Co-chair Melinda Gates speaks about innovation, social and cultural change & philosophy of giving
In a thrust to provide sustained support to life-saving innovations in India and around the world, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is placing new emphasis on innovations that effect social and cultural change to bring down the unacceptably high death rates for children under five years of age in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. “A lot of times,” Melinda French Gates, wife of Microsoft founder Bill Gates and co-founder of the Gates Foundation, told me in an interview given recently in New Delhi, “people think the Foundation is absolutely about innovations in science, in technology and biotechnology. We believe in that innovation but another piece of big innovation is social, cultural change.”
She spoke of her visits to villages in Barabanki and Rae Barelli districts to see what could be learnt from the work of the ‘Sure Start' programme of PATH, a non-profit organisation supported by the Foundation, and a research project called Shivgarh.
Asked about her meeting with Chief Minister Mayawati, Ms. Gates said it went very well. They discussed the Foundation's focus on bringing down the under-5 child death rate in U.P., polio eradication, immunisation coverage, maternal and child issues, and development in the State. The Foundation was committing $55 million in the State over the next three to five years. This would be a new investment that followed up on other and larger investments.
It was “really, really key,” she pointed out, to bring down the child death rates in U.P. and Bihar but there would also be a larger benefit: “That's something we can spread all over India, where it needs to happen. But we can spread that practice around the world.”
Emphasising that “cultural change... can bring down this death rate,” Ms. Gates posed an interesting question: “How do you talk to them [the women] in a way that appreciates their culture but helps them understand what will keep their children alive?”
Responding to questions, Melinda Gates explained that while the health picture in India was mixed, her optimism sprang from the fact that “there's so much to build on in India. You have to understand that in the other places I travel to there isn't the infrastructure” and also the kind of official commitment to improving rural and urban health that she found in India.
The Gates Foundation is one of the largest philanthropic trusts in the world, with an asset trust endowment of $33.5 billion, grant payments amounting to $3 billion in 2009, and grant commitments since inception totalling $22.61 billion. The Berkshire Gift, announced by Warren Buffett in June 2006, has dramatically increased the Foundation's funding, expanded its ambit, and raised the level of the challenge.
Asked about her husband's and her motivation in setting up the Foundation in 2000, Ms. Gates explained that “both Bill and I grew up in families that really believed in giving back. So we came to the marriage knowing that the money that had been amassed from Microsoft would be given back to society.” The motto, “All Lives Have Equal Value,” came to them during the first two to three years of the Foundation.
The youngest of the three co-chairs of the Gates Foundation explained, in answer to another question, that Warren Buffett's enormous Berkshire Gift enabled the Foundation to “start to scale up” the work it had started to do in Global Development – to “help people lift themselves out of poverty.”
Towards the end of the interview, Melinda Gates made it clear that “we, like Warren, completely want to take the resources that we have from Microsoft and his Berkshire Gift and spend that basically on the problems of our lifetime.” In fact, Bill and Melinda Gates have “made a commitment that 50 years after the last of the two of us has died…all our money would have been given away.”