Few figures have been quite as influential on the world stage as Bill Gates. Having helped to transform the world of technology, he has moved on to do the same for global philanthropy: not only does his foundation dispense eye-boggling sums of money each year to support global medical, educational and gender causes, but Mr Gates and his wife Melinda Gates have emerged as potent spokespeople for development issues.
But where does he see the development business heading now? What should the UN’s priorities be as it meets next week to review progress on its Sustainable Development Goals for 2030? And what role can business and finance play in this sphere?
Moral Money recently sat down with Gates in Seattle, ahead of today’s release of the Gates Foundation’s annual “Goalkeepers” report, which measures progress towards the UN’s SDGs.
Our interview has since been overshadowed by revelations that Gates has indirectly become caught up in the scandal around Jeffrey Epstein — a matter which raises big questions about the nature of modern fundraising and the global elite. These are challenging, not only for the Gates Foundation, and we address some of them below.
However, what Gates has to say about global development is striking now that the UN is embarking on its biggest ever initiative to corral the business and financial elite in the cause.
The biggest takeaway from the Goalkeepers report is how much work is still to be done. “If you benchmark the rate of progress against the goals the world has set . . . we’re nowhere near improving fast enough to reach those goals,” Gates told us.
The key to all of this, in his eyes, is reducing inequality.
But his view of inequality is more big picture than most political debates over wealth redistribution. “The big focus here is that we think that children shouldn’t die before the age of five and that people should have a chance to get a good education. So, we’re looking at pretty basic things around health, nutrition and education.”
Despite the harrowing issue of child mortality, Gates was still upbeat. That is because he sees things improving: “It’s actually pretty stunning, at both the country and the district level, the progress is almost everywhere. [There are] very, very few [examples], even at the district level, where you’ve gone backwards on these things.”
The rate of children dying before the age of five is dropping, for example. So is the neonatal death rate (children who die before reaching 28 days of age). However the former category is improving much faster than the latter, which does not augur well. “Almost half of all child deaths now occur in the first 28 days of life. Future progress on child survival requires a renewed focus on newborn health,” the report states.
Gates aims to use the statistics to keep focus on the task at hand. “Most of the year, rich countries focus on rich countries and the fact that 5m children die, it’s kind of this chronic thing that . . . rarely gets touched on,” he said: “This week, this one week, is an opportunity to say, hey, do we care about other humans?”
The Goalkeepers report has a wealth of examples of areas where the world is improving. For example, it features a dispatch from a farmer in Ethiopia, explaining how new farming techniques have helped her cope with drought conditions, which occur more frequently as a result of climate change. But where it really shines is in its data.
The final section of the report has a great series of charts showing where the world is and where we are headed on various goals. The charts also show where we could be if we improve and where we could be if we backslide.
Take the chart above on malaria, which has been a primary focus of the Gates Foundation for years. As you can see, things are getting better, and the target is within reach, but the key to staying on track is for the world to continue prioritising efforts to fight the disease.
“If people don’t care about global co-operation and other countries, that will cut into the progress that we’re showing in the Goalkeepers report,” Gates said. “Some of these things could actually slow the progress down and, in an extreme case, where you let climate change go unchecked, you let malaria develop resistance to the current drugs . . . you could actually have things get worse.”
In the case of malaria, it can be difficult to get the money needed to keep up the fight. The UN is looking to harness private markets to achieve the SDGs, but that can be a tricky proposition when there isn’t money to be made on the issue.
“You cannot expect pharma, just out of the goodness of its heart or whatever, to fund all the malaria work. The malaria work will primarily have to be funded by philanthropy and governments because it’s billions of dollars, and once you get that product there is no significant profit potential to go with that,” Gates said.
The elephant in the room
Two days after we sat down with Gates to discuss the Goalkeepers report, The New Yorker magazine reported that the billionaire had donated $2m to the MIT Media Lab at the behest of convicted paedophile Jeffery Epstein.
Gates’ representatives declined multiple requests for a follow up interview with the FT but provided a statement rebutting the suggestion of any further connection between the two men.
“Epstein was introduced to Bill Gates as someone who was interested in helping grow philanthropy. Although Epstein pursued Gates aggressively, any account of a business partnership or personal relationship between the two is simply not true. And any claim that Epstein controlled any programmatic or personal grantmaking for Bill Gates is completely false,” the statement said.
However, the irony that Gates has chosen to focus on improving the lives of women and girls while standing accused of associating with Epstein is inescapable. And the issue raises some major questions about the nature of modern philanthropy.
The practice of “reputation laundering”, where the ultra-wealthy seek to cleanse their public image by donating to pet causes, is not new. Former US president Theodore Roosevelt famously said: “No amount of charities in spending such fortunes can compensate in any way for the misconduct in acquiring them.”
The FT’s Rachel Spence provides a great look at fights which several museum boards are presently embroiled over this issue.
There may be no better example of reputation laundering — or “immoral money” — than Epstein, who was convicted in 2008 of soliciting a minor for prostitution and required to register as a sex offender. Despite his horrific crimes, Epstein was able to burnish his public image and maintain access to the global elite by donating vast sums of money to institutions such as the MIT Media Lab, as outlined by The New York Times.
As we put it to Gates, there are also obvious issues with someone with his extreme wealth preaching about fixing inequality. No matter how much good they may do, the idea that a wealthy individual can unilaterally seek to set the public agenda, solely because they have the financial means to do so, appears anti-democratic by nature.
His response was to point out how little money governments allocate to these issues. “In the most extreme case, in the case of Norway, they spend 1.1 per cent of [gross domestic product] on aid. In the case of the UK, 0.7 per cent. In the case of the US, 0.2 per cent,” he said.
Gates conceded that more progressive taxes would help. “They’re hard to do right but I’ve always believed in a very high level for the estate tax. I’m the primary funder promoting that in the country where I’m a citizen,” he noted. But he made no apologies for how he has directed his fortune.
“Having somebody fund [the fight against] malaria — a million kids were dying when we got started — I don’t think that’s such a bad thing.”