Bill Gates at the 92nd Street Y
November 13, 2009
I had a chance to see Bill Gates being interviewed by Matthew Bishop, New York bureau chief for The Economist and co-author of Philanthrocapitalism: How the Rich Can Save the World (read our interview with him here), the other night at the 92nd Street Y here in New York.
Security was surprisingly light, and the Y's wood-paneled concert hall offered a suitably dignified setting for the well-attended event, though both men walked on stage tieless and in good humor. Bishop, who devotes a whole chapter to Gates and the Gates Foundation in his book, almost immediately referenced the February TED talk at which Gates, to illustrate a point, released a swarm of mosquitoes into the audience. Then Bishop, to much laughter, pulled out a can of insect repellent and set it down on the table between them. (You can see the aerosol can in the picture above.)
From there, the conversation moved briskly. At one point, Gates, a man clearly comfortable in his own skin and with his own wealth, dismissed Bishop's suggestion that the global financial crisis had been caused by "the rich" and rejected the notion that he -- or any person of wealth -- should view philanthropy as a path to redemption.
Other takeaways from the evening:
- It's possible but unlikely malaria will be eliminated by 2025; resistance and the evolving nature of the pathogen makes that difficult. At the same time, much is being done (bed net campaigns, etc.) to control the disease and limit its toll, in terms of deaths and lost productivity, in the developing world, and Gates expects that to continue.
- Polio, now down to about 2,000-3,000 cases a year (most of them in Nigeria, India, and a few other places), is likely to be the second disease (after smallpox) to be eradicated from human populations. It is difficult, and expensive, to eliminate those last few cases, but it will happen.
- An effective vaccine for AIDS will probably be the most expensive vaccine ever developed, and we're unlikely to see one in the next ten years, though maybe in twenty. But Gates is confident one will be developed in his lifetime.
- Gates has no regrets about the foundation's focus on specific diseases as opposed to taking a more "holistic" approach to public health problems. As he told Bishop, in the developing world the first thirty days of life are where you lose the greatest number of children, and the diseases the foundation is targeting are responsible for causing many of those deaths. As you reduce the number of childhood deaths -- down from 12.5 million in 1990 to under 9 million today -- parents respond by having fewer children and spending more money on educating the children they do have. Lower birthrates and a better educated populace leads to more opportunity and economic growth, which feeds back into public health initiatives. So, Gates added, in a sense you could say our approach is holistic, in that everything we do is related.
- Unlike governments, which change on a regular basis, or business, which tends to focus on the profit expectations of shareholders, foundations are well-suited to funding risky research and unproven approaches because they can stay the course over the many years and even decades it takes to achieve big, hairy, audacious goals (my phrase). And because of our assets and scale, said Gates, we have to tackle big problems.
- It's easy to criticize the lack of clear, understandable metrics in social change work, but at the end of the day the field (i.e., foundations and their nonprofit partners) is pretty good at identifying and moving into areas where traditional market signals don't exist or have failed.
- Entrepeneurship is inherent in human nature and will flourish when structural impediments -- corruption, lack of infrastructure and/or rule of law -- are removed. In the U.S., there are immense opportunities emerging for entrepreneurs in science-related fields.
Gates's final word of advice to other philanthropists in the audience (and there were more than a few there, including a couple of billionaire hedge fund types) was direct and to the point: Pick something you love and don't spread yourself too thin.
Come to think of it, good advice for anyone.
(Photo credit: Joyce Culver for the 92nd Street Y)
-- Mitch Nauffts