In the middle of April I had the opportunity to take a private tour of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The tour was followed up by a Q&A session with two Gates Foundation employees who spoke on how to best go about getting a job at the foundation. I was in awe at some of the projects that the Gates Foundation has funded and the work they are continuing to do. Despite the literally billions of dollars the foundation gives away in grants each year, I couldn’t help but feel a little uncomfortable with the method being used to solve world health problems. More on that after a little background on the foundation.
At the tour we were actually told how Bill and Melinda met, a story I had not heard before. Melinda came to work for Microsoft as a programmer and that is how she met Bill. They were later married and in 1997 they read this article about children dying from diseases no longer in existence in the United States. Both extremely intelligent and very capable, this article sparked the idea to form the foundation. 1997 also marked the launch of the Gates Library Foundation. In 1998, the Bill and Melinda Gates Children’s Vaccine Program at Seattle-based PATH (Program for Appropriate Technology in Health) was formed. The Gates Millennium Scholars Program was established in 1998, and in 2000, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was officially formed. Many changes happened between 2000 and 2010, including new offices all over the world, Warren Buffet pledging $30 billion and Bill stepping away from Microsoft to work fulltime at the foundation. In 2011, the world headquarters opened in Seattle, the same headquarters I had the pleasure of touring.
What this Foundation does is hand out money in the form of grants to organizations and groups that they think will do the work needed to solve world health problems. Some of the Gates Foundation’s goals are to eradicate polio from the face of the earth, help develop family planning in poverty stricken regions of the world, and reduce hunger and poverty through agriculture development programs across the world. All of these are valid causes I support.
The Gates foundation solves these problems by encouraging innovation. The foundation will present competitions such as the “Reinvent the Toilet” challenge. This challenge was open to anyone and entries were submitted by colleges all over the world. Similar challenges have been presented with similar results. The Gates Foundation has inspired new innovative solutions to vaccine storage, water filtering and even condoms. All of this advancement is truly incredible and downright inspiring but I had an uncomfortable feeling about it all. It dawned on me when I saw a pair of TOMS shoes displayed at the Foundation (I once wrote a paper on the trouble with TOMS). Then it struck me, nothing was said about education. Of all the things that were highlighted verbally in the tour, none of them included providing educational opportunities for those living in third-world countries, so I did some research.
In 2013 the Gates Foundation awarded $3.6 billion in grants and in 2014 that number rose to $3.9 billion. Incredible! On top of that, the Gates Foundation endowment is around $45.3 billion. All of these numbers were taken right off their website. (As a side note, if any of this info seems sketchy to you comment below and would be happy to site my sources.) Although I think these projects are important, I want to see the Gates Foundation work towards giving impoverished and undereducated people the opportunity to help themselves. Armed with an education and a means to use that education, I believe these populations could help themselves. The method the Gates Foundation is using right now, or rather the method of the charities they support, is to come in and give people something they need (a toilet, a vaccine, a mosquito net) and then leave. This is the “White Santa Claus Effect.” This is when a predominantly Caucasian or really any group from first world countries hand out something to poorer less educated people. In some cases, this is absolutely what’s needed, but in the long term this method of philanthropy doesn’t teach a man to fish, it feeds him for a day. There are other moral issues that this creates, people using their money as a means to feel less guilt, people not wanting to do any actual work to help, creating a dependent population etc. but I won’t get into that now.
So what does the Gates Foundation give to education? Last year they gave about $93.3 million. That’s a ton of cash but when compared to overall giving and potential earnings on their endowment, that $93.3 million is about 2% of potential endowment earnings and only .2% of the whole endowment. That seems crazy to me considering most people agree that an education is the ticket out of poverty.
I am glad that the Gates Foundation gives anything at all! I only wish that they would focus more on giving these impoverished populations the tools to get themselves out of trouble. This could be done by building new schools and funding them until they are self-sufficient, improving existing schools and then creating opportunities for students to use what they have learned through employment opportunities; building, creating and experimenting. Let these countries invent their own toilet!
Sometime I come across as someone that wants to critique everything, but that is not my goal. I believe the Gates Foundation is an incredible project and I applaud Bill and Melinda for their work. I do think that there is a fundamental problem with the way the Gates Foundation money is being awarded and although the work they are doing is good, bigger strides towards solving some of these issues could be made. I encourage you all to keep a watchful eye on any charity and do your own research on the difference between simply handing out cash and teaching someone how to get it for themselves.