Press Room




William H. Gates Sr. - Population Reference Bureau 75th Anniversary

March 15, 2005
Prepared remarks by William H. Gates Sr., co-chair

Good Evening,

It’s an enormous pleasure for me to help celebrate the Population Reference Bureau’s marvelous history: 75 years of helping people live better, do more and create their own futures.

At moments like these, it seems to me as if we’re pausing to enjoy the view from the top of a mountain.

Of course, I think anyone who’s ever gotten to a mountain top knows that every trip to the top includes a few failures and some tough going. And, that our journey is never done. Still, with the right cause and perseverance somehow progress is achieved.

In honor of the PRB’s great history, I’ve extracted a little story for you from the Gates family’s history.

It occurred when my son Bill was still in high school.

At that time, he and a couple of cohorts had developed their first entrepreneurial venture: a piece of equipment they called Traff-O-Data.

The Traff-O-Data was designed to collect and make sense of the information generated by those little car-counting devices you’ve probably seen hundreds of times – a thin hose stretched across a road and connected to a black box.

The Traff-O-Data took the raw data from all those little black boxes and created a graph that gave you an hour-by-hour picture of each day’s traffic flow.

It was a useful tool for anybody trying to make a decision about traffic routing, road construction and so on.

After many successful kitchen-table practice sessions my son convinced a couple of people from the City of Seattle to come to the house for a demonstration.

Well, things that day at the Gates home didn’t go the way they usually do … when he demonstrates a new piece of software today.

The Traff-O-Data did not perform.

And so I thought tonight, you might like to know how a tender-aged Bill Gates reacted when the first live demo of his career failed.

He went running into the kitchen … shouting on the way: “Mother, mother … would you come out here and tell them that it worked?”

It’s no surprise to you to be told that there was no sale made that day.

There are a number of lessons in that story. One is that you can’t always predict the final outcome of your initial efforts. Actually, the Traff-O-Data eventually achieved some success. Another lesson—and this one gets right to the heart of the PRB’s mission—is that there’s nothing quite as convincing as hard evidence.

Seeing is believing.

It’s almost impossible to overstate the power of rigorously documented and creatively presented information. We’ve all seen dramatic examples of how wide dissemination of the facts can change the course of lives, and sometimes even history.

A tidal wave occurs in Southeast Asia. And all of a sudden people know the names of villages and islands they never heard of before and help is sent from all over the world.

Information shapes our thinking, influences our lives, and changes the world.

It was information—delivered via the kind of news article the PRB inspires journalists to write every day—that sparked Bill and Melinda’s interest in the area of global health.

The PRB’s president, Bill Butz, asked me to talk a little tonight about how our foundation got started and about our mission and goals. And there is a marvelous connection between that story and the thing the PRB exists to do.

Several years ago, Bill and Melinda were reading a newspaper article on a Sunday morning. It told about the fact that people in the developing world—children in particular—were still dying from diseases long ago eradicated in the developed world.

My son sent a note to me that said, “Dad maybe we can do something about this.”

That’s how we started on what is now a major program area and a big part of the mission of the foundation.

Today, our mission involves creating equity in four areas.

In global health, we work to close the health gap between rich and poor countries by creating new health solutions and ensuring that existing solutions reach those in greatest need.

This global health work represents a little more than half of the resources and effort we put forth. I’ll be focusing my remarks tonight on this area.

Education is another program area. Here, we work to ensure that all students in the United States graduate from high school ready for college, work, and citizenship.

The third program area is global libraries where we work toward just the kind of democratization of information the PRB pursues—in our case, by providing people free access to information via computers in public libraries.

Finally, we work to help at-risk families in our home region –the Pacific Northwest.

The most important thing for you to know about our approach is that we focus on prevention.

I’m sure most of you have heard the old story about the babies floating down the river – the one in which three people on a river bank observed a terrifying spectacle —babies floating down the river.

The first person jumped into the river to the rescue and was able to save one baby. (Everybody was ecstatic.) The second person jumped in and saved a few more but couldn’t save them all. The third person ran up river to find out who was throwing babies into the river.

Although all of the people were doing something important, that third person best describes the role we’re attempting to play—that of getting to the root of a problem and helping prevent disaster.

We recognize that even at our size, philanthropy plays a relatively small role, compared to governments and markets, in delivering solutions.
However, we believe that when we collaborate with others and act as advocates, the added attention that gets focused on an issue can result in people demonstrating more concern about the courses their governments take. And that can make a difference.

We also believe it’s our role to make big bets. We can afford to take the kinds of calculated risks that may be difficult for governments or private industry.

Something else we’ve learned is that having full and accurate information on the societal issues we address is fundamental to our ability to succeed.

And it’s not a very big leap from there to understanding our connection with the PRB.

Our foundation became involved with reproductive health even before we became involved in other areas of global health. A conversation we had with Warren Buffett about the Buffett Foundation’s activities provided the stimulus for that decision.

Once Bill & Melinda made a commitment to reproductive health, we knew there was no more highly regarded source of information on that topic than the PRB. Your World Population Data Sheet is revered the world over. Your Population Bulletin is similarly well known.

I have the first issue of the Population Bulletin right here. It’s dated September of 1945.

Just one month before then, I was a young army lieutenant on a troopship headed for the Philippines when an atomic bomb was dropped on Japan. In June of that same summer the charter for the United Nations had been signed. It would be nine more years before the UN would hold its first meeting on global population with the International Union for the Scientific Study of Population.

I share this historical context, so that you can see how far back the PRB’s efforts go and what a significant role your leadership has played.

That Population Data Sheet I mentioned a moment ago—the wall chart—first appeared in 1962.

As I’m sure you know, it reports the current and projected populations of every country and region of the world. It also shows where each stands on such things as contraception use, HIV-AIDS prevalence, infant mortality, and so on.

It is legendary in terms of both its reach and impact.

I’m told it can be found in the office of every health minister of every developing country in the world.
Today, of course, the Population Data sheet is on the PRB’s Web site. And, in 2002, 61,000 visitors a month clicked on that data sheet for information.

The PRB has not only given us the numbers on population, but the words we needed to make sense of them.

Our foundation has long supported PRB programs that focus on reproductive health. More recently we’ve broadened our support, funding efforts to educate and convene influential people on a range of compelling issues... including HIV-AIDS, maternal and child health, and cervical cancer, as well as the more deeply rooted systemic problems to which those issues are irrevocably connected.

The PRB has called our attention to some of the most prodigious problems and egregious inequities of our time with facts such as these:

Quote: “Even in healthy developed places, the poor die 5 to 10 years before the rich.”

Quote: “More than 80 per cent of the world’s new cervical cancer cases and cervical cancer deaths occur in developing countries.”

Quote: “Nowhere is the disparity between the lives and futures of people in rich countries and developing countries greater –than where HIV/AIDS is a big factor.”

Those facts might stand on their own. However, they carry more weight coming from you. Your signature carries the integrity the PRB has spent generations building.

One result is that the PRB has ongoing relationships with more than 400 journalists. Along with being known for providing reliable information, the PRB is known for treating all those whom it seeks to inform with respect. You don’t try to coerce anybody into writing a story or making a decision… your way.

You believe that if people have good information…they’ll do the right things with it.

That invitation to think freely…and act creatively with the information you provide has generated impressive results. For example:

A journalist with a Mexican news agency attended an international conference on population through a PRB program.

She subsequently reported what she learned there about the inadequacy of contraceptive supplies and the toll it was taking on people in her country at that time. Soon other reporters in Mexico are inspired to do stories on the subject. And, what do you know? Several months later the Mexican government elevates contraceptive supplies to the category of national security.

Here’s another scenario: Inaccuracies on the topic of HIV/AIDS are appearing in the press in India. Inaccuracies as outrageous as the claim that HIV/AIDS is just a boutique disease that non-governmental organizations are using to make money.

Then, the PRB releases new data on the AIDS pandemic along with press releases that suggest that India could become the country with the world’s largest number of HIV/AIDS cases if the problem isn’t addressed. Gradually, we begin seeing more accuracy in India’s mainstream press, which suggests that the Indian people are starting to get a little truer picture of the danger confronting them.

On another front…

It’s 2004 and the Alliance for Cervical Cancer releases research on new screening and treatment techniques for cervical cancer. This year the PRB and the Alliance publish a report on the techniques that were designed for use in the developing world and that can prevent women from dying of cervical cancer. And as a result, Thailand begins introducing this new approach, country-wide….taking a lead that other developing countries should follow.

In fact, I am convinced that the enormous goodwill out there toward the PRB and its information is perpetuated in part by feelings of gratitude.

The gratitude of the doctor treating hundreds of patients a day in Northwest Pakistan who receives PRB’s booklet on Safe Motherhood, and drops everything to read it from cover to cover. Then, writes to express gratitude…which would be magnified a thousand times if the mothers he attends could write too.

The gratitude of the head of the Division of Women in Senegal’s Ministry of the Family…who attends a PRB seminar on HIV/AIDS. After which, she designs a five-year plan on women and HIV/AIDS, and acquires funding for it from the World Bank.

The gratitude of the person in Kenya, who – thanks to the PRB’s material—institutes a new merit badge for Boy Scouts, a merit badge in reproductive health.

The gratitude of doctors and scientists in Chennai, India, who are sharing their latest HIV/AIDS research over the Internet—thanks to the PRB’s InfoShare program—which is giving scientists in the developing world a global audience for their findings.

The PRB has made it abundantly clear that facts and data can change the world.

I first became aware of the importance of facts as a young lawyer …because all young attorneys are told this story. It’s about an intern who was assigned to help a senior partner prepare for a case.

The intern proudly reported that he was making great progress on the points of law involved. The older lawyer replied: “Never mind the points of law. Get me hard facts and data. I can pick up the law from a newsboy on my way to the courthouse.”

I’ve spent considerable time tonight talking about the PRB’s global work. However, policy makers, professors, journalists and teachers in the United States also rely on the PRB.

They look for solid information on such things as child poverty—not just around the globe but in rural America.

The PRB also extends the already great impact of organizations such as the National Institute of Health by translating their research into a variety of forms.

One measure of the PRB’s success is in the dramatic gains achieved with the population problem over the last 50 years. Today, half of the couples in the developing world use modern contraception and the average family size there has been cut in half. So, it’s clear that we know how to solve this problem and that good work has been accomplished

Thirty plus years ago in my Planned Parenthood days, I saw forecasts that showed where we might have been today with this issue, and we’re in a lot better place than those Malthusian forecasts predicted.

On that subject of forecasts and data, when I encountered your population wall chart, I was reminded of something I saw hanging on the wall of a health clinic in a village I visited in Bangladesh. It was a map that represented each hut in the village, and the health professionals who worked there used this map as a reference tool. On the map, next to each symbol representing a hut, there was data about the family who lived there, data that included information on the precise form of contraception being used there. I thought that was a marvelous little example of how far this business of collecting data can go.

Of course, as the PRB’s data suggests, while we can celebrate the fact that contraception prevalence is high and fertility rates are low, in many parts of the developing world, there’s still much work left to do.

In many of the poorest nations of the world—as well as in countries such as Pakistan and in Nigeria—only one in five women uses modern contraception. So we are still in need of a PRB to help people learn and understand the facts on this and other issues.

Why is this kind of communication so important?

Because barriers to some of the goals we’re pursuing include superstition – barriers built on various assumptions about morality, cultural traditions, even government policies. And, what we’re trying to accomplish may seem obvious to us, but not necessarily to others.

More people in more countries—developed or developing—must be helped to understand that the programs we advocate save lives and improve health, that they foster gender equality, improve family economics, and protect the environment.

If more people embrace this knowledge and if technology continues to advance at the same pace, over the next 75 years of its history, the PRB might be able to stop reporting that people are getting “sick because they are poor. And poorer because they are sick.”

Because more and more people—no matter where they live—will be leading healthier, more productive, more rewarding lives.

Thank you and keep up the good work.

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