Bill and Melinda Gates have used their tenth annual letter to grapple with what they call some of the ‘searching’ questions they face – from their views on the current incumbent of the White House to reconciling the power their wealth gives them with their belief that all lives have equal value.
Is it fair, for example, that they have so much influence?
Melinda concedes that ‘it’s not fair that our wealth opens doors that are closed to most people,’ but she argues, there is no subversive aim.
The interests the foundation is pushing, like health, education and eradication of poverty, are those of the rest of the world and it is using whatever means it can – money and influence – to achieve them.
Bill, meanwhile, acknowledges that while the foundation encourages feedback, grantees are reluctant to voice criticism.
So why don’t they solve the unfairness dilemma by giving it to the government? Bill reproduces the standard argument that there are some things governments can’t do, but foundations can. ‘If a government tries an idea that fails, someone wasn’t doing their job. Whereas if we don’t try some ideas that fail, we’re not doing our jobs,’ he writes.
The pair also takes on the political situation. Both observe the need to work with the government, but note this has become tricky under the Trump presidency.
While both make general criticisms of the present administration – Bill notes that ‘the America First worldview concerns me. …..my view is that engaging with the world has proven over time to benefit everyone, including Americans, more than withdrawing does,’ and Melinda takes on student aid programmes which she says ‘need to work better for low-income students.’
Melinda is more forthright about the President himself: ‘I believe one of the duties of the president of the United States is to role model American values in the world. I wish our president would treat people, and especially women, with more respect when he speaks and tweets.’
And what’s in it for them?
Two things, says Bill: ‘We think [philanthropy]’s a basic responsibility of anyone with a lot of money,’ and it’s fun. ‘The foundation’s work has become inseparable from who we are,’ adds Melinda. ‘We do the work because it’s our life.’
Andrew Milner is associate editor of Alliance. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.