February 11, 2020; Washington Post and Vox
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the world’s largest private charitable foundation, has throughout its 20-year history strongly reflected the vision and values of its very involved founders. Earlier this week, in their annual letter, Bill and Melinda Gates reflected upon their two decades of aggressive, bottomless-pocket philanthropy and shared their successes and failures. The letter also looks forward, providing insights into the mindset of the Gates couple and how the Foundation will be using its resources in the future, leaving us wondering in the end how much they have really learned.
They wander into the missive with their folksy “swing for the fences” analogy, accompanied by a faux personal “handwritten” commentary on the margins of their own letter. Bill and Melinda bring their own “when you got everything, you got nothin’ to lose” perspective of the role they believe philanthropy can and should play, an understanding that drives where and how their foundation uses its vast resources.
“At its best,” they write, “philanthropy takes risks that governments can’t, and corporations won’t. Governments need to focus most of their resources on scaling proven solutions…foundations like ours have the freedom to test out ideas that might not otherwise get tried, some of which may lead to breakthroughs.”
The goal isn’t just incremental progress. It’s to put the full force of our efforts and resources behind the big bets that, if successful, will save and improve lives.
From its founding, the Foundation has made those bets in two primary areas, global health and US education. “Disease,” they say, “is both a symptom and a cause of inequality, while public education is a driver of equality.” To these, they have brought an entrepreneur’s understanding that they can see through complexity and find an answer no one else has been able to uncover.
Not only does the Foundation have a clear set of priorities, but it has a clear approach to maximizing the value of their allocations. Directly, the foundation has, on average, allocated almost $2 billion per year. According to Vox, the Foundation built its strategy on using its resources as leverage to bring other funders along and “forge coalitions with large international organizations and governments that can in turn mobilize many more billions of dollars than the Gates Foundation can alone.”
This, of course, can spell disaster for the multitudes when they’re wrong. And, indeed, they have been wrong more than once. We have made an annual event of tracking their apologies to the unwashed, often for the same mistakes made year after year—mistakes of exclusion, where they swung vigorously for some fence only to hit bystanders with the bat.
The high-level collaborative strategy has proven most effective when directed toward global health improvement. The Gates Foundation was able to select a strategy and induce the World Health Organization, the World Bank, and UNICEF to create Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, focused on increasing the availability of vaccines to keep children from falling victim to common and preventable childhood diseases. According to the letter, the results are impressive:
Gavi had helped vaccinate more than 760 million children and prevent 13 million deaths. It has also succeeded in bringing more vaccines and supplies into the market while lowering prices. For example, a single dose of the pentavalent vaccine, which protects against five deadly infections, used to cost $3.65. It now costs less than a dollar.
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A similar effort with other partners—the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria—has brought significant resources to bear and seen significant positive health improvements.
In these areas, their choices worked. But that has not proved true universally. Strategies to reduce the spread of HIV and AIDS, particularly among women, have failed. And more repetitively, the Gates Foundation’s chosen strategies for improving our nation’s education system have also fallen well short of expectations, and many have been totally abandoned at great cost to their partners. They now recognize what they could have seen much earlier, before so much effort and resources had to be wasted.
There’s no consensus on cause and effect in education. Are charter schools good or bad? Should the school day be shorter or longer? Is this lesson plan for fractions better than that one? Educators haven’t been able to answer those questions with enough certainty to establish clear best practices.
It’s also hard to isolate any single intervention and say it made all the difference. Getting a child through high school requires at least 13 years of instruction enabled by hundreds of teachers, administrators, and local, state, and national policymakers. The process is so cumulative that changing the ultimate outcome requires intervention at many different stages.
They also now appear to recognize that those who challenged them for being arrogant and taking a top-down approach to a process that needs to be bottom-up may have been correct. “We certainly understand why many people are skeptical about the idea of billionaire philanthropists designing classroom innovations or setting education policy.”
With their successes and failures clearly in mind, Bill and Melinda Gates have turned their Foundation to two new areas of concern—climate change and gender equality. Like education and health, these are complex problems with no silver bullet solution to be found. Fortunately, there’s some recognition of the importance of systems and context:
The reason the pace of progress for women and girls has been so glacial is no mystery. It’s the direct result of the fact that—despite the valiant efforts of activists, advocates, and feminist movements—the world has refused to make gender equality a priority. Global leaders simply have not yet made the political and financial commitments necessary to drive real change.
Yet the recent announcement of the launch of Gates Ag One, a St. Louis-based nonprofit that’s part of their new focus on climate change, does not indicate a change in their belief that they know best and others should come in to support them. According to the St. Louis Business Journal, Gates Ag One “will collaborate with a diverse community of regional and international public- and private-sector partners, as well as interested governments, to enable the advancement of resilient, yield-enhancing seeds and traits globally and facilitate the introduction of those breakthroughs into specific crops.” Advocating for systemic change seems not to have risen to the top of their agenda, even though 20 years of expensive experience may indicate it should.
Perhaps the real hurdle is that the wealth and stature of Bill and Melinda Gates makes them part of the system that must be changed if real progress on some of the world’s greatest challenges is to be made. Valerie Strauss, writing in the Washington Post recognized how little these 20 years may have changed the couple and their Foundation. “Over the years, while they have certainly funded worthwhile projects, questions have been raised about the power they have to dictate social policy because of their enormous investments, as well as whether the targets of some of their philanthropy are the most deserving of attention. Why should unelected private individuals, critics ask, have a say about public policy just because they are rich?”—Martin Levine