Bill Gates and mosquitoes: World’s top geek now works for its meek

More bugs from Gates...

More bugs from Gates...

Bill Gates can’t seem to get enough of bugs.

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.

Bill to the rescue...

Bill to the rescue...

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?

Look, no computers!

Look, no computers!

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:

Read: Bill Gates’s Next Big Thing by Nicholas D Kristoff, published in the New York Times on 24 January 2009

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Iodised Salt: How to make the world smarter, faster?

A miracle powder?

A miracle substance to get smarter?

One of the earliest video films I helped distribute at TVE Asia Pacific, soon after it was set up in 1996, was called Ending Hidden Hunger.

This 20 minute film, made in 1992 by Bedford Films of UK and narrated by Sir Peter Ustinov, described how the UN children’s agency UNICEF was working toward eliminating micronutrient deficiencies from iron, vitamin A and iodine in different parts of the developing world. Examples are taken from Africa and Asia to both illustrate the extent of the problem as well as steps being taken to reduce these deficiencies that cause mass-scale disability and death.

The main premise of the film was simple: those lacking micro-nutrients in their regular diet often don’t show immediate signs of starvation. This deprivation builds up over time and causes slow – sometimes irreparable – damage.

Nicholas Kristof

Nicholas Kristof

I was reminded of this film — and its still very relevant message — when reading an excellent essay by Nicholas Kristof in International Herald Tribune a few days ago. He is a columnist for the New York Times who travels the world reporting from the various frontlines of survival and struggle.

In Raising the World’s I.Q., dispatched from Rawalpindi, Pakistan, Kristof was talking about ‘a miracle substance that is cheap and actually makes people smarter’: iodised salt.

Here’s the context, as he put it:

“Almost one-third of the world’s people don’t get enough iodine from food and water. The result in extreme cases is large goiters that swell their necks, or other obvious impairments such as dwarfism or cretinism. But far more common is mental slowness.

“When a pregnant woman doesn’t have enough iodine in her body, her child may suffer irreversible brain damage and could have an I.Q. that is 10 to 15 points lower than it would otherwise be. An educated guess is that iodine deficiency results in a needless loss of more than 1 billion I.Q. points around the world.”

In nearly all countries, the best strategy to control iodine deficiency is iodisation of salt — one of the most cost-effective ways to contribute to economic and social development. Especially in these hard times, development professionals are looking for smart ways to get the biggest bang for their limited (and still shrinking) bucks. Investing in micronutrients – such as iodine – can provide some of the biggest bangs possible.

UNICEF Report 2008

UNICEF Report 2008

In June 2008, UNICEF published Sustainable elimination of iodine deficiency, a new report on progress since 1990 when the world’s governments set the target to eliminate iodine-deficiency disorders worldwide.

In October 2008, The Lancet, one of the world’s leading medical journals, published a report that noted: “Iodine deficiency is the most common cause of preventable mental impairment worldwide.”

The medical, public health and development communities have known and talked about iodine and other micronutrients for over 30 years. Significant progress has been made – for example, UNICEF says by 2006, more than 120 countries were implementing salt iodisation programmes, and 34 countries had managed to get rid of iodine deficiency among their people through this smart strategy.

But there still are major gaps — which continue to cause preventable damage to tens of millions of people including children.

Nicholas Kristof navigates through the heavy, jargon-ridden developmentspeak and churns out an eminently readable, accessible piece. It’s written in first person narrative from a part of the world where illiteracy, superstition – and their erstwhile companion, religious fanaticism – are trying to prevent people at risk from using iodised salt. This is science writing at its finest: anecdotal, personalised and purposeful.

And he’s absolutely right when he says iodised salt lacks glamour, doesn’t have too many stars or starlets singing its praise and (almost) no one writing about it despite its potential to improve lives for so many people.

I should know: one of the earliest topics I tackled as a young science reporter – getting started in the late 1980s – was salt iodisation. I struggled to put together a readable, engaging piece — which I then had to push through jaded editors who wondered what all this fuss was about.

I have only one (minor) bone to pick with Kristof. He pokes fun at Canada for hosting and supporting the Micronutrient Initiative, “an independent, not-for-profit organization committed to promoting simple cost-effective solutions for hidden hunger and developing innovative new solutions where needed.”

He calls Canada “earnest and dull, just like micronutrients themselves”. It’s a personal view – perhaps expressed with his tongue firmly in his cheek. Having travelled a fair amount in North America, and having good friends in both countries, I think that the nation north of the US-Canada border is a tad more civilised, certainly more caring and better engaged with the rest of the world.

But then, that too is a personal view. I’m darn lucky that I get enough iodine in my diet so that I can think for myself, keep asking lots of annoying questions…and occasionally even get some answers right.

Two billion people – almost a third of humanity – aren’t so lucky.

Read Raising the world’s I.Q. by Nicholas Kristof

Salt iodisation is not universally hailed. Read an alternative point of view that appeared in India’s Frontline magazine in 2006: Imposing iodine