In addition to guiding Microsoft's new product strategy, one of Bill Gates's chief preoccupations for the past few years has been the fight against infectious diseases in the developing world. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation contributed $750 million of the Vaccine Fund's $1 billion war chest, which pays for vaccines against such diseases as hepatitis, measles, and polio for 53 of the world's poorest nations.
The foundation is also a major backer of the Global Alliances for Vaccines & Immunization (GAVI), which many poverty experts regard as a promising new model for managing foreign aid and coordinating the activities of governments and donor agencies. GAVI was formed in response to stagnating global immunization rates and widening disparities in vaccine access among industrialized and developing countries, a problem that results in millions of people dying each year from easily prevented infectious diseases.
In an interview with BusinessWeek Senior News Editor Pete Engardio conducted via e-mail, Gates offered his views on GAVI and global poverty in general. Edited excerpts follow:
Q: Why should American business care about global poverty?
A: Business everywhere should care on both a humanitarian and practical level. First, it's simply wrong to let millions suffer and die needlessly when we have the knowledge and tools to reduce disease burden and save lives.
Second, the decisions we make today on issues such as global-health inequity will have a direct impact on the society our children live in tomorrow. Notwithstanding the security issues that some have raised, ensuring that young people have access to basic health care is a vital long-term investment that will pay substantial dividends 20 years from now in the form of healthier, more economically independent societies.
Q: Do you think there's reason to hope that many of the most serious problems that contribute to extreme poverty can be solved with smart use of foreign aid and committed governments?
A: There are certainly several reasons to be hopeful. Increased attention is being given to issues of poverty and especially global health. This, combined with greater awareness about the destabilizing impacts of global-health inequity and a willingness to commit more resources in the form of development assistance make this a unique time to confront some of the greatest challenges associated with poverty.
I think as more people realize how much can be done for so little, they will support their governments' decisions to spend more resources on issues like improving global health. Low-cost tools --- such as a measles vaccine (25 cents), a bed net ($4) to prevent a child from contracting malaria, and oral-rehydration therapy (33 cents) to prevent a child's death from diarrhea -- can literally save millions of children.
Q: Do you think GAVI and other programs that use incentives, monitoring, and donor coordination represent a new model for foreign aid?
A: GAVI represents an innovative approach to immunizing the world's children using existing vaccines and collaboration between public and private sectors. The Vaccine Fund is currently working with the governments of 53 developing countries. And if those countries reach the targets they have set, immunization rates will rise by 17%, saving millions of lives.
GAVI is also creating a viable market for vaccines in low-income countries. Markets alone won't address the largest health inequities -- it will take new approaches that includes incentives and better cooperation.