Originally published by Simon Cosyns in The Sun, Friday, 18 November, 2013.
You might think it is a bit rich for Bill Gates to be backing Britain’s controversial foreign aid programme.
The Microsoft chairman recently reclaimed his position as the world’s richest man, his personal wealth estimated at £44.5billion.
So why, I hear you shouting from the rooftops, should he hold such strong views on how British taxpayers’ hard-earned cash is spent?
In an exclusive interview with The Sun, the 57-year-old American passionately defends Britain’s aid budget — currently more than £8billion a year — and suggests it represents a far smaller proportion of national spend than people think.
Gates is only too aware of Britain’s financial problems, the level of national debt and the number of Brits struggling on the breadline but says: “It’s important to put in to perspective how much actually goes on aid.
“I recently read about an opinion poll where people in the UK were asked to estimate how much of the country’s budget is spent on aid.
“Most people answered around 17 per cent — and thought it should be closer to seven per cent — but in fact it is only 1.2 per cent.
“So reducing aid isn’t going to dramatically increase livelihoods in the UK, but cutting it even a small amount would significantly reduce the life-saving benefits of aid to the world’s poorest people.”
It is vital to remember that Gates spent the first part of his career amassing a giant fortune and that he is spending the second part finding effective ways to use it in the developing world.
While backing our Government’s funding of the Department For International Development, the committed philanthropist is also putting his money where his mouth is.
UK’s foreign aid saves lives and helps build a flourishing, healthier world. The idea a lot is wasted is just wrong.Bill Gates
Gates, his wife Melinda and their friend, US billionaire businessman Warren Buffett, have pledged to contribute most of their wealth to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which focuses on reducing poverty and improving the health of the world’s poorest people.
Every year, the foundation awards grants worth £2.2billion to organisations tackling problems in more than 100 countries.
This includes the fight to eradicate rotavirus — extreme diarrhoea — polio and malaria, and the investment is reaping rewards.
When I meet Gates, I find him personable and engaging, yet there is a touch of the computer geek about the way he supports his rationale with a blizzard of stats.
He says: “Without question, the vast majority of British aid is improving people’s lives.
“It gets vaccines to poor communities to protect children from diseases and improves the health and nutrition of young women and pregnant mothers so they are better able to raise healthy children who can contribute to a prosperous society.
“Development aid is a solid investment. A healthier, flourishing world is good for everybody, including British business.”
One of the familiar complaints is that British aid goes to countries such as India, which has seen huge growth in its economy. Charity begins at home, people say.
Gates responds: “Look at countries like South Korea and Brazil. It wasn’t long ago that they were on the receiving end of a lot of aid.
“That aid enabled them to become self-sustaining economies and they are providing aid to help poor countries make the progress they did.
“Look at Africa. It is now the fastest-growing continent economically, and the growth rate exceeds six per cent in a third of African countries.
“This is a pathway towards self-sufficiency. There’s no question that the aid investments taxpayers in Britain and other countries are making are paying off. And that means that one day, in the not too distant future, aid will no longer be necessary.”
Gates is keen to acknowledge the great British public’s incredible record on giving to charity.
He says: “From the battle against slavery several hundred years ago to the creation of Oxfam and Save The Children, Comic Relief, Live Aid and Live 8, Britain has a strong history of caring for people who are caught in unfortunate circumstances. This is one of the things that makes the UK such a great country.”
It is clear David Cameron and the Coalition share much common ground with Gates. Only recently, aid to Rwanda via the country’s government was stopped because of its links to brutal rebels in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as questions over human rights.
International Development Secretary Justine Greening announced that £16million would be funnelled to Rwanda through aid agencies instead to prevent this subversion.
But how does Gates address genuine concerns that aid gets into the wrong hands, with corrupt officials syphoning it away?
He says: “Having spent more than three decades running a successful business, my tolerance for wasting money is low.
“I’ve spent a lot of time looking into how global health programmes are run. The idea that a lot of aid money is wasted is just wrong.
“We’ve learned how to focus more aid on investments that have an impact on the lives of the poorest.
“This includes educating women that immediate and exclusive breastfeeding in the first six months of an infant’s life is the single most important thing they can do to improve brain development and protect their child from diseases.
“For children older than six months, a 6p packet of nutritional supplement can help reduce stunting and improve language and motor skills.”
And he concludes: “Dictators don’t tend to stockpile nutritional supplements.”
Visits to Africa have also shaped Gates’ views on aid. He has seen first-hand how effective it can be.
He says: “It’s quite shocking how little it costs to save a life in the developing world.
“About a year ago, on a trip to Zambia, I met Florence Daka, who is alive today because of the HIV drugs she receives. A decade ago those would have cost more than $10,000 (£6,200) a year. Today, Aids drugs cost just a fraction of that because we’ve got better at creating and delivering effective and efficient treatment.
“As a result, Florence, and millions like her, are healthy, working a full-time job, with enough money to send their children to school. That’s incredible progress.
“Yet, millions of children are still dying each year simply because they don’t have access to other drugs or vaccines that we take for granted in wealthy countries.
“The measles vaccine is one example. It is one of the safest, most effective and inexpensive ways to save a life. It costs less than $1 (60p) per dose to immunise a child. But as recently as 2011 there were 158,000 deaths from measles, mostly young children in poor countries.
“I think most people would agree that it makes sense to invest in low-cost efforts that are proven to save lives — not only for humanitarian reasons but also because they enable poor countries to begin to build a productive workforce, sustainable economies and more peaceful, stable societies.”
Finally, Gates addresses the positive impact of aid, not just by his foundation but also by countries such as Britain.
He says: “In the past 50 years the number of young children who die each year has gone from 20million to fewer than seven million. Since 1990 the world has cut extreme poverty in half. We are talking about progress on the most important measures — are people alive and do they have enough money to live at the most basic level? — on a massive global scale.
“In the world’s poorest countries, this can’t happen by itself. It requires the support of taxpayers in Britain and other donor countries and investments by poor countries themselves in their citizens.”
It is strange to think Gates’ first vision was a company that would enable anyone to use a computer and that his second is to eradicate poverty and disease from the world.
He may not fully succeed — but he is having a damn good go.
You sense that the words “failure” and “impossible” don’t enter his persuasive vocabulary.
Gates on why he and wife Melinda give money away
WE were both raised in families that put a lot of emphasis on community service.
In fact, my dad still works with us at the foundation and, at 87, regularly attends fundraisers and gives speeches.
When Melinda and I got married we talked a lot about how we could give back much of the wealth that Microsoft was generating.
In 1996 we read a newspaper article about a disease called rotavirus – the most common cause of severe diarrhoea in children. We had never heard of rotavirus because in wealthy countries like the US and the UK, very few children were dying from the disease. Yet, in developing countries, half a million children were dying from rotavirus every year.
This injustice – that a mere nuisance for us and our children was deadly for others – inspired us to make two decisions. First, that our philanthropic giving would focus on global health. And second, that it would start right away. Today 12 of the world’s poorest countries are vaccinating children against rotavirus and by 2015 that number will triple.
In those countries, tens of millions of children will be safe from what, until recently, was a leading cause of childhood death.
Gates on his mission to eradicate polio from world
FOR most people, polio is more of a historical curiosity than a reality.
But it wasn’t that long ago – 1988 in fact – that polio was paralysing 1,000 children every day and was widespread in 125 countries. In 2012 there were only 223 reported cases in just three countries worldwide. Amazing progress.
The problem with polio, though, is that it is a highly infectious disease but only a small percentage of infected people show symptoms.
So we have to eradicate polio completely or it will come roaring back. The fact that India was recently able to get rid of polio – something a lot of people thought wasn’t possible – convinced me that we can finish the job.
Top 10 league tables of foreign aid in 2012, (billions of pounds)
1. US - 18.9
2. UK - 8.46
3. Germany - 8.14
4. France - 7.44
5. Japan - 6.51
6. Canada - 3.52
7. Netherlands - 3.42
8. Australia - 3.39
9. Sweden - 3.25
10. Norway - 2.94