Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Bill Gates' Next Big Thing

Op-Ed Columnist
Bill Gates' Next Big Thing

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Published: January 24, 2009

The New York Times
Nicholas D. Kristof

Here's a paradox: In these brutal economic times, one of the leading
advocates for the world's poorest people is one of the richest.

Bill Gates will publish his first "annual letter" on Monday outlining
his work on his twin passions — health and development in the poorest
nations and education in America — and calling for the United States
to do more even during this economic crisis. I came here to Seattle
for an advance peek at the letter and to ask how he is adjusting to
his transition from tycoon to philanthropist.

Mr. Gates ended his full-time presence at Microsoft last July and
since then has thrown himself into work at his foundation. He is now
trying to do to malaria, AIDS, polio and lethal childhood diarrhea
what he did to Netscape, and he just may succeed.

He does seem to be going through withdrawal, for software engineering
was his passion. "I miss that," he said, but added that he is becoming
equally maniacal (that's his word) about poverty and education.

Mr. Gates and his wife, Melinda, are already having an effect on the
developing world that is simply transformative. Just one of their
investments, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunizations, has
saved more than three million lives since 2000.

That's a down payment.

In 1960, almost 20 million children died annually before age 5, Mr.
Gates notes. There are more children today, yet the death toll has
been halved to under 10 million annually. Now his goal is to see it
halved again, saving an additional five million children's lives annually.

"We're on the verge of some big advances," Mr. Gates said. In
particular, a promising malaria vaccine will enter its final phase of
human trials this year, with others behind it. Mr. Gates said he is
"absolutely confident" that a successful malaria vaccine will be
achieved, probably within a half dozen years, and an AIDS vaccine 10
or more years from now.

Look, I'm a cynical journalist, and I don't want to sound too
infatuated. I think the Gates Foundation has missed the chance to
leverage the revolution in social entrepreneurship, hasn't been as
effective in advocacy as it has been in research, and has missed an
opportunity to ignite a broad social movement behind its issues.

But if Mr. Gates manages to accomplish as much in the world of
vaccines, health and food production as he thinks he can, then the
consequences will be staggering. Squared. In that case, the first few
paragraphs of Mr. Gates's obituary will be all about overcoming
diseases and poverty, barely mentioning his earlier career in the
software industry.

Mr. Gates said he got the idea for an annual letter from Warren
Buffett, who writes such a letter ruminating about investments and the
business world. (You can sign up to get Mr. Gates's letter, or read it
beginning Monday, at

In the letter, Mr. Gates goes out of his way to acknowledge setbacks.
For example, the Gates Foundation made a major push for smaller high
schools in the United States, often helping to pay for the creation of
small schools within larger buildings.

"Many of the small schools that we invested in did not improve
students' achievement in any significant way," he acknowledges. Small
schools succeeded when the principal was able to change teachers,
curriculum and culture, but smaller size by itself proved
disappointing. "In most cases," he says, "we fell short."

Mr. Gates comes across as a strong education reformer, focusing on
supporting charter schools and improving teacher quality. He suggested
that when he has nailed down the evidence more firmly, he will wade
into the education debates.

"It is amazing how big a difference a great teacher makes versus an
ineffective one," Mr. Gates writes in his letter. "Research shows that
there is only half as much variation in student achievement between
schools as there is among classrooms in the same school. If you want
your child to get the best education possible, it is actually more
important to get him assigned to a great teacher than to a great school."

Mr. Gates told me he was optimistic that President Obama would make
progress on these issues, notwithstanding the economic crisis, and he
noted that the downturn had only added to the need for foreign
assistance and education spending. "The poorer you are, the worse the
impact is," he said.

I asked Mr. Gates what advice he had for ordinary readers who might
want to engage in micro-philanthropy.

"The key thing is to pick a cause, whether its crops or diseases or
great high schools," he said. "Pick one and get some more in-depth
knowledge." If possible, travel to see the problems firsthand, then
pick an organization to support with donations or volunteer time.

So try it. The only difference between you and Mr. Gates is scale.

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