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Bill Gates - The Tech Museum

November 15, 2006
Remarks by Bill Gates in response to the Tech Museum honoring him with the James C. Morgan Global Humanitarian Award.

I come here tonight wearing two hats—as the chairman of Microsoft and as the co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. And so while I see a room full of customers, competitors, and partners, 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 is an honor to receive this award, particularly because I didn’t expect to be standing at an event like this at this stage in my life. I always thought about philanthropy as something I would do when I got older, after Microsoft.

As Microsoft became more successful, I realized that the amount of resources that were going to be available when I got older was steadily increasing. One of the people who helped me think about how to handle my giving was Warren Buffett. He felt that it wasn’t a good idea to give all this wealth to my children. Of course, they weren’t old enough to understand that philosophy—much less argue against it. 

Still, when you spend your day building and increasing the value of a business—you worry about polluting your basic metric of what constitutes a good day’s work if you go home just to give money away.

Certainly, there were exceptions. Working with the United Way was one. My mother was very active in the United Way, and so, around our dinner table growing up, there were always discussions of the United Way campaigns that my mom was running.

We talked about how to prioritize giving, the tension between local social services and national disease-research organizations, and, at the time, how much of my allowance I should be giving to the Salvation Army at Christmas.

My mother really pushed me to get involved with the United Way up in Seattle, and to encourage a culture of giving at Microsoft.

Today at Microsoft, we have a tool that helps employees search for opportunities to volunteer, allows them to track their progress, and lets them request matching funds. Last year, in addition to direct gifts of more than $68 million (including matching funds), Microsoft’s employees gave 110,000 hours of their own time.

I encourage those of you who are leaders in your own companies to consider doing this. It’s not just the right thing to do—it’s a great business decision too. Our human resources department found that encouraging and supporting our employees’ charitable efforts increased employee morale, retention, and even professional development—because several of our people were moving into leadership or board positions at the organizations where they were volunteering.

Still, for a long time, I continued to see my largest contribution to the community in terms of creating a successful business. I just didn’t have the time and energy to do more.

And then one day, Melinda and I read an article about the millions of children who were dying every year in poor countries from diseases that we had long ago eliminated in this country. One disease I had never even heard of—rotavirus—was killing literally half a million kids each year. I thought: That’s got to be a typo. If a single disease was killing that many kids, we would have heard about it—it’d be front-page news. But it wasn’t.

We couldn’t escape the brutal conclusion that—in our world today—some lives are seen as worth saving and others are not. We said to ourselves: “This can’t be true. But if it is true, it deserves to be the priority of our giving.”

That became the core principle for the Gates Foundation: every human life has equal worth. It seemed clear to us that the most intractable problems and the greatest suffering came as a result of inequality—in access to education and economic opportunity, across race, countries, and continents.

The death of a child in a poor country is every bit as tragic as the death of a child in a rich country, and those of us who were born in rich countries have a responsibility to help those who weren’t.  We believe public health is a lever for lifting people’s lives.

When health improves, life improves, by every measure—from higher literacy, to better education, to stronger economic growth and a more stable, prosperous society.

And we believe that technology can be used to advance public health in every way—from discovery, to development, to delivery. 

That’s the theme of this evening— “technology benefiting humanity.” But it’s worth remembering that sometimes, despite our best intentions, it doesn’t.

In 1997, I traveled to Johannesburg, South Africa, to meet with Microsoft’s African customers and business partners. As part of my trip, I was asked to help dedicate a community center in Soweto, the series of townships that sprung up to house black South Africans who had been evicted from their homes during apartheid. Parts of Soweto remain some of the poorest areas of the country. 

One of the things we had done as a company was to give this community center a computer. They wanted to show their appreciation, and they did it by trying to demonstrate the usefulness of this computer. In the end, they unintentionally showed us the opposite. 

When we arrived, we saw that the community center didn’t have a consistent source of power, so they had rigged up an extension cord that ran about 200 yards to a diesel generator. With the generator belching smoke outside, the computer was up and running.

Looking at the setup, you knew that the minute the cameras and press left, the generator would get moved to some more urgent task, the computer would become just another piece of furniture, and the people who used the community center would go back to worrying about the challenges in their lives that couldn’t be solved by a PC.

It seems obvious to say it, but putting technology in the service of humanity is not about taking technology as it is used in the rich world and subsidizing its use in the developing world. Doing that elevates technology above its purpose, which is, after all, to meet human needs. You don’t start with technology; you start with human needs, and then you find out if technology can meet those needs in a cheaper, more efficient, or more expansive way.

Meeting human needs is, of course, the starting point for all philanthropy. In a world with so much human suffering, finding those needs is never going to be too difficult. The real challenge is to do the most you can with the time and money you have – to spend every dollar and every hour in the most effective way.

To put it another way: if we can’t do everything we want, how can we make the most of what we have?

Philanthropic dollars have the best chance to make a major impact when you’ve spotted a missed idea or a unique approach. 

Consider a disease like malaria. In both 1902 and 1907, Nobel Prizes were given for advances in our understanding of the parasite. But one hundred years later, malaria still infects between 350 million and 500 million people every year. More than 1 million people die from it. Every day, malaria kills 2,000 African children.

When our foundation gave $50 million for malaria in 1999, I was told that we had just doubled the amount of private money that goes to malaria. And I thought—that’s the worst thing I’ve ever heard. How can that be? 

Is this because the science became too difficult? No. It’s because malaria became a missed idea. We stopped doing the science at all. Technology is developed when you have a buyer. There was no big market for new discoveries in fighting malaria, and so the technology languished.

The truth is—whether it was TB, yellow fever, malaria, or acute diarrheal illness (which contributes to the deaths of between 2-3 million children a year)—rich governments haven’t been fighting some of the world’s most deadly diseases because rich countries don’t have them. The private sector is not developing vaccines and medicines for these diseases, because developing countries can’t buy them.

Market forces have yielded a world in which the vast majority of the money spent on health research is spent on the problems of the richest people. Look at us: Americans spend $1 billion per year combating baldness. That may be great for Steve Ballmer… but, more seriously, it creates a tremendous role for philanthropy.

Through our foundation, Melinda and I are trying to step in where market forces have no force – to point research dollars and technological innovation toward challenges that are truly life-and-death for some of the world’s poorest people.

That often means taking the risks that businesses can’t afford, and governments can’t justify. In some cases, our work is to distribute existing technologies. In other cases, we’re investing in the creation of new technologies.

Why is technology so important in our strategies?

First, because it allows us to make eye contact with people we don’t encounter in our daily lives. If you took the world and you randomly re-sorted it so that rich people were living next door to poor people, you would walk down your block and say: “Wow. Those people are starving. Did you meet that mother over there? Her child just died. Did you see that guy suffering from malaria? He hasn’t worked in a month.” Basic human instinct would kick in, and we would step in to help.

Technology allows us, in a sense, to live next to each other. Not so long ago, if we wanted to know the situation of a group of people, we had to live near them. Today, advances in telecommunications allow us to instantaneously see and hear people half a world away.

Just as technology allows us to see the world’s inequities, new technologies can also help us address those inequities.

I just had an opportunity to meet with several of this year’s Technology Laureates; they’re doing some phenomenal things, and I want to acknowledge their work.

Whether it is 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 affordably – how effective people’s HIV treatments are…

…Or using GPS mapping to identify high concentrations of mosquitoes that carry Dengue fever... 

Instead of taking existing technology and then going in search of problems, all of these laureates looked at problems, and found innovative ways that technology could be brought to bear in solving them.

They’re also showing that technology doesn’t need to be enormously complicated. Sometimes, in fact, if it is enormously complicated, it won’t work.

In most cases, we’re talking about delivering these technologies to areas with harsh climates… rough conditions… illiterate or innumerate populations… and locations so far-flung that if the technology broke, it would be nearly impossible to repair or replace it. 

So while the science and engineering that led to these interventions can be immensely complex, the reality on the ground is that technology is best when it’s the simplest possible way to get something done.

That’s something these laureates have demonstrated, and it’s something we’ve realized at our foundation, too. It changes your sense of what technology looks like.

Technology can look a sticker that can tell someone when a vaccine has been compromised by heat and is no longer effective. Heat-sensitive stickers can prevent millions of doses of good vaccine from being discarded, and millions of doses of spoiled vaccine from being administered. 

Technology can also look a debit card.  In Malawi, it is especially difficult for women to open their own bank accounts or save money. Many are illiterate, so they can’t sign their name to open an account for themselves. Meanwhile, social custom allows in-laws to take a wife’s possessions if her husband dies, something that is happening all too often due to AIDS.

So one of our grantees is piloting a debit card with a fingerprint reader. With the card, the fingerprint takes the place of a signature, and by helping a woman keep money in an account accessible only by her, it protects her from financial ruin if her husband’s family tries to take her money.

We’ve heard that women are sharing brochures about these cards at wedding parties – telling each other that it’s one of the most empowering things they can own. 

And in areas where there is no infrastructure for banking, and the population isn’t dense enough to support bank branches, that same grantee is also looking at ATMs that communicate through satellite technology.

Technology can look like a seed, modified to produce a safer and more nutritious cassava plant. Cassava is the staple food in parts of Africa and South America because it is cheap, abundant, and rich in starch and calcium. It is also high in toxins, including a precursor of cyanide. People who depend on cassava are at risk for chronic poisoning. Seed technology can make this staple food a safer food.

Good seeds are just one component of successful agriculture. Farmers also need fertilizers, 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 won’t do much to reduce agricultural inequity. We’re working on overcoming those challenges as well -- in the hopes that a better seed isn’t an endpoint, but a starting point.

Technology can look like a water treatment unit, one that uses UV light to kill water-borne bacteria, viruses. and parasites like Cryptosporidium—sources of the diarrheal diseases that take the lives of more than 1.5 million children a year.

The UV disinfection unit is part of a system that’s specifically designed to be used in rural areas. If electricity is unreliable, the system can run intermittently and store water for later use. Today, our foundation is supporting a venture in India that uses this technology to provide clean, safe drinking water for less than a penny per person per day. I should add—the inventor of this UV disinfection technology was recognized at this dinner in 2004 as a Health Award Laureate.

Some of these technologies have already been deployed, others are still being developed. Those that are successful will have the potential to save or improve lives. But that potential will only be realized if they reach the people who need them the most.

And no foundation alone can get these technologies into the hands of all who need them.

For that, business and governments are essential, and that means we must get political and market forces to move more in our favor. It means we all need to embrace a broader definition of individual responsibility, and a willingness to press for collective action.

Consider this: Our foundation – even after Warren Buffett’s generous gift—still accounts for only one percent of giving in America. If we spent every dime we had on education, we could educate only half of the children in the state of California for one year. If we spent every dime we had on fighting HIV and AIDS in low and middle income countries, we could only close the world’s funding gap for two years.

But as soon as the people who say: “I won’t accept malaria, or TB, or AIDS in my country” start to say: “I won’t accept malaria or TB or AIDS in my world,” they start the wheels of collective action turning. They start giving their governments permission to spend money on these challenges. And they unleash the potential for sweeping change.

Philanthropy alone won’t change the world. But philanthropy can catalyze change. It can show us what is possible—and get individuals, institutions, and governments to move from where we are… to where we need to be.

We’ve learned a lot since we began our work. One thing I hope more people learn is that the act of giving—and giving strategically—is immensely fun. It’s immensely satisfying. It’s an incredible privilege. And it’s deeply humbling. Again, I hope you’ll consider looking into matched giving at your companies, or personal philanthropy yourselves.

Advances in telecommunications have allowed us to see distant suffering. Advances in medicine have given us the ability to treat it. Advances in technology can help us make sure the treatments reach those who need them. Ultimately, though, it comes down to us. The blessings all of us in this room enjoy have given us the ability to do the important work of erasing inequity. I can’t think of anything that’s worth more of our time and effort.

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

Thank you.

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