Magazine article Newsweek

Keeping Up with the Gateses; on a Whirlwind Tour through South Asia, 'The Benefactors' Show That When It Comes to Health, They Mean Business

Magazine article Newsweek

Keeping Up with the Gateses; on a Whirlwind Tour through South Asia, 'The Benefactors' Show That When It Comes to Health, They Mean Business

Article excerpt

Byline: Geoffrey Cowley

Next time you visit Dhaka, Bangladesh, consider having Bill and Melinda Gates along. When the couple arrived in the city last week, its traffic-choked streets became 60mph thoroughfares lined by curious masses and secured by rooftop sharpshooters. The airport operated at the convenience of the entourage, and the government arranged to have the tarmac festooned with huge portraits and a welcome sign reading LONG LIVE BILL AND MELINDA GATES! When Melinda confided that this "really isn't our preferred mode of transportation," one of the half dozen reporters in the group countered, "I quite like it."

By all appearances, South Asia is in love. At every stop--Dhaka, Delhi and the south Indian city of Chennai--the press obsessed over Bill's business plans, his food preferences ("the samosa remains an all-time favorite") and his vision of the digital future. "Take it with a tablet if you want," India's Economic Times declared, "but very soon computers will talk, walk, walk the talk, what have you." Gates did unveil a new $1.7 billion Microsoft initiative during the visit, but that wasn't his primary mission. Over several tightly scheduled days, the couple spent less time in corporate offices than in community clinics and urban slums. In Gates-speak, they were in "learning mode." Their topic: the health of the poor.

For the Gateses, this is not a do-gooder hobby. Since launching the Bill Melinda Gates Foundation in 2000, the couple has transformed the field of global health, pushing diseases of poverty into the spotlight and reviving disciplines that range from parasitology to vaccine science. It helps to have $30 billion in assets, of course, but enormity isn't the only thing that distinguishes this enterprise. As anyone shadowing the Gateses quickly discovers, the foundation is no less a business than the corporation that spawned it. "The benefactors," as they're known in the "MBM" (the traveling staff's minute-by-minute itinerary) see themselves not as donors but as entrepreneurs in search of good investments. "We're not giving money away," Gates says. "We're working on world health, and we're working with an incredible bank account. The science we're pursuing is just as fun, and just as fascinating, as software development."

The foundation's first big initiative--the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization--is a venture capitalist's dream. Launched in 2000 with a Gates grant of $750 million, GAVI now has an $8 billion war chest backed by commitments from more than a half dozen countries. Experts agree it has saved a million lives over the past five years simply by expanding routine vaccination. It's now set to save 2 million more in the coming decade. The trouble is, three times that number of kids still die of preventable causes each year. …

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