Stanford President John Hennessy leads a question and answer session
with Bill Gates following the billionaire philanthropist's
presentation on campus. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)
Stanford Report, April 5, 2012
At Stanford, Bill Gates says foreign aid is threatened, but big ideas
can turn the tide
Scientists and engineers, Gates says, need to focus on developing
products that help improve the lives of the world's poor even though
the market directs people to help the wealthiest.
By Brooke Donald
When Bill Gates talks about Africa, he uses words like "optimistic,"
"excited" and "hopeful" – a sharp contrast to headlines describing
famine, war and disease.
Understanding better than most the realities on the ground there, the
billionaire philanthropist chooses instead to focus on what's being
done to improve the lives of people on the continent. He aims to
inspire others to join his effort and drive home the understanding
that foreign aid works.
During a visit this week to Stanford, Gates brought that enthusiasm to
a capacity crowd at Cubberley Auditorium, where he described three
programs supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that he
believes will have great impact on reducing the spread of disease and
improving agricultural production.
"I want to give you a sense of optimism and excitement about the
progress we're making," said Gates, who just returned from a trip to
Ethiopia and Zambia.
The first innovation he spotlighted was a cheap meningitis vaccine. He
said the drug, if applied properly, has the potential to eradicate a
certain strain of the disease in a region of Africa, known at the
meningitis belt, where children are particularly hard hit.
"It's horrific. People can see their kids getting (meningitis) and by
the time they get it they're not able to treat them," Gates said.
He also cited research showing that the risk of acquiring HIV goes
down among men who are circumcised, and described a newly developed
plastic ring to make the procedure easier and less expensive for
teenagers and adults.
Bill Gates shows an innovative male circumcision device called Shang Ring. (Click here to download a video clip)
"It is a fantastic development. It's just plastic, it's very cheap,"
he said. "It reduces the pain involved, it reduces the cost involved,
Lastly, Gates noted a specially designed triple-layer bag being given
to farmers to store their crops to avoid insect infestation.
"So now there are over 1.7 million households that will increase their
income by $150 a year, which is a lot," he said. "That's a pretty
Gates said he's optimistic that progress can be made with these
innovations but warned it can be hard to convince scientists and
engineers to turn their energy toward making products for developing
nations because it's not as profitable as creating them for wealthy
He said he was encouraged to hear, during conversations with Stanford
researchers, that they are working on malaria and tuberculosis drugs.
"There is a real danger that science wouldn't focus on those needs,
that it would just simply do what the richest need," he said.
Stanford President John Hennessy said Gates' "message of innovation as
key to improving the lives of people around the world clearly
resonates on this campus."
Hennessy presented Gates with a solar lamp created in Stanford's
Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability course.
Gates also took questions from the audience and Twitter. The event was
streamed live online.
Students asked about how the foundation prioritizes projects and
funds, the role of social scientists in foreign aid work, the impact
of any reduction in aid by governments, and the relevance of the
Internet in aid work.
"The Internet is a tool that can reduce that distance, have us feel a
common sense both of the problem and of the successes," he said.
But the man who built his fortune by selling software said the
Internet's reach was limited since most of sub-Saharan Africa doesn't
have online access. And he encouraged students to think beyond
computers when they imagine innovation.
"It could mean a bed net that doesn't tear apart after a couple of
years because of a new fiber. It could mean a new seed," he said.
Innovation "takes many different forms."
The foundation, Gates said, plans to award $100,000 to 10 people who
innovate – this time not by developing a new product, but by coming up
with new ways to convince people that foreign aid is effective.
Gates said aid is threatened as governments face budget deficits and
many consider trimming their spending on projects outside their
"If we could get innovators to care about these problems, we could get
broad awareness so we could get rich governments to continue to stay
generous," Gates said.
Hennessy closed the presentation by asking Gates to offer words of
advice to students.
"Pick a country," Gates said. "If you pick something that you know in
depth, then that really kind of animates you … then you get down on
the level where you actually meet the people and that's when you
really can't give it up."