Tech pioneer Bill Gates thinks the U.S. can keep its historically influential role as a global leader.
But for a second year in a row, he cautioned that the nation risks losing its geopolitical clout if the Trump administration succeeds in slashing foreign aid, as proposed Monday in a new federal budget that prioritizes a jump in military spending. Last year, the White House tried to reduce foreign aid by one-third, but Congress did not approve the cuts.
“I hope we can keep our reputation in a deserved way,” Gates said in a phone interview in late January as talk of U.S. budget cuts rumbled.
If the U.S. diminishes its role providing aid to poor countries, it could both disappoint allies and allow rival superpowers to step in and exert their influence overseas, he says.
“They’ll find China and others to help them out," he said of developing world countries that rely on foreign humanitarian aid.
During Trump's State of the Union speech last month, he asked Congress to pass laws requiring aid only be doled out to "friends" of the U.S., based in large part how countries vote on big issues at the United Nations.
Gates points out even his sizeable philanthropic spend is dwarfed by the tens of billions of dollars that countries, including the U.S. and United Kingdom, typically funnel to international programs.
Last year, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation spent $4 billion on initiatives that battle malaria, HIV and other global health scourges, the bulk of which afflict many of the 1.2 billion people living in Africa.
“Africa is still a place where people have positive feelings about the United States and its role,” Gates told USA TODAY as the foundation prepared to release the 10th annual letter summarizing the foundation's efforts.
His optimistic comment takes on particular meaning following the outrage among many African and U.S. leaders last month when Trump compared African countries and Haiti to an outhouse.
Trump’s America First message has been on Gates’ mind for some time. In January 2017, he told USA TODAY: “If you interpret America First in certain ways, it would suggest not prioritizing the stability of Africa and American leadership.”
Worries about a domino effect that could erode the United States' global standing reflect the Microsoft's co-founder's role on the world stage — from running a PC giant to, since relinquishing full-time Microsoft duties in 2008, leading the planet's biggest philanthropy with his wife, Melinda.
This year, Gates, 62, and his wife decided their annual letter would answer 10 self-imposed questions. (Although not known for wise-cracking, Gates quips to the reporter: “That’s right, we’re taking your job away, we generated them with a computer.”)
Among the queries:
Why not spend more on climate change? Bill says he invests in potential solutions personally but feels philanthropy should focus on areas where corporations and governments don’t focus; Melinda says helping third-world farmers get more from the land to withstand a changing climate is critical.
Does saving lives lead to overpopulation? Melinda says the opposite is true because when mothers know their babies will live, they have fewer children; Bill notes that the number of children under 5 who die has been cut in half to 5 million since their efforts began, and those surviving children could now live longer with pioneering microbiome research that studies bacteria that live in the gut.
Are Trump’s policies affecting your work? Bill, who says this is the most common question he gets of late, is diplomatic, saying he believes in dialog and is thankful Congress is still debating those sweeping aid cuts. Melinda is blunt, saying that she wishes the president would role model better and “treat people, and especially women, with more respect when he speaks and tweets.”
As husband and wife duos go, the Gates hold a powerful megaphone and can summon world leaders to the phone with ease.
Little surprise there. Since its inception in 2000 through 2016, the foundation — which is fueled in part by billions from Bill Gates’ friend and mentor Warren Buffett — has doled out $41.3 billion, and has a trust endowment of $40.3 billion.
The organization distributes around $4 billion in annual grants, and the Gates say the plan remains to exhaust all of the foundation's funds within 20 years of the couple's death.
“I have nothing against foundations that work in perpetuity, but ours will come to an end,” he says, citing the Ford and Rockefeller foundations. “In the future, there will be rich people who will act on the issues of the time.”
In fact, the Gates have had an impact on swelling the ranks of future philanthropists. The Giving Pledge, initiated by Gates and Buffett in 2010, now has more than 170 signatories, men and women committed to donating the bulk of their wealth within their lifetimes.
“You’re seeing new pledgers out of India, China and even Africa, so to see this be a global phenomenon is really great, and it’s way more than Warren and I would have expected,” he says. “When someone like (Facebook founder) Mark Zuckerberg gets involved, that makes wealthy people in their 30s think maybe they should start thinking about this stuff, which is far earlier than I did.”
Gates says he and his wife will spend the coming years focused on the foundation’s twin pillars, global health and U.S. education.
Among its global health achievements, the foundation says malaria cases are down by 60% since 2000, according to the World Health Organization. And since 2016, 300 million women and girls in 69 of the world’s poorest countries have gotten access to contraceptives, and 86% of the world’s children now receive vaccinations.
In education, it has supported nearly 20,000 high-achieving, low-income, minority students with education scholarships since 2000.
“The world does keep improving, and hopefully we’ll help allow more people to see those improvements,” says Gates, who believes artificial intelligence — which has top tech minds including Zuckerberg and Tesla CEO Elon Musk locked in debate over its pros and cons — will help usher in a new era of productivity and progress.
“I’m a huge believer in AI, which I often spend time advising Microsoft on since they’re investing in this heavily,” he says. “The positives can be huge. New drug discoveries, or maybe (an AI) agent that can help a kid who needs tutoring. There are just so many ways AI will trigger a new age of innovation.”
Gates allows that AI “will have its challenges, and we should be talking about them,” a nod to a number of new organizations — such as Open AI, Google's DeepMind and Microsoft's own in-house team — that have sprouted up to ensure that companies consider the ethical implications of advancing artificial intelligence.
“But we are also possibly looking at the next level of productivity that can help people with special needs, the elderly,” says Gates. “Thank god for innovation, otherwise we’d fall short on the expectations people will have of the coming years.”
People such as his and Melinda’s three children, who are now young adults. Gates demurs when asked what the Gates family dinner conversations are like but says simply that he and his wife are clear about their parental message.
“We’ve said we’ll give them a great education and hopefully they’ll find careers that they love and that can help them help people, which is where they’ll find their greatest fulfillment,” he says. “We’ve chosen to say, you won’t have billions, which could be a negative. Hopefully, they see us role modeling. They’re young still, but I’d say so far, so good.”
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