Promoting Technology Adoption – and Prosperity – Through Public-Private Partnerships

by Bill Gates, Chairman, Microsoft Corp.

Reprinted with permission from Wall Street Journal Asia

May 8, 2008

We live in an era of unprecedented progress and prosperity. Today, about 1 billion people around the globe can expect to live long, productive, and comfortable lives made rich by access to incredible amounts of information and new ways to connect with the people they care about.

This is a wonderful accomplishment, and 1 billion is a very large number. But it is a relatively small fraction of the world’s 6.6 billion people. In fact, more than 5 billion people still lack access to the full range of economic and social opportunities that so many of us take for granted.

One of the most important determinants of whether you are part of the 1 billion or the 5 billion is access to the benefits of technology. Those of us with access to the tools of the digital information revolution—PCs, the Internet, productivity software, email—can be full participants in the global knowledge economy. Those without access face difficult hurdles as they strive to gain skills and knowledge, access decent medical care, and transform their ideas into competitive businesses.

How important is access to information technology? A World Bank report released earlier this year found a very high correlation between the rate of technology progress and income growth. According to that report, “Technological progress [distinguishes] fast-growing developing economies and slow growing ones. It also distinguishes economies that have made great strides in reducing poverty and those that have been less successful.”

Today, thousands of governmental and nongovernmental organizations worldwide are trying to provide underserved communities with access to affordable, relevant technology that can play a role in driving sustainable economic growth and development. Their efforts are having a significant positive impact for millions of people.

At Microsoft, we share the belief that information technology can have a dramatic positive effect on people’s lives. We also believe that one of the best ways to accelerate the speed of technology adoption is through close partnerships between the public sector and the private sector.

Public-private partnerships make it possible to multiply the impact that a single organization or company could hope to achieve working alone. These partnerships combine public sector organizations’ knowledge of local communities with private companies’ technical expertise and implementation experience. As a result, public-private partnerships can develop and deploy relevant and effective information technology solutions that solve specific challenges with much greater speed.

The notion that businesses have a responsibility to promote the public good by supporting the work of nonprofit and governmental organizations is not a new one, of course. The late 1940s and early 1950s saw companies such as Ford, Western Electric, and Philip Morris form foundations to manage corporate giving.

But much of this activity centered exclusively on financial support. Today’s approach to public-private partnerships where the value of corporate involvement lies as much in expertise as it does in monetary support is relatively new, and grows in part out of efforts by a number of United Nations agencies in the late 1990s to look for new ways to work with corporations to help address major global health issues.

The rise of what some people have called “strategic corporate philanthropy” based on public-private partnerships that seek to address areas where social needs overlap with both corporate expertise and business interests is an important step forward. When a company like Microsoft is in a position to provide not just money, but also the expertise and experience to help an organization use technology to achieve its goals more quickly and more effectively, it can speed the pace and scale of progress.

A great example is a program run by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to create a set of global technology competency standards for teachers. The goal is to ensure that teachers have the training and materials to provide students with the technology skills they will need to participate in the global knowledge economy. The program was created with the involvement of three major corporations: Microsoft, Intel, and Cisco. All three companies are participating because of a shared belief that a technically literate workforce is an essential ingredient for sustainable economic growth.

Across Asia, public-private partnerships are playing an important role in creating new economic opportunities. In South Korea, the Ministry of Information and Communication has worked in close partnership with the private sector for nearly 15 years to build a national technology industry. Today, South Korea is a global leader in information and communications technologies and it is a model for how collaboration between the public and private sectors can serve as the catalyst for creating a vibrant technology industry that provides the foundation for new jobs and significant economic growth.

The ultimate goal is to support the development of local economies that have the infrastructure and skilled work force needed to create sustainable growth. My hope is that this will help increase the number of people who have the tools and knowledge to participate in the digital revolution from 1 billion to 2 billion and beyond. As this happens and more people join the global knowledge economy, they will spur further innovations that address difficult issues faced by so many people around the world. This, more than anything, will be the key to creating a world where everyone can expect to lead long, healthy, productive, and fulfilling lives.