Remarks at the African Union
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
February 10, 2019
Your Excellency Mr. President Paul Kagame.
Your Excellency Mr. Moussa Faki Mahama.
Your Excellencies, Heads of State and Government.
Your Excellency Mr. António Guterres, Secretary General of the United Nations.
Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you. The chance to address this body is a rare and special thing – and I’m deeply grateful for it.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed: I also want to thank you – and the Ethiopian people – again for welcoming me back to your wonderful country.
Twenty-five years ago, I received a phone call from Nelson Mandela, asking me to help fund South Africa’s first free election. At the time, I was spending most of my days at Microsoft, thinking about software, and I didn’t know much about South Africa – or Africa at all.
But I had admired Nelson Mandela very much since I was a boy, and I sensed that the wheels of history were turning on this continent, so I made a donation. And I pledged that, soon, I would go for a visit.
In the years since, I’ve visited Africa not once, but many times. At first, I came just as a traveler. But then many of you welcomed me to your countries – and sometimes into your homes – to learn about the problems facing your society. And to try to help solve them.
These have been remarkable experiences. Yet this is the first time that I’ve felt that history is turning in a similar sort of way.
Because between today and the end of the century, more children will be born in Africa than in the rest of the world combined, and the African Union has envisioned a remade continent for them to call home.
According to the plan, Africa in the year 2063 will be a place traversed by high-speed trains, home to a space program and an online university that can spread knowledge to homes and villages that were once unreachable by roads.
It’s a big, hopeful, ambitious vision. And I believe that it is achievable. But how?
There are the obvious things: The investments in infrastructure – steel, cement, fiber optic cables. But is that enough?
Who will engineer the space shuttles, for example? And who will teach the classes – and plan that modern transportation network?
I have done the math. In the year 2063, I will be 108 years old. Chairman Kagame, you will be a much younger 106. Still, I do not think anyone of our generation will be responsible for these jobs. Instead, I think Mandela had the answer: “History will judge us,” he said, “by the difference we make in the everyday lives of children.”
Yesterday, I spoke about investing in people – particularly in the health of the next generation. I talked about how those investments don’t just save lives; they grow economies.
But I also know that talking about this is easier than making it happen.
Nineteen years ago, my wife Melinda and I started a foundation with the money we’d been lucky enough to earn at Microsoft. Our goal was to give every person on the planet a chance at a healthy and productive life. We just didn’t know exactly how to do it.
We investigated by investing. We put money into researching new vaccines – and into delivering others that were already on the market. We put money into giving contraceptives to young women, higher-yield crops to farmers, and polio drops to children so we could wipe the disease off the face of the continent.
Along the way, we learned things: Like how to pool foreign aid from many countries to lower drug prices; and that as diseases approach eradication, you have to refine tracking systems to pinpoint the final few cases. Our philanthropy became more business-like, more efficient and rigorous, measured and judged with data.
In the early 2000s, for example, the world didn’t have a good estimate for how many people were dying of malaria every year. Today, we not only know how many malaria cases there have been – but, increasingly, how many there will be – and where they’ll be, too.
What all this data has taught is: These investments in people are working.
Over the past twenty years, our foundation has invested $15 billion in fighting poverty and disease on this continent. It’s a large number, but small compared to the impact it’s had on the wider society. When it comes to buying and delivering basic medicines in Africa, for example, every one dollar invested here has generated 20 more in social and economic benefits. That’s a better return than investing in infrastructure or energy.
It turns out that every shot of a vaccine in a child’s arm is also a shot of adrenalin into the heart of the economy.
And it’s not just health. It’s also education and agriculture. It’s programs that let farmers sell their harvest to wider markets – and technologies that let people transact and store their money digitally. Anything that gives people a chance to pick themselves up. Economists call this "human capital."
Your Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, I believe that the African Union can achieve its highest ambitions – and remake the continent for the next generation. But only by making smart investments in human capital.
Our foundation has spent two decades on this continent learning how to do just that. We’ve partnered governments in Rwanda and Ethiopia to train health workers, with Nigeria to support primary care and agriculture programs, and with South Africa to prevent and treat HIV. We stand ready to continue to help – to give our resources, our time, and our expertise to this cause. Me most of all.
Twenty-five years ago, I picked up the phone for a remarkable man and was able – in a very small way – to help him and his country. A lot of time has passed. But I still answer those calls – and will continue to for as long as you need, and for as long as I am able.