Charities and foundations typically step in to do the work governments can't or won't do. But billionaire Bill Gates thinks "rich world" nations could do much better. Most foreign aid comes to about one percent of a country's budget--as it does in the U.S.- and in his annual letter issued today, he asks government to run the final leg of a wonderful humanitarian marathon to end polio, even though the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation could apparently do it alone. It is both an honorable request and an example of Gates' rarely criticized power philanthropy.
Besides saving lives, eradication of diseases ultimately saves money, he notes. The savings by ending polio, for example, will far exceed what we are spending now. "The long-term benefits of the last couple of billion dollars spent on eradication will be truly phenomenal. A recent estimate added up the cost of treatment that won't be necessary and the enhanced economic contribution of adults who won't get polio. Eradication could save the world up to $50 billion over the next 25 years."
Though there are now just four countries where polio transmission has never been stopped--India, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan--it will cost $1 billion annually to wipe it out. Gates' foundation contributes about $200 million a year. But, he says, the campaign still faces a 2011-12 funding gap of $720 million.
If eradication fails because of a lack of generosity on the part of donor countries it would be tragic. We are so close, but we have to finish the last leg of the journey. We need to bring the cases down to zero, maintain careful surveillance to ensure the virus is truly gone, and keep defenses up with polio vaccines until we've confirmed success.
He does not say why, with the end now within grasp, his foundation, with a $36 billion endowment, cannot make that final push on its own. Instead, he suggests his charity be just the catalyst. "If we are to succeed, the world needs leadership from a global institution and significant, coordinated resources from rich countries to fund activities in the poorest countries."
Shepherding governments towards his noble goals isn't a new tack for Gates, although the approach has its critics. They wonder where the line is between humanitarian and political policies. The foundation pays media organizations to cover its work, and has been accused of setting the public agenda in education by tossing around its considerable funding weight. Gates and other foundations, says Dissent, have used their money to "define the national debate on education; sustain a crusade for a set of mostly ill-conceived reforms; and determine public policy at the local, state, and national levels."
Yet as the writer points out, "Many people, including leftists, consider it unseemly, even churlish, to criticize the Gates Foundation. Time and again, I've heard, 'They do good work on health care in Africa. Leave them alone.' But the Gates Foundation has created much the same problem in health funding as in education reform," such as investing in oil companies that foster health problems the foundation combats.
As usual, the bottom line balances out for Gates. As one media study found, for every negative article on foundations, there are 13 positives. How do you criticize generosity?