BY JEFF LEE, VANCOUVER SUN MARCH 19, 2014
VANCOUVER – Bill and Melinda Gates, the richest couple in the world, long ago decided to devote the bulk of their wealth to charitable causes, reducing child poverty and illness in the developing world, and improving education in the United States.
But in a candid interview with Chris Anderson, the curator of the TED conference in Vancouver, they acknowledged their great wealth hasn’t saved them from making costly mistakes.
They cited two examples Tuesday night in a TED talk that was broadcast live, saying the mistakes have served to help them realize their charitable goals need to be better researched and activated.
The evening talk was one of the highlights of the week-long TED event, a popular worldwide conference of thinkers and doers which is making its debut in Vancouver on its 30th anniversary.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation spends $1 billion a year on improving access to education, and developed a model for small, intimate school settings. But Melinda Gates said that hasn’t always worked.
“I would say is that an early lesson out of this was that we thought these small schools were the answer,” she said. “Small schools definitely help. They bring down the dropout rate, they have less violence and crime.
“But the thing that we learned, and what turned out to be the fundamental key is a great teacher in front of the classroom,” she continued. “If you don’t have an effective teacher in the front of the classroom, I don’t care how big or small that school is. You are not going to change the trajectory of whether that school will be ready for college.”
Bill Gates said he wasted more than $60 million on a dream to eradicate Leishmaniasis in India, a potentially fatal disease that is transmitted by sand flies.
“We were very naive about a drug for a disease in India called Leishmaniasis. I thought once we got this drug we could just go wipe out this disease,” he said.
“Well, it turns out it took an injection every day for 10 days, and it took three more years to get it, and then there was no way it was going to get out there. You can say we wasted five years and about $60 million on a path that had very modest benefits when we got there.”
Melinda Gates also talked about the personal wrestle she had as a Roman Catholic over her decision to help fund contraceptives for women in developing countries.
Condoms may be useful for stopping transmittable diseases, but women can’t convince their husbands to use them for planning families, she said.
“Women will tell you I can’t negotiate condoms with my husband. I am either suggesting he has AIDS or I have AIDS,” she said.
“We have backed away from contraceptives as a global community. We knew that 210 million women were saying they wanted access to contraceptives. And we weren’t providing them because of the political controversy in our country,” Melinda Gates said.
“And to me, that was just a crime. I kept looking around trying to find the person who would get this back on the global stage and I finally realized I had to do it. And even though I am Catholic I believe in contraceptives, just like the majority of Catholic women in the United States who report using contraceptives, and I shouldn’t let that controversy be the thing that holds us back.”
As a result, she was able to raise $2.6 billion to help provide contraceptives for women in developing nations.
The Gateses have pledged to donate 95 per cent of their wealth to their foundation. In 2006 their friend Warren Buffett, the fourth-richest person in the world, pledged 80 per cent of his wealth to the foundation.
The two philanthropic contributions helped spark the Giving Pledge campaign, a program the Gateses and Buffett have developed to convince other wealthy people to donate large portions of their assets. Bill Gates said that so far about 120 people have made that pledge.
The Gateses said they were stunned when Buffett came to them and offered his money.
“He was going to have his wife Susie give it all away. Tragically she passed away before he did. And he’s big on delegation,” said Bill Gates.
“If he’s got somebody who’s doing something well and is willing to do something at no charge, maybe that’s okay,” he said to laughs from the audience.
“We were stunned; we had never expected it. It has allowed us to increase our ambition and what the foundation can do quite dramatically. I mean half the resources we have come from Warren’s mind-blowing generosity.”
The Gateses also answered a question many in the audience wanted to know; would their three children become instant billionaires by inheritance?
“No they won’t have anything like that,” Bill Gates said. “They need to have a sense that their own work is meaningful and important.”
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