Tech titan turned powerful philanthropist Bill Gates, long concerned about the current administration’s efforts to slash U.S. foreign aid, says ongoing congressional efforts to thwart that goal are “a great thing.”
“Even if you’re just thinking about the U.S., having stability in other countries, making sure they can stop pandemics from spreading, it brings benefits here,” Gates told USA TODAY during an interview on a broad range of topics ahead of the release Tuesday of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s annual letter.
During the interview, Melinda Gates praised the way other leaders were taking a globalist approach when it comes to international politics.
“People like (French president Emmanuel) Macron are stepping in with leadership, because he knows that the more peace there is in other countries, the better the chance for peace in your own,” she said.
Bill Gates, Microsoft’s co-founder, has never directly criticized President Donald Trump, but he has been steadfast in his opposition to foreign aid cuts. Trump last summer proposed a $3 billion rollback in foreign aid spending. That attempt was aborted in August after lawmakers indicated they would push back against the effort, according to reports.
Last year, when Bill Gates was asked by USA TODAY about Trump’s isolationist stance, he diplomatically said that “if you interpret America First in certain ways, it would suggest not prioritizing the stability of Africa and American leadership.”
Bill Gates has had occasional closed door meetings with Trump over the past few years. Although nothing is known about the content of those talks, Trump initially surrounded himself with advisers from the business and technology worlds before those various meetings stopped.
Now, mere months after Democrats swept the midterm elections and took the House back from Republican leadership, Bill Gates said Congress should get “credit” for standing up to the administration.
“Because even if you take a narrow view, there’s still an argument for the U.S. having a foreign aid budget,” he said. “It’s just 1 percent of our federal budget,” typically around $40 billion. The White House had proposed to cut around $3 billion in aid.
Foreign aid, of course, is a familiar priority for the Gates family. Their foundation has about $50 billion left in its coffers and the husband and wife team intend to disperse the funds over the course of their lifetimes.
Much of the money has so far gone toward global health care. The foundation has dispensed $45.5 billion in grant payments to date toward issues ranging from education reform to pandemic prevention. It doles out around $4 billion each year.
Climate damage could be ‘gigantic’
The foundation’s just-released annual letter, called “Things We Didn’t See Coming,” makes clear its global focus.
It calls for funding technological efforts to find solutions for sanitation in Asia, Africa and Latin America, medical strategies to battle malaria and fully eradicate polio, and startup companies working on apps that empower women in poor countries.
While Melinda Gates often comes off as the impassioned heart of the foundation (to hear her talk about visiting remote villages in Burkina Faso is to want to hop on a plane and join her), Bill Gates prefers to fly the rational flag of science, championing tech innovations as the solution to some of the planet’s most pressing issues, beginning with climate change.
And while solar panels and electric cars are a nice step in that direction, he warns that population growth and a shift toward urban cores means the world will build the equivalent of a new New York City every month for the next 40 years.
Other huge contributors to emissions are manufacturing, at 21 percent, and transportation, at 14 percent. Agriculture contributes 24 percent.
While he jokes in the letter that he “never thought he’d be writing about bovine flatulence,” Bill Gates says the planet needs to collectively strive for zero-emissions in all five key areas: agriculture, electricity, manufacturing, transportation and buildings.
“In the long run, the damage can be gigantic,” he said of global warming and its grip on the future. “But we have to be careful not to exaggerate or else that hands the advantage over to people who want to politicize this.”
The biggest impact of climate change between now and 2100 will be on poor farmers in tropical zones, Bill Gates said. “The more people engaging on innovation in this area, the better the chance we have to solve the problem,” he said.
One example of technology helping to solve a massive, if indelicate, issue is progress toward creating toilets that incinerate waste on site.
Although still too costly to roll out in poor regions, these mobile facilities ultimately could go a long way to not only helping with hygiene but also self-esteem and safety, Melinda Gates said.
“We take having toilets ready for us for granted in the U.S.,” she said. “But if you don’t have one, like 2 billion [people] around the world, it’s an enormous problem. Women tell me about violence on the way to the toilet in town, or kidney disease flaring up because women are holding their urine until there’s a safe time to. This is a health issue and a dignity issue.”
Melinda Gates spends most of her time helping women across Africa and India. She recalled visiting a village in Burkina Faso after the foundation had sponsored a vaccine program there for chickens.
“The women, wow, they talked about what having a healthy flock of chickens meant in their lives,” she says. “They said, ‘Are you kidding me? Now I have eggs to feed my children. Now I have chickens to put on the market, that’s income. And income, that changes my entire life.’”
Remembering a friend
One recent moment the couple wasn’t prepared for was the death of Paul Allen, Gate’s Microsoft co-founder and the man to whom the foundation’s letter is dedicated, complete with a photo of the hirsute duo in 1982.
Asked how his friend and collaborator’s passing — Allen died on October 15 at 65 from complications of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma —has affected him, Bill Gates immediately went back to their first serendipitous meeting.
“He was two years older than me when we met at school, I was 13,” Bill Gates told USA TODAY. “Paul was always the one thinking where this computer thing would go. His thinking about the future and science was always very broad, and once he retired, he pursued that.”
Allen went on to use his billions not only to buy yachts and sports franchises, but also to fund ventures into brain research, space flight and artificial intelligence.
“He was always widely read, and he’d push me on things,” Bill Gates said. “Paul was both a big contributor and a super close friend. It’s tragic. I would have gotten a lot more time with him in the years ahead.”
Melinda Gates said she used to go out on dates with her husband— and Paul.
“There was nothing more fun honestly,” she said. “We’d go out to eat at some hole-in-the-wall Asian place that Paul had found, because he loved Asian food, and I’d just listen to the two of them brainstorm about what was possible.”
After those heady meals, the trio often would unwind with a double-feature movie. “I never made it through the second one, but Bill and Paul always did,” Melinda Gates said. “A lot of laughs.”