Gates’ new future will be people, not bytes

June 25th, 2008 - 9:07 am ICT by IANS  

By Andy Goldberg
San Francisco, June 25 (DPA) The announcement by one of the world’s richest men two years ago that he intended to switch from the corporate arena to the world of charity sounded like a cliche. Now, Bill Gates faces the challenge of making it real. “With success, I have been given great wealth,” Gates said in June 2006. “And with great wealth comes great responsibility to give back to society, to see that those resources are put to work in the best possible way to help those in need.”

That pledge will see Gates, 51, take a hands-on role as co-chairman of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the world’s richest charity, which thanks to the generosity of Gates and his close friend, fellow business tycoon Warren Buffet, currently has a war chest of $37.3 billion dedicated to improving health care and fighting poverty in the developing world.

The foundation is destined to become even richer with both its main benefactors pledging to donate almost their entire fortunes and to require the foundation to spend all its money within 50 years of their deaths.

Currently, the foundation is required by law to make grants of at least $1.5 billion annually, but the plan is to dramatically increase that figure, and plans are already in the works to double the foundation’s staff of 250 employees.

The foundation is split into three units.

The Global Health Programme currently donates some $800 million a year - roughly equal to the annual budget of the UN’s World Health Organization. It plays a leading role in efforts to eradication polio, fight AIDS and spread the use of vaccines and immunizations.

The Global Development Programme helps fight extreme poverty, with grants that support micro-finance loans, agricultural development in Africa and the spread of information technology.

Among the biggest projects of the United States Programme are scholarships for high-achieving minority college students, Internet access in libraries and numerous other educational initiatives.

While there would seem to be little to criticize about a guy who gives $30 billion to charity, the foundation does often come in for criticism.

A report in the Financial Times quotes scientists condemning the grant-making process as “opaque.”

Others say the foundation shirks the responsibility of “saving lives now” through simple actions like boosting vaccines, in favour of early-stage science aimed at developing breakthrough drugs.

Some also criticise the foundation for not taking more concrete steps to improve the lives of the poor, for excluding white students in the US from its billion-dollar scholarship programmes and for working with abortion-rights groups to help combat the spread of AIDS.

There is also a concern that the Gates Foundation will dominate any issue it becomes involved in, deterring other donors who might otherwise have contributed.

Gates, of course, is no stranger to controversy and appears ready to put his intellect and celebrity to bat for the foundation’s causes.

“The new world is more controversial than the old world,” he told Newsweek.

“We do family planning. We fund research on crops, and some people think that you shouldn’t take science to help the poor people. This whole thing about which operating system somebody uses is a pretty silly thing versus issues involving starvation or death.”

Gates is determined to have a major impact on the world’s major problems and has been studying furiously to get familiar with the science behind the issues.

He also brings his clout, vision and business acumen to the table, which could be decisive in pushing forward remedies and cajoling governments who might have different agendas.

“This is good news for the world’s poor,” said Anne Lynam Goddard, chief of staff of CARE, an Atlanta-based nonprofit funded by the Gates Foundation.

She recalls how Bill and Melinda Gates went to speak to ex-prostitutes in Botswana to learn about the spread of AIDS.

“Where others might have shied away from working in that sector, they haven’t,” Goddard said. “They come with no political agenda.”

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