Bill Gates: Presentation of James C. Morgan Global Humanitarian Award

Remarks by Bill Gates, Chairman, Microsoft Corporation
Presentation of James C. Morgan Global Humanitarian Award
Tech Museum of Innovation
San Jose, California
November 15, 2006

BILL GATES: Well, good evening. I want to thank Michael Splinter for that introduction, and to congratulate Peter Friess on his leadership of the Tech. Microsoft has enjoyed a long relationship with this museum, and we look forward to continuing our work with you to inspire innovators of all ages.

I also want to thank Steve Young for emceeing this evening. Steve is a lot of things I’m not. (Laughter.) He’s a great athlete, he’s a college graduate – (laughter, applause) – and he’s never been in trouble with the government – (laughter) – whereas I’ve had a few speeding tickets. (Laughter.)

I come here tonight wearing two hats, first as the chairman of Microsoft, and second as the co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. And so, while I see a room full of great customers, great competitors and important partners, tonight I want to talk to you as leaders to discuss how we can bring technology to bear in reducing inequality and the suffering it causes.

It’s a great honor to receive this award, particularly because I didn’t expect to be standing here at this stage of my life. I always thought philanthropy was something I would get involved in after I retired, when I was much older. However, as Microsoft became increasingly successful, I realized that the amount of society’s resources that I would have as I got older was steadily increasing.

And one of the people who helped me start to think about how to use this in the best way was Warren Buffett. He talked to me about how he didn’t think it was a good idea to give large wealth to children, and I agreed with him, but, of course, my children weren’t old enough to understand and argue against that. (Laughter.)

I also thought that doing philanthropy at the same time as being involved in running the company would make me a little schizophrenic. After all, during the day you make money, you increase the value, and then you go home and you start giving it away, and maybe you’d get confused about which thing you were doing – (laughter) – at which time; you know, what is the metric, what are you trying to achieve?

But some things happened that changed that. Certainly during my work there’s been a number of philanthropic things that have fit in and have been consistent with the business. Working with the United Way is a great example. I learned about that when I was young, with my mother’s activity, who came home and talked about the campaigns that she was running and the tradeoffs in terms of how the money was being given to different organizations. We talked about the tension between local social services and things like disease research. We talked about how much of our allowances we should be giving to the church, to the Salvation Army. And, you know, it really got us thinking about the impact of giving.

Microsoft and the Tradition of Philanthropy

From the very beginning when Microsoft was young, we used our United Way campaign as a way of drawing people together to get people to see outside of our world and to see the entire community and the needs that were there, and make it really part of our culture.

Today, it’s really a fantastic thing. We’ve added recently in the last few years a tool that helps people look for volunteer opportunities, and they can track what’s going on and they can request matching funds. So in addition last year to direct gifts, including matching of more than $68 million, our employees gave over 100,000 hours of their own time. And I think that’s really had a payback, although in an indirect way. I’d encourage all of you to look at doing this, if not only for the benefits to the community but also to your business. Many of the people who have been involved in this that we’ve been supporting have gone on to take on major roles in the boards and strategies of these charitable organizations, and really had a great learning experience that’s made them better employees. So there’s a real win-win benefit to this kind of involvement.

So I really thought of myself as focused on just the things that would help the business, and I thought, geez, that’s really where I’m going to spend my time, a lot to be done there. But then one day my wife Melinda and I were reading about millions of children dying from diseases in poor countries that were eliminated in this country. They even included a disease I’d never heard of, rotavirus, and it said it was killing half a million kids each year. I thought that can’t be right. You know, I read the news all the time, I read about the plane crashes and things; where is the news about these half-million kids dying? It should be on the front page; that would be stunning. So I thought it might be wrong, but it wasn’t.

And understanding that, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that in our world some lives are seen as worth saving, but others are not. And that really gave us the impetus not only to start earlier but to have that be the central priority of our giving.

The Worth of Every Human Life

So this principle that every human life has equal worth sort of guides us to look at the most impactful ways we can reduce suffering that comes as a result of inequality. That really means translated into education, economic opportunity, and all the different activities around global health.

And so we want the world to really allocate its resources knowing that the death of a child in a poor country is every bit as tragic as a child in a rich country, and that really independent of national boundaries we all have a responsibility to take all these breakthroughs, all this wonderful technology and make sure that it benefits everyone, not just the 3 billion that are the richer, leaving out the other 3 billion.

Now, public health is an amazing thing. It’s not just about saving lives. As you improve health, population growth goes down, so every other problem you’re dealing with, education, roads, become far easier. As you improve health, literacy goes up dramatically, and all of the things that drive a stable, prosperous society come together. Health is the driving factor for those things.

And now technology is at the center of how we can go from where we are in health to where we want to be. Discovery, development, delivery: All of those things take technology. So it fits the theme that we have this evening, technology benefiting humanity.

Despite Best Intentions…

Of course, it’s worth remembering that sometimes despite our best intentions just supplying technology to problems doesn’t make a big difference. I saw this personally back in 1997 when I went to Johannesburg, South Africa, and as part of being over there to meet with our customers and business partners I went out to dedicate a community center in Soweto, which, of course, is a township outside there that sprung up to house black South Africans. And Soweto, of course, is one of the poorest parts of the country, and a real drastic contrast to the city that’s next door.

Microsoft had given a computer to this community center, and so when I was out there they wanted to show me their appreciation. And by trying to do that, in the end they unintentionally showed me the opposite. When we arrived, we saw that the community center didn’t have power itself, so they’d run this huge extension cord, way over 200 yards, to this diesel generator that they had turned on and it was running and very noisy. And sure enough, the computer was up and running.

But looking at this setup you could tell that the minute the press left and I left, the generator would get moved to some more urgent task, and the computer would be largely irrelevant to the people who used the community center, so they’d go back to worrying about the very basic challenges they face in their lives that that was not going to solve.

So even though PCs and technology can often be part of a solution, we need to be careful to always think about putting technology in the service of humanity. And so it’s often not just taking what we do in the rich world and subsidizing its use in the developing world. Doing that kind of elevates technology as though it’s the end goal, whereas we’re just trying to meet human needs. So it’s not starting in the right place.

Meeting Human Needs

The spirit of the awards here fit into that idea very much; it’s new technology, it’s different approaches that fit the needs of the developing countries, cheaper, more effective type of technologies.

So meeting human needs, of course, is the starting point for all philanthropy. In a world with so many needs and suffering it’s never going to be hard to find things to give to. The challenge is to do the most you can with your time and money, to take the advances and make sure they get applied to these big needs.

And so effectiveness is key. We can’t do everything we want, so how can we make the most of what we have?

Well, philanthropic dollars have the most chance to make a big impact where you find something that’s been missed, and you find that you can gather together unique expertise and a unique approach.

You know, for us it’s something like malaria. Malaria has been known for a long time. In 1902, in 1907, Nobel Prizes were given for advances in understanding the malaria parasite and how it was transmitted. But here we are a hundred years later and malaria is setting new records, infecting over 400 million people every year, and killing over a million people every year. That’s a number that’s increasing every year, and every day it’s over 2,000 African children.

And in 1999 we gave $50 million to malaria research, and I was told that we had just doubled the amount of private money going on that disease. And I thought, that’s the worst thing I’ve ever heard, that just can’t be right; when you look at the other things that people give to, why wouldn’t this have risen to the top? Is it because people thought the science was too difficult? Absolutely not. It’s because it became something that nobody worked on.

Technology is often driven to be developed by market forces when there’s a buyer, and here there was no market for discoveries in fighting malaria, no institution that was charged with filling that vacuum, so the work simply wasn’t done.

And this would extend to tuberculosis, yellow fever, AIDS vaccine, acute diarrheal illnesses, respiratory illnesses; you know, millions of children die from these things every year, and yet the advances we have in biology have not been applied because rich countries don’t have these diseases.

The private sector really isn’t involved in developing vaccines and medicines for these diseases because the developing countries can’t buy them. And so if left to themselves, these market forces create a world, which is the situation today, where over 90 percent of the money spent on health research is spent on those who are the healthiest. An example of that is the billion a year spent on combating baldness. That’s great for some people, but perhaps it should get behind malaria in terms of its priority ranking. (Applause.)

When Market Forces Are Missing

So philanthropy can step in where market forces are not there, and galvanize the actors. It can get the people who have the expertise and draw them in. It can use awards, it can use novel arrangements with private companies, it can partner with the universities and drive technological innovation towards the challenges that are truly life and death for the world at large.

You know, when we talked about developing countries we’re talking about the majority of mankind living in these tough conditions. This often means taking risks that businesses wouldn’t normally do or that governments are structured to take. It means coming up with distribution approaches. It means creating new technologies. And every year the platform of science that we have to do this on gets better.

And so technology really is a central element in the focus of our foundation. This is because of partly I think technology is going to help us because it will reduce the gap where we don’t see what’s going on.

Right now we don’t make eye contact with these people who are suffering from these conditions. If you took the world and you randomly resorted it so that rich people on average would live next to people in developing world conditions, you’d walk down your block and say, hmm, those people are starving; did you meet that mother over there, her child just died; do you see that guy suffering from malaria, he can’t go to work or do anything because of that. And, of course, basic human instinct would kick in, we would change these priorities. And yet because it’s not visible, that doesn’t happen.

Now, technology can help us bridge some of that gap. It in a sense can let us see how others are living and we can know about these situations of groups of people even if they live half way around the world. So that ought to help us raise awareness. And in the last years I think we have seen a start on that in terms of some of these causes getting additional coverage.

Just as technology allows us to see the world inequities, technology fortunately can help us to address them, because we don’t just want to show them to people, we want to galvanize these inventions.

Tech Museum Awards Laureates

This morning I had a great opportunity to meet with several of these laureates, technology laureates, and I was very impressed. They’re doing some phenomenal things, and I really want to acknowledge their work. (Applause.)

Whether it’s using the seed of an indigenous plant to filter pollutants from the water supply in Nigeria, or inventing a CD4 cell counter to tell us quickly and with less training what’s going on with somebody’s HIV disease, or using GPS to map concentrations of mosquitoes that carry Dengue fever; instead of taking existing technology and trying to just use them against problems, these laureates looked at the problems and found ways that technology could be brought to bear. They’re showing that technology doesn’t have to be complicated or even expensive; in fact, that’s the beauty of technology is that it can be simple, that is the best technology.

In most cases we’re talking about delivering these things in places where the climate, the heat, the lack of electricity, the lack of skilled workers, the locations and transportation modes make it so that if the technology breaks down, no one will know how to repair it or be able to afford to replace it.

So while the science and engineering that led to these innovations can be very complex, the reality on the ground is that it’s got to be very straightforward, and that requires a lot of genius to get to that. These laureates have shown that, and it’s one of the guiding principles for our foundation.

Changing Our Sense of What Technology Looks Like

So it changes your sense of what technology looks like. A great technology can be the sticker that tells somebody when a vaccine has been compromised by heat and is no longer effective. This exists, and so these heat-sensitive stickers prevent millions of doses of good vaccines from being discarded, and millions of doses of spoiled vaccine from being administered futilely.

Technology can also look like a debit card. In Malawi, women have difficulty opening their own bank accounts, including many that are illiterate and can’t sign their own name. But meanwhile social custom allows the in-laws to take possession of a wife’s assets if her husband dies, and that happens a lot, of course, when you have a lot of AIDS mortality.

So one of our grantees has a debit card with a fingerprint reader, and with a card the fingerprint is used instead of the signature, and by helping the women keep the account accessible only to her, it protects her from financial ruin if her husband’s family is trying to get those assets. We’ve heard that women are doing a great job letting newlyweds know about this, because it’s one of the most empowering things that they can own.

Now, in areas where there’s no infrastructure for banking, and the population isn’t dense enough to support branches, we have grantees using satellite technology that can reach out and let people borrow money and get insurance and save their money.

Technology can also look like a new seeds, modified to produce higher productivity, safer and more nutritious cassava plant. Cassava is a staple food in parts of Africa and South America. It’s cheap and abundant and rich in starch and calcium, but it also has toxins, including a precursor of cyanide. And so people who depend on cassava are at risk of poisoning or under-nutrition, and seed technology can make this a safer and a better food.

So good seeds are just one component of technology applied to improving agriculture, and agriculture is very important, you’ve got to use that as a starting point for the rural population.

Farmers also need cheap fertilizer, simple irrigation techniques, and access to good information about crop prices and other market factors.

Without a well functioning system to both increase production and help farmers sell what they produce, even the best technologies can’t do much to reduce agricultural poverty. We’re working on overcoming these challenges as well in the hopes that even though it’s not the seed but it’s the human improvement that comes out of this.

Technology, of course, can look like a water treatment unit, one that uses ultraviolet light to kill water-borne bacteria, viruses and parasites like cryptosporidium, sources of some of these diarrheal diseases that kill millions of children. The UV Disinfection Unit is part of a system that’s specifically designed to be used in rural areas. If electricity is unreliable, it can run intermittently and store up the water.

And so today our foundation is supporting a venture that uses this technology to provide safe drinking water for less than a penny per person a day. This is a great example because the inventor of this technology was recognized at this dinner back in 2004 as a Health Award laureate.

Some of these technologies have been deployed and others are on their way to deployment, and that these technologies have the potential to save or improve many, many lives.

Business, Government as Partners

Now, we have to make sure that these get out and reach the people who need them the most. No foundation alone can solve all of this. We need businesses and governments as an essential set of partners in this equation, and that means we need to get these issues politically on the agenda, we need to tap into market forces to get business and expertise involved here. It means we all need to embrace a broader definition of responsibility and a willingness to look at the failure of collective action and see how we can change that.

Looking at the scale of these problems, they are very, very large, and that’s why I highlight government as a key element. Our foundation, even after Warren Buffett’s incredible gift, is still only 1 percent of giving in America, and if we applied all of it towards education, we could only educate half the children in this state for one year. If it was all spent on HIV and AIDS in developing countries, then it would only close the funding gap for a couple of years.

Unleashing Potential for Change

But as soon as we really broadly say not only won’t we accept these diseases in our country in our neighborhood, but rather we won’t accept them in our world, then we start the wheels of collective action turning. We start by giving our governments permission to spend more on these challenges. And that will unleash the potential for sweeping change.

Philanthropy alone won’t get us all the distance we want to go, but philanthropy is an essential element to catalyze change and drive innovation. It’s where we see what’s possible. It’s where we do the pilots, take the risks. It’s where we get individual institutions and governments to see what can be done and what we need to do.

Our foundation has learned a lot since we began our work. One thing I hope more people learn is that giving and giving with a lot of thinking and meeting smart people, thinking through these problems can be immensely fun. It’s a lot like running a great, successful, company, and it draws on some of those same skills. It’s an incredible privilege, and, of course, there will be mistakes, and so it’s often very humbling.

I hope you’ll all look to things like matching giving at your companies or your personal philanthropy and set very, very ambitious goals.

So these advances are going to allow us to make the world smaller, allow us to see the suffering, but also the ability to treat it. Advances in technologies can also help us deliver these things, so we don’t just invent them, we make sure they get out there.

Ultimately, it really comes down to all of us setting examples. All of us are very blessed and we enjoy what the world has given us, and it also has given us the opportunity to do the important work of reducing inequities. I can’t think of anything that’s worth more or our time and effort.

So I’m very pleased to share this evening with tonight’s laureates, I’m honored to share this award with its past recipients, and I’m very excited about the work ahead.

Thank you. (Applause.)

Related Posts