Bill Gates' Annual Letter

I’ve been interested in the reactions to both the annual letter from Bill Gates on the state of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and to an informal sit-down that Gates had with a varied group of writers in New York City. Here are a few snippets, first from Tyler Cowen:

Gates has a command of data and analytics in development economics better than that of most development economists, or for that matter aid professionals.  He also expects everyone at the meeting to know everything about what he is talking about, or at least is willing to proceed on that basis.  That said, when it comes to answering questions he sometimes assumes a stupider version of the question than what is actually being asked.

Next, from Dana Goldstein:

Discussing the bleak living conditions in the Central African Republic and Yemen, Gates said, “If you don’t invest in health there, you’re a cold-hearted bastard.” In a rare personal comment, he discussed how one of his daughters was moved by video footage of a child survivor of polio limping down a dirt road. “What did you do to help her?” she asked her dad – an insightful comment, since Gates said he feels growing concern about the survivors of once-deadly childhood diseases like malaria and polio, who often arrive at school with cognitive delays that make it difficult to learn. 

Lastly, from Jason Kottke:

Over and over, in the letter and during the roundtable, Gates talked about the importance of measurement and results. I got the sense that before the Gates Foundation came along, money was pumped into charitable foundations and donors didn’t have much sense what result their giving had, beyond that it had “done good”. Gates is obviously running his foundation like a business, where instead of profits or number of Windows installs, the metrics are things like lives saved or children vaccinated.

Three thoughts stirred by reading both the letter and the responses to it.

First, I think the living situation for much of the developing world – especially sub-Saharan Africa – is improving much faster than our popular perception of it is. Obviously, “improving” does not always mean acceptable or even livable, but I keep reading, over and over, that things like lifespan, infant mortality, and average wages are improving the world over. The full effects of this won’t be felt for a long time, but will shape the contours of our relationship with the rest of the world for the rest of the 21st century.

Second, Gates’ analytical approach to philanthropy reminds me of Malcolm Gladwell’s incredible article “The Mosquito Killer”, the story of a single public health official’s quixotic quest to eliminate malaria. In that instance, too, the key to success was a methodical, analytical approach that required the coordination of a huge number of people in various far-flung parts of the world. It’s possibly the best public-health story I’ve ever read.

Lastly, a persistent criticism of Steve Jobs, both before and after his death, was his curiously apathetic approach to philanthropy. He famously declined to donate publicly to charity and suspended Apple’s policy of matching the charitable donations of their employees. (The policy was reinstated by Tim Cook shortly after he took control of the company.)

The defense most commonly made of this fact is: so what? It’s was Jobs’ money and time, he was free to spend it as he wished, and he chose to dedicate his life to creating the best consumer electronics company in the world. And if Jobs truly didn’t feel that philanthropy was his calling, I also don’t think there’s nothing wrong with that.

But Gates and Jobs have always been natural counterpoints, and on this issue, I do think Jobs comes out worse in the comparison. For the last thirteen years, Gates has been doing work that has and will continue to fundamentally improve the lives of billions of people. I think that counts for more than just being a really good CEO with a keen eye for design. And I suspect that in a hundred years Gates will be a hero, and Jobs little more than a footnote.