Bill Gates
Bill Gates during a chat with Rima al Mokarrab at the IAD Forum on Catalytic Philanthropy on Sunday in Abu Dhabi

Abu Dhabi: He may be best known for his work at Microsoft and his philanthropic projects combating the global vaccine crisis and polio, but American tech magnate Bill Gates is also a huge Wordle aficionado.

Visiting Abu Dhabi for the Ideas Abu Dhabi Forum on Catalytic Philanthropy, Gates shared his strategies at tackling the daily five-letter word puzzle. Prominent philanthropist and Co-Chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Gates participated in a fireside chat with Rima Al Mokarrab, Co-Chair of Ideas Abu Dhabi and Chair of Tamkeen. Their session on ‘Big Bets and Patient Capital’, explored the ways in which new models of philanthropy can be effective vehicles for creating long term maximum impact.

“There’s words like ‘audio’ or ‘radio’ with three vowels, or adieu with four vowels, [that is good as an opening word]. I switch it around from time to time but you really need to get the vowels done. I waste time on those words games, not much, but it’s a fun daily pastime,” Gates said.

Foray into philanthropy

His admission that he does not use the same opening word every day indicates a level of reflection and exploration that has marked his foray from tech innovation at Microsoft to a heavy focus on philanthropy via the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

During the forum at NYU Abu Dhabi on Sunday, the American businessman philanthropist, who has collaborated closely with UAE President His Highness Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, to combat diseases like polio and malaria through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, offered tips on engaging with philanthropy, and discussed his opinion on how to improve the global third sector.

The Foundation, which Gates cofounded in 2000, has exerted the greatest effort in eradicating polio thus far, but other programmes also look at tackling malaria, river blindness, and lymphatic filariasis. It has also been instrumental in extending the global access to vaccines, including COVID-19 vaccines, through Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance that it set up soon after its start.

Collaboration with Abu Dhabi

Over the last few years, Abu Dhabi, through the leadership of Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, has worked with the Foundation to advance a number of global health initiatives.

“We’ve worked with the UAE President on a number of things. He has been very generous to Gavi, and I say that because it has phenomenal impact on saving lives for very little money, and that helps these countries. When you improve health in general, population growth actually goes down because you don’t need to have as many [children]. Education, food and stability also becomes better as you invest in health, so this has been a great partnership. Neglected tropical diseases, which are really horrific, [is another area of cooperation]. In most cases, we have the drugs but we just need to get them out in Africa. [And] we keep adding new countries where they’ve had [eradication of river blindness, a neglected tropical disease]. To get that globally, it will take us 10 to 15 years, but every piece counts,” Gates said.

“Another big joint effort has been polio eradication. That is the single biggest programme at the Foundation, and it’s an amazing thing. Once you get ready of the disease, it is over. But only one human disease has been eradicated — smallpox, which was certified as eradicated in 1985. The polio campaign started in 1988, and at that time, over 300,000 children were either dying or getting paralysed a year. We’ve had a lot of success in getting that down, and have been at less than a 100 a year for some time, but the last part is difficult. [Still,] we are very hopeful. Abu Dhabi has important relationships that are helping us get there, as well as resources. In total, a billion dollars a year is raised for that campaign. Eradicating a disease is a big thing. The COVID-19 pandemic set us back a few years, but I think we’re back on track to get that done,” he added.

Bill Gates
Rima al Mokarrab Bill Gates and Reem Al Hashimy, UAE’s Minister of State for International Cooperation, at the IAD Forum on Catalytic Philanthropy in Abu Dhabi on Sunday Image Credit:

Future efforts

Following this, the Foundation hopes to work on eradicating measles and malaria, which Gates believes can be eradicated in time.

According to the philanthropist, the biggest area in which human potential is currently lost is malnutrition, which leads to the death of about five million a children a year. Gates said there are therefore plans in the works to halve this figure, 90 per cent of which is the result of health condition that prevent the absorption of nutrients rather than from acute famine.

Climate change

Gates also discussed how to tackled the devastating effects of climate change on poor equatorial countries, adding that the phenomenon has largely been created by developed nations with temperate climates.

“We can develop crops that need far less water, yet are more than twice as productive than the crops we have today,” he said, adding that crops like sorghum that is used to make cereals and rice can be genetically adapted to withstand high temperatures, as can livestock like goats and chicken.

“The big stuff [on combating climate change] will come when we get the youth to work on the science of these things. We need a whole new generation of seeds, [including ones that generate African crops that have not yet been explored by the green revolution],” Gates added.

Pandemic learning

Asked about the COVID-19 pandemic, Gates said there had been many learning, even though the spread of the disease worldwide has led to more than 20 million in excess deaths. This includes insights in vaccine technology and diagnostic methods like sewage sampling, and the possible creation of organisations that boost international cooperation.

Youth philanthropy

He also encouraged youth to find their own causes for philanthropy, urging them to explore and learn about it when young so they could eventually contribute in knowledge and finances in later years. In a but shell, he urged youngsters to pick a cause that they are passionate about, take trips to learn about it, see the current challenges, and volunteer their time. This can eventually allow them to contribute financially when older, just as Gates ventured into philanthropy in his 40s.

“I started the Foundation when I was 45. I had been doing some giving, and studying giving, but a lot of time was focused on my work at Microsoft, and that was the work that created the Foundation, and then this incredible opportunity to try to give it back. For me, what made sense was not just to write checks but rather build an organisation that had an incredible mix of talent — hopefully the best in the world — that could take on malaria and tuberculosis and HIV,” he said.

Incredible inequity

“It was in my early 40s that I saw this incredible inequity in terms of how life is treated. Children in poor countries are 50 times more likely to die, and many diseases like malaria get almost no money. Early on, we have a $30 million grant for malaria, and people said that’s the biggest amount given, which seemed crazy because at the time, it was still killing over 600,000 children a year. It’s [an example of] a tragic case, where because the disease does not exist in rich countries, there is no for-profit opportunity to do a vaccine. So it’s purely up to governments, or philanthropists, to jump in,” Gates explained.

The Foundation focuses primarily on global health challenges because Gates was shocked to learn about health challenges in poor countries, especially treatable ones that killed thousands of children each year despite the availability of cures and vaccines.

Spurring action

“The Ideas Abu Dhabi forum on Catalytic Philanthropy, and our partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is a positive reminder of what is possible when we exchange ideas and collaborate for the greater good, and for the progress and prosperity of humanity. Ideas Abu Dhabi was established in 2017 in association with the Aspen Institute as a forum that welcomes global leaders to tackle some of the world’s greatest challenges. We hope today’s event and the one to follow in May 2023 will demonstrate the power of open discourse to spur action for the benefit of current and future generations. NYU Abu Dhabi — itself a Centre of academic excellence — could not be a more fitting venue, especially being home to the new Strategic Philanthropy Initiative,” said Rima Al Mokarrab, co-chair of Ideas Abu Dhabi and chair of Tamkeen.

Philanthropy Initiative

“NYU Abu Dhabi’s Strategic Philanthropy Initiative was launched last year in partnership with Badr Jafar. It is a hub for research in philanthropy in the Gulf and MENA region and a platform for education and convenings on the role of philanthropy in our environment here. The SPI at NYU Abu Dhabi is the first academic research Centre in the Gulf region dedicated to philanthropy, but that does not mean there is not a great history of philanthropy in this region — on the contrary, we mean to study philanthropy that is already here and convene stakeholders around the data, so that its effectiveness can be optimised. These goals are directly aligned with this wonderful gathering of people who share a passion for philanthropy, and want to see financial and human capital deployed for the benefit of individuals and societies,” she added.

Book recommendations

Gates, an avid reader, recommended the following books for winter reading.

Surrender, by rockstar and U2 member Bono

How the World Really Works: A Scientists’s Guide to Past, Present and Future, by Vaclav Smil, which focuses on climate change.

Factfulness, by Anna Rosling Ronnlund, which looks at health and what more needs to be done.