At the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation, much of our work is focused on equality of access. Access to life-saving vaccines for all the world’s children; access to market for all smallholder farmers; access to maternal health solutions for mothers around the globe; access to quality education here in the United States. And this week we presented an award that recognizes the importance of access to information and knowledge - the Access to Learning Award – to a deserving winner, the Arid Lands Information Network (ALIN).
Access to information and knowledge sits at the heart of all the work we do at the foundation – indeed at the heart of every aspect of social, economic and community development. Those institutions which are equipped with the technologies that enable people, young and old, to acquire a whole host of life-changing information and skills, can change lives and reinvigorate communities. And those individuals with the skills to identify and meet the information needs of their local populations can be very powerful agents of change.
It was this fundamental belief that motivated the beginnings of our family’s philanthropic work.
The work of the foundation has increased and diversified since the Gates Library Foundation was established in 1997.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, in its present form, is better known for our work in vaccines, polio, agriculture, or U.S. education, but it serves us well to remember that our roots lie in an organization that was established to help solve the problem of a growing digital divide — an inequality of access to information.
My son, Bill, and his wife Melinda, identified that a significant portion of the United States had no access to computers or the Internet, despite the huge advances in these technologies that were taking place around them. They found that the library network, an existing public infrastructure, was well-placed to meet this challenge:
“Our public libraries represent free and open access to important information and knowledge”, said Melinda. “.. children and adults from all walks of life will have access to the wealth of information and understanding that computers and digital information make possible.”
By 2001, all libraries in the United States were online so that all people could take advantage of the opportunities afforded by information technology.
Now, if you can get to a library in the United States, you can reach the Internet.
That’s great news for Americans, because you can find a nearby library almost anywhere you go. But for many other countries, getting to a library is not so easy. And even if you manage to get there, you won’t necessarily find a computer with an Internet connection.
At the foundation we believe that all lives have equal value, and that every person deserves the right to live a healthy, productive life. So we did not stop there.
In 2000, the foundation began making grants to support libraries and other similar institutions, outside the United States. Today, our Global Libraries initiative is committed to making information and technology available to all people, no matter who or where they are.
My belief is that, in striving for universal access to information, we will advance the other causes to which the foundation is so deeply committed.