is critical. In 2010, Gates and his wife, along with Warren Buffett, launched the Giving Pledge, a campaign that asks billionaires to donate at least half their wealth to charity. Some 154 pledgers have joined to date – from the UK’s Richard Branson, to Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg – taking up the cudgels against global challenges.

“Some have been giving for decades and others are just starting out, but they all see the value of giving in a bold and effective way,” Gates says.

In June, Saudi Arabian royal Prince Alwaleed joined their ranks, the first Arab Muslim to do so. Less than a year earlier he’d pledged to give his $32bn fortune to charity via his foundation, Alwaleed Philanthropies, citing Gates as a major influence. He joins two other GCC residents – entrepreneur Sunny Varkey and PNC Menon, the Dubai-based founder of Sobha Group – on the list, in a sign many hope infers a new pattern of strategic, big-ticket giving among the GCC’s super rich.

“The generosity in the Gulf is very, very strong,” says Gates. “But some of it tends to favour the pure charity side. The willingness to be open about what is being done – to encourage others to do it, to share what is going well and what is not – I think there is a trend in that direction, and I hope we’re helping to push that forward.”

This trend matters. By Forbes’ lights, the Middle East is home to 72 of the world’s richest people, worth a combined $174.8bn. Yet few have created the kind of large-scale endowments that go hand-in-hand with bold, long-view philanthropy. If more did, it could go some way towards fuelling the fight against maladies such as poverty, unemployment and disease, which blight many Muslim states. Achieving a measure of economic stability in these countries, says Gates, could work wonders. “There’s no doubt that as countries move up to middle-income level, and as you end extreme poverty, you won’t see this level of instability,” he notes. “It’s a journey – but there’s still decades to go to get there.”

The $2.5bn Lives and Livelihoods Fund launched by BMGF and IDB may be a blueprint for future tie-ups, pairing regional capital with the foundation’s philanthropic expertise. And already, the roots of catalytic giving are beginning to bloom. Last year, the UAE’s Abdullah Al-Ghurair gave more than $1bn – a third of his business empire – to a foundation supporting education in the Arab world. BMGF itself is part of the Shefa Fund, a giving initiative backed by Saudi’s elite, which aids global health projects. The fund, led by businessman Khaled Ahmed Al Juffali and his wife, Olfat, supports the creation of low-cost vaccines and treatments for diseases that impact the very poor. As this form of impact-led investment gathers pace, the returns for the Middle East region – both in social and economic terms – could be gamechanging.

“There is a trend towards more philanthropy, better philanthropy and philanthropists learning from each other,” Gates says. “I’m very happy to be a part of it, and to see it grow.”

Getting to zero

This year, the world may see its last case of polio. Against all odds, a virus that as recently as 1988 blazed its way through 150 countries is teetering on eradication. Just 12 cases have been recorded worldwide so far this year, in remote areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The global campaign to combat polio has been in play since 1998, and BMGF became its lead donor in 2004. Since then, thanks to mass vaccination and surveillance campaigns, the virus has been wiped out in India, with Nigeria also on course to be declared polio-free.

“A victory here wouldn’t only mean that we’d go from 300,000 kids a year being paralysed to zero,” says Gates. “It would also mean our confidence that now we can go after malaria, measles and other diseases would be greatly enhanced.”

The GCC has been key to this battle. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE have all invested in the global eradication effort, with the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi donating $100m to vaccinate children in Pakistan and Afghanistan. At a 2013 summit held in the UAE capital, donors pledged a mammoth $4bn to fund a six-year eradication plan.

“We’re willing to be aggressive on the spending,” says Gates. “And absent a surprise, with a little bit of luck, the last case will be sometime next year.”

Photo credit: Bahr Al-Alum