Wednesday, January 14, 2009
The Financial Times interviewed Bill Gates about criticisms that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has received. Gates has been supporting his Foundation for a decade, backing projects which include internet development, education reform and global health. The Foundation’s endowment stood at $35 billion ahead of the downturn last fall.
As Bill Gates takes on a more active role in its leadership, the Foundation’s staff, beneficiaries and observers are asking how the Foundation will evolve, and whether it can make good on its optimistic objectives to foster equality of opportunity around the world. Given the disproportionate clout of Gates’ high profile and the sheer size of giving, his particular, corporate-inspired approach has an impact on the wider non-profit world, sparking both praise and criticism. "His message that wealthy people should give, and do so in their lifetime, is good," says Pablo Eisenberg, a veteran commentator on philanthropy. "But he is totally unaccountable."
Bill Gates' own growing involvement with the Foundation seems likely to reinforce it in his own image. With nearly 700 employees today, it has become far more complex and, according to a recent poll of organizations receiving grants, more bureaucratic, with insufficient clarity about its priorities. In response, Gates has already strengthened management drawn from the for-profit world and he stresses that more decision-making on grants has been delegated, with his and his wife's say-so only formally required on sums above $50 million. There is also greater back-and-forth with employees.
Gates bristles at critics' suggestions that the Foundation - which has only him, his wife and Warren Buffett as trustees - should broaden the number and diversity of those who set strategy. He has appointed outside experts to specialist advisory boards for each of its main activities, but sees no need for greater change at the top. He seems surprised at suggestions the Foundation could do more to improve transparency, pointing out that it is posting ever more information on its website, from details of grants provided to the (still limited details of) lessons learned from those that failed and succeeded alike.
He is defiant on one more issue. Many argue that his passion for technology means he remains too focused on "magic bullet" technical fixes, such as developing new drugs and vaccines. Others suggest that most will remain useless without fresh effort to work out how to deliver them to the world's poorest and less accessible regions. Gates replies: "We look at problems and see where things like vaccines can solve those problems. We don't apologize that that was a thing that no aid group thought of themselves in any significant ways, driving new drug discovery for, say, a disease that kills a million people a year."
Gates concedes that the Foundation can play a catalytic role concerning delivery, but maintains that the provision of healthcare services is primarily the responsibility of developing world countries and government donors with far greater resources than his. At a time when the downturn is squeezing governments and philanthropists alike, he argues for continued public support for global health in the U.S., pledging that his Foundation will maintain its giving in spite of the downturn.
So far, the scientific research the Foundation has supported to discover HIV vaccines and microbicides has reported more setbacks than successes. Undaunted, Bill Gates point out that most of these issues require 15 to 20-year projects. "You only get the benefit,” he says, “if you really stay the course."