Lukanyo Mnyanda Editor: Business Day
Microsoft's billionaire founder Bill Gates. Picture: MATTHEW KNIGHT/POOL VIA REUTERS
Microsoft's billionaire founder Bill Gates. Picture: MATTHEW KNIGHT/POOL VIA REUTERS

On the face of it, the timing could hardly seem to have been worse for Bill Gates.

The billionaire founder of technology company Microsoft, known now for his philanthropy through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, was in Davos to make a pitch for what seems inimical to the mood in global politics.

 In the US, the government was shut down over President Donald Trump’s insistence on spending more than $5bn to build a wall to separate the  country from Mexico, the UK is consumed by its Brexit debate and French President Emmanuel Macron gave the 2019 World Economic Forum (WEF) a meeting a miss, lest he reinforce the perception that he’s out of touch as the “yellow vest” protests threatening to overwhelm his administration.

German chancellor Angela Merkel, de facto leader of the “free world”, as these Western countries were once known, was there and presented an impassioned defence of multilateralism and and global co-operation. But even she arrived a diminished figure after the forces of populism punished her party in the polls over her welcoming stance towards refugees from the Syrian civil war.   

And Gates was there to make the case for these very governments to sign up to funding for global health initiatives in developing countries — far away places that are hardly at the top of priority lists for their electorates.

One of the initiatives in which the foundation has spent about $10bn in the past two decades and more, the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria hopes to raise about $14bn by October 2019 in its latest replenishment. The Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation, chaired by Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a former finance minister of Nigeria, is set to follow suit in 2020.

“It’s really the continued willingness of the voters and politicians in the top aid donor countries that will determine if this thing continues or not,” Gates said in an interview at the annual meeting of the WEF. 

“And we have to go to France at a time when there is a lot of domestic turmoil, go to the UK when they are looking at Brexit. Germany is absorbing refugees, the US has a more America First type way of looking at things.”

For those more familiar with tales about the foundation’s oversized power, it might come as a surprise that it “only” contributed 10% of the $100bn invested in the two funds by global donors, together with the polio eradication initiative.​ The rest came from governments in the developed world, led by the US, UK, Germany, France and Japan, with contributions from the Scandinavian countries. 

Scepticism about aid is nothing new. Debates swirl around its effectiveness and the more ideological questions about whether it’s an inherently negative force, irrespective of the good it may achieve, an antagonism that has been credited with discouraging support for funding projects. 

In Davos, Gates, and Susan Desmond-Hellmann, the CEO of the foundation, preferred to stick to the language of the constituency there — more than 3,000 strong  — relying on the foundation’s array of data, covering both financial returns and health outcomes.

“If you want to make a great case at Davos, talk about a really positive return on investment,” says Desmond-Hellmann, a former chancellor of the University of California, San Francisco. “In some ways we’ve been starting with the head. You quickly go to the heart, but you’ve already won the head.”

On the heart, the foundation can point to data showing the number of children being killed by infectious diseases before their fifth birthday halving since 1990. Nevertheless, around 6-million children are still dying due to a lack of vaccines that are freely available in richer countries. And the funds are still some way from meeting long-term goals such as finding vaccines for HIV/Aids and TB. 

And then there is the financial-investment case, with Gates telling CNBC that he figured the $10bn invested over two decades had generated $200bn in economic benefits, while he would have struggled to double the investments had he put $10bn of his wealth into the S&P 500. Relative to the benefits, the amounts involved are small for the richer countries, he argues. 

Scepticism, he implies, is probably the biggest enemy, even as Ebola and the Zika virus scare in recent years made the case for enlightened self-interest by showing how diseases respect no borders or walls. Well funded and efficient primary health-care systems in poorer countries mean there is a better chance of managing and containing the outbreaks.

“Because it’s far away, and for a lot of people it’s like, hey, isn’t that kind of stuff corrupt, does it really work? There isn’t a great awareness,” Gates says. “I get to oversee the progress but most people don’t.”

Debates about billionaires and philanthropy will persist. But can anyone argue that saving children is ever a bad thing?

Gates is hoping the governments, and their voters, think not. I hope he is right.