Bill Gates told an audience of students, professors, administrators and special guests that he plans to give away almost all of his vast fortune, largely to the cause of global health, during the course of his lifetime. With an estimated worth of more than $40 billion, according to Forbes, the project will be no small feat for Gates.
Having already endowed the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation with $24 billion to address global health issues, Gates said that eventually his entire fortune will be put towards the cause except for "a few percent left for the kids." Gates made the statement and spoke in great detail about his efforts for global health while taping an interview for a one-hour NOW with Bill Moyers Special Edition, "Health, Wealth and Bill Gates," to air on Friday, May 9, at 9:00 p.m. in New York (check local listings). The event was hosted by the Mailman School of Public Health and was taped in the World Room at the Graduate School of Journalism.
So what has compelled the richest man in the world to channel his resources so heavily into one interest? Gates believes that the "equality of opportunity" in which Americans take such pride needs to extend to other nations around the world. Improving the health of populations, he says, has proven to be an essential method in helping poor countries prosper.
"National borders allow inequalities," said Gates. "We all need to take a more global view, rather than just saying 'my country is doing well.' We have to step up to these health issues, knowing how few resources are going into them."
Gates, the chairman and chief software architect for the Microsoft Corporation, revealed that his interest in philanthropy comes in part from his parents, who both set an example for him as a child. His father, William H. Gates, was the head of the local Planned Parenthood, and his mother, Mary, volunteered for the United Way. As he amassed his fortune, Gates knew he would eventually want to give back as well, but didn't expect to devote himself whole-heartedly to one project until he was about 60.
However, Gates, 47, began to question his ability to wait that long.
"It seemed there was a real time urgency," Gates said. "I started to think, 'How many lives could I save before then?'"
As early as 1994, the Gateses narrowed their focus of charitable giving to causes addressing global health issues, education, libraries and community service organizations in the Pacific Northwest. In January 2000, two existing organizations, the Gates Learning Foundation and the William H. Gates Foundation, were merged to form the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a new enterprise devoted to "improving people's lives by sharing advances in health and learning with the global community." The Seattle-based charity is being co-chaired by Gates' father and Patty Stonesifer, the foundation president.
Gates says a lack of visibility is preventing people from realizing the crisis occurring in so many countries around the globe. Children are dying of diseases that have been mostly eliminated in Western countries and could be stopped with inexpensive vaccines. A plane crash in any part of the world, Gates noted, will get more attention than the fact that everyday thousands of children die of preventable diseases.
A "tragic misallocation of resources" is also to blame for the poor state of health in many countries, said Gates. He called the neglect of certain populations a "failure of capitalism," noting that while free-enterprise does serve as a "wonderful motivation" for people, on a global scale, it has let many others down. AIDS is spreading rapidly, while diseases like malaria and polio still persist as well. Gates believes money needs to be spent to stem the current tides.
"Wealth is a toll," said Gates, adding "how we deal with the AIDS epidemic is a reflection of how we'll be judged as a society."
Needing to formulate an educated approach to the problems, Gates said he became a student of global health, trying to obtain as much information as possible. His staff would give him strange looks, he joked, when they started finding copies of world reports on morbidity and mortality on his desk. When a colleague recommended he study a particular field of health treatment, Gates responded by reading 17 books on the topic. In fact, Gates says that on a typical vacation, world health books still account for about half his reading.
"I knew I'd have to learn quite a bit," said Gates, noting, "The statistics are mind-blowing."
Studying the early philanthropic work of John D. Rockefeller, Gates said he found that Rockefeller was among the first to employ a truly global method, concentrating on minority education and disease prevention. Gates admits, to his surprise, that he has followed in Rockefeller's footsteps in some ways and hopes to "set an example that philanthropy can be fun."
Among those in attendance for the taping were President Lee C. Bollinger; Allan Rosenfield, dean of the Mailman School of Public Health; Warren and Susie Buffett; Thomas Murphy, former CEO of ABC/Cap Cities and current chairman of the board of Save the Children; and Pat Mitchell, president and CEO of PBS. Rosenfield began the program by introducing a short film documenting the needs of populations in the developing world. After the taping, Rosenfield and Bollinger co-hosted a reception for Bill and Melinda Gates in Low Library's Faculty Room.
Both Bill and Melinda Gates spent a good deal of time at the reception interacting informally with students and other guests. Prior to the taping the couple met with 12 Mailman School students to discuss the students' studies, careers, and thoughts on today's most pressing global health challenges.