On 4 February 2009, he let loose a swarm of mosquitoes at the TED 2009 technology, entertainment and design conference in California to highlight the dangers of malaria.
“Malaria is spread by mosquitoes,” he reminded his audience of leading scientists, designers, researchers and entrepreneurs. Turning to an upturned jar on stage, he announced: “I brought some. Here…I’ll let them roam around. There is no reason only poor people should be infected.”
Luckily, the mosquitoes were not carrying the disease. But it had the intended effect. Wired editor Chris Anderson, curator of the show, suggested a headline: “Gates releases more bugs into the world”.
Watch Bill Gates’s mosquito moment:
Watch the full 20-minute video of Bill Gates at TED 2009
As stunts go, this one was pretty mild and harmless. There are many shocking ways in which the harsh daily realities of the world’s poor can be brought into gatherings of the rich and famous. They could be served glasses of the contaminated, sludgy (and often smelly) water that tens of millions drink everyday. Or all the toilets could be locked up and the keys thrown away – for good. Or electricity supply could be cut off, or frequent ‘black-outs’ or ‘brown-outs’ could be staged. You get the idea…
Of course, few event organisers would dare try any of these, if only for health and safety considerations. Reminds me of a rare exception: when he was director of information with the UN’s population agency (UNFPA), journalist-turned-UN official Tarzie Vittachi once hosted delegates of a high level meeting to lunch which consisted soley of a bread roll and a glass water. He told his guests: the meal was better more than what most poor people in the global South on any given day.Meanwhile, billions of poor and needy – and not just those in the majority world – are glad that Bill Gates caught the ‘development bug’ and has switched his formidable creative energies (not to mention his billions) to address their survival issues. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation – which carefully manages the giving away of Gates wealth – operates on the belief that all lives have equal value. “We think all people deserve the chance to have healthy, productive lives”.
They have set priorities such as improving health and reducing extreme poverty in the developing world, and improving high school education in the United States.
The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently described it as a paradox: “In these brutal economic times, one of the leading advocates for the world’s poorest people is one of the richest.”
He noted: “Mr. Gates ended his full-time presence at Microsoft last July and since then has thrown himself into work at his foundation. He is now trying to do to malaria, AIDS, polio and lethal childhood diarrhea what he did to Netscape, and he just may succeed.”
In his TED talk, Bill Gates addressed two questions that occupy much of his time these days: How do we stop Malaria? How do you make a teacher great?He said: “The market does not drive scientists, thinkers, or governments to do the right things. Only by paying attention and making people care can we make as much progress as we need to.”
He called for greater distribution of insect nets and other protective gear, and revealed that an anti-malaria vaccine funded by his foundation and currently in development would enter a more advanced testing phase in the coming months.
“I am an optimist; I think any tough problem can be solved,” he said. That’s the geek in him talking: marshall all information, analyse problems, respond strategically — and keep at it.
A friend who now works with the Gates Foundation confirms how the charity seeks evidence and rigour in all its social investments. This is no bleeding-heart do-gooding or ‘social work’ for its CSR value. The new wave of geeks lining up to serve the meek bring business acumen to the development sector long under-served by unimaginative aid agencies and self-serving UN organisations.
As Kristof wrote: “Gates ended his full-time presence at Microsoft last July and since then has thrown himself into work at his foundation. He is now trying to do to malaria, AIDS, polio and lethal childhood diarrhea what he did to Netscape, and he just may succeed.”
Gates has announced that despite the economic crisis the Gates Foundation will increase spending by US$500 million this year.
In late January 2009, the billionaire philanthropist released the first ‘Annual Letter from Bill Gates‘ where he discussed his work at the foundation and spoke candidly about what has gone well, what hasn’t.
He compared his earlier work at Microsoft with the challenges he now tackles at the charitable foundation. “What I’ve found now is that really those same key elements are there. The opportunity for big breakthroughs is absolutely just as great–now it’s vaccines, it’s seeds that have better yield, it’s ways of sharing teaching practices…they will take the same kind of patience that we had for software breakthroughs.”
Just ahead of the letter’s release, Nicholas Kristof talked with Bill Gates about why aid to developing countries is more important during the economic downturn and vaccine breakthroughs on the horizon. Watch the interview: