Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Live from TEDxChange in Berlin

April 06, 2012

Natalie Holmes is a blogger with The Horseshoe Nail who attended TEDxChange: "The Big Picture" featuring a line-up speakers who addressed some of the world's biggest challenges including poverty, women's empowerment, and access to family planning. Speakers included Jeff Chapin of IDEO, Theo Sowa of the African Women's Development Fund, and Melinda Gates. She writes about her experience below.

A looming, Berghainian former power station set the perfect scene for one of TEDx’s biggest events to date, as local and international guests and speakers entered awestruck to mutters of that familiar phrase: ‘only in Berlin’.

Out back in the blogger lounge, the retro post-industrial vibe continued in a room that could have been a sixties sci-fi film set.

On to business. We were treated to an introduction and Q&A with some of the speakers before they rushed off to centre stage and the main event began.

First up was Jeff Chapin of global design consultancy, Ideo, who deglamorised design with his story of bringing a latrine to market in rural Cambodia, increasing toilet hygiene and saving hundreds of lives.  Jeff stressed the importance of locally tailored solutions to suit specific cultural and physical environments.  Through astute anecdote, we learnt how design, though unglamorous, has the power to enable longer and deeper conversations about the things that really matter, such as health, family and security.

Next, an impassioned call to action from MEP and German Green Party member, Sven Giegold. Sven explained the link between the global financial crisis and our ongoing addiction to oil.  The financial crisis is, however, not one of scarcity but of abundance – four times the global GDP is now circulating the economy, searching for short term investments and profits and over-complex financial products. We need a new deal to solve the problem, rather than rebuilding the old system, and this involves regulation of the financial markets in combination with a genuine commitment to renewable energy.

Despite disagreeing with Sven on the nuclear question, his talk was compelling and I was encouraged to hear informed and insightful reference to the interconnectedness of the environment and global economy – a key perspective on the Big Picture.

Theo Sowa is CEO of the African Women’s Development Fund, and delivered an impassioned speech about the consultation of women (or the shameful lack thereof) in discussions about development issues. Her point was poignant in its potency and moving in its manifestation: a profile of some of the thousands of women who could provide invaluable solutions to some of the continent’s most pressing problems, if only they were asked. Theo’s standing ovation was certainly well deserved, however, from the Twitter feed it appeared that many in the audience inadvertently proved one of her main points:  Theo pointed out that we don’t ask victims for solutions, and that we need to stop treating all African women as victims; but the phrase that got repeatedly retweeted was that ‘we need to start asking the victims for solutions’.

After a moving performance from Senegalese singer/songwriter, Baaba Maal (which he dedicated to all the world’s women), Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Gates Foundation, who organised this event, delivered the final presentation of the evening.

Having already heard a taster of Melinda’s topic in our earlier Q&A, it was clear that she is wholly devoted to the Foundation and their causes; the top four being polio elimination, vaccination, family planning and agriculture.

Melinda’s talk was on family planning – a topic that is currently hugely controversial, but why? Debates about abortion and population control are both hugely emotive issues and ones that are frequently associated with family planning – making a practical issue suddenly loaded by association.

Family planning is about the freedom to decide whether to have a child. There is, in many societies and cultures, a reluctance to address or accept birth control because it removes the act of sex from the goal of reproduction, thereby condoning promiscuity.  This is not about promiscuity, however, but about the freedom of choice, and women having more control over their bodies and their lives; the ability to “bring every good thing to this child before I have another."

Despite some unanswered questions about cultural relativity, and ambiguities about where the Gates Foundation sits amid top-down and bottom-up approaches, I am impressed by Melinda’s dedication to this issue. "I’ll keep doing this for the next thirty years”, was her zealous response to a question in the blogger lounge about how long the work would need to go on.

Answering another question, Melinda explained to us the role of a foundation, describing it as a ‘catalytic wedge’, to help drive down prices and develop new technology etc. The Gates Foundation’s funds are just a drop in the ocean, and to roll out solutions on a large scale and implement lasting, positive change, takes leadership, and is ultimately down to governments.  Organising and hosting an event such as this, encouraging and enabling so many people (not just us in Berlin but the hundreds of thousands of people who tuned in live across the world) to refocus our local lens and look at the Bigger Picture, is itself an innovative display of leadership – one that can only increase the Foundation’s global influence and impact in its impressive ongoing philanthropic endeavours.

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