The future is bright

Bill Gates shares his optimism at UAE event on catalytic philanthropy

A vaccine for HIV, innovation to mitigate the effects of climate change, Artificial Intelligence (AI) to improve teaching, the eradication of malaria and measles — and new medicines to counter obesity and Alzheimer’s. These are just some of the reasons that Bill Gates remains optimistic that, despite current challenges, the world is getting better.

“There are things to be worried about,” he told an audience of philanthropists, policy makers, and academics gathered at New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD). “US political polarisation is certainly scary to me, the Ukraine war, this economic cycle – although it is a cycle, and it will go back…”

But he added: “There's a pipeline of really great things coming… (and) innovation is going faster than ever… It'll be better to be alive 40 years from now than it is today.” 

Gates launched the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation with his (now ex) wife, Melinda, in the year 2000 and in the decades since, it has grown to become one of the world’s leading philanthropic entities making to-date in excess of US$65bn in grant payments.

In parallel to his philanthropic work and through his private office, Gates Ventures, Gates pursues work in a range of areas including climate change and clean energy innovation, research and other healthcare issues, interdisciplinary education, and technology. He is also the founder of Breakthrough Energy, seeking to address climate change by supporting the next generation of entrepreneurs, big thinkers, and clean technologies. 

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Leaders from social development entities, business, academia, and civil society, gathered in Abu Dhabi to discuss how high-impact and patient philanthropy can change the world.

During a wide-ranging discussion with Rima Al Mokarrab, the co-chair of Ideas Abu Dhabi, an initiative of Tamkeen, which organised the half-day summit in association with the Aspen Institute, the Microsoft billionaire hailed longstanding partnerships between his foundation and the UAE government in fighting polio and neglected tropical diseases (NTDs).

Since 2011, the UAE’s president, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, has committed more than $376m to support global polio eradication efforts and has also been a major partnership donor to NTD initiatives such the End Fund and the recently-launched Global Institute for Disease Elimination (GLIDE) in Abu Dhabi.

The fight against polio is reaching the so-called last mile but acknowledging the deleterious impact of the pandemic on vaccine campaigns, Gates said: “If it hadn't been for Covid-19, I think we'd be done by now.” And he lamented that dozens of Yemeni children were paralysed this year due to the spread of the virus, in part due to conflict hampering vaccination campaigns. 

The war in Ukraine had also, he said, lead to several European countries cutting aid budgets to reprioritise defence and energy spending, but he added: “We’re stubborn, we understand what it takes.”

Despite these setbacks, Gates celebrated the rise of environmental surveillance during the pandemic and improved diagnostics. “We're going to use that technique worldwide and be able to see disease outbreaks very rapidly,” he explained. 

And Gates, who had warned about the threat of a pandemic some years before Covid-19 emerged, added that while everyone talked about vaccines, it was just as important to have rapid and accurate diagnostics to stop pathogens from going global in the first place.

Alongside polio, the philanthropist made an impassioned plea for greater global efforts to tackle malnutrition, a cause to which his foundation has recently committed an additional $922m.

"If I had one wand, I'd wave it and get rid of malnutrition - even before HIV and malaria," he said. "Over a third of the children in sub-Saharan Africa never develop their body or their brain. They are an average of three inches shorter and their average IQ is low enough that they can never really learn to read or write."

"It's the greatest loss of human potential," he said. "Even worse than the deaths, which are still about five million a year… the greatest tragedy is these kids who never fully develop."

Sharing his own journey into philanthropy and how he was inspired by his late father, Bill Gates Snr, and international financier Warren Buffet, one of the world’s single largest philanthropic donors, Gates called on the next generation of donors in the room to get engaged in causes they care about.

"Everyone's philanthropic journey is different," he told Al Mokarrab said. "Nobody gives their philanthropy dollars just purely based on logic – it is very much a connection to other humans, and you know it’s driven by caring and so part of the beauty of philanthropy is the variety."

"It'll be better to be alive 40 years from now than it is today."

Bill Gates 

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Making way for the next gen. L to R: Prince Khaled bin Alwaleed bin Talal Al Saud, Dubai-based author Neha Hiranandani, Zimbabwean philanthropist Elizabeth Tanya Masiyiwa, and moderator, Jane Wales, VP Aspen Institute.

The philanthropy forum, which took place in early December, also featured a keynote address from Salama Al Ameemi, the director general of Abu Dhabi’s Authority for Social Contribution—Ma’an, the entity behind the Gulf’s first Social Impact Bond.

Al Ameemi stressed the importance of strong partnerships between the public and private sectors as well as civil society to “help catalyse and accelerate progress at a rate that would not be achievable if we were to work in silos.”

A separate panel, moderated by Jane Wales, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s programme on philanthropy and social innovation, featured Zimbabwean philanthropist and social entrepreneur Elizabeth Tanya Masiyiwa, Dubai-based author Neha Hiranandani, and Saudi Arabia’s Prince Khaled bin Alwaleed bin Talal Al Saud.

“The next generation are making the decision to shift the way in which the world does things.” 

Tanya Masiyiwa, CEO Delta Philanthropies UK

Sharing their views on how young people are reshaping philanthropy, impact investing, and social entrepreneurship in and beyond the MENA region, all the panel members agreed big changes were coming.

“The next generation has created a culture of social awareness, which is now embedded in everything, whether you're thinking about buying decisions or even just the culture of how we live,” explained Tanya Masiyiwa, CEO of Delta Philanthropies UK, and board member of her family’s Higherlife Foundation.

“I think that many of the next generation are making the decision to shift the way in which the world does things and it is forcing corporates to look at how we embed social change and the way that we do business,” she added.

Ideas Abu Dhabi was established in 2017, in association with the Aspen Institute, to be a forum to host global leaders discussing ways to tackle some of the world’s greatest challenges. - PA