This year’s annual letter from the Gates Foundation takes a slightly different format: It’s written to Warren Buffett, who 10 years ago pledged $30 billion to the foundation.
Warren’s really inspired us. For years he’s written an annual letter for Berkshire Hathaway to talk to the shareholders about how he’s thinking about the business. Given that it’s the 10-year anniversary of his gift, we thought, let’s use that as a marker to really spend some time, Bill and I, reflecting on what we have accomplished, as if we’re trying to tell him what his return on investment has been. It ended up being a really good exercise for both of us.
We don’t normally think about foundation work as returning a value on investments.
One of the things that we realized is you feel a responsibility to give your own wealth thoughtfully. But boy, if it’s somebody else’s wealth, you really better do it in a very careful and thoughtful way. We do think about what’s the return on that and how many lives have been saved. Have we done it in the best possible way, the most efficient way, used the best partners? The other thing I’ll say, though, is Warren does say, “I don’t want you to be risk-free. You’re taking on society’s hardest problems. So take risks, swing for the fences.” We’ve had some failures along the way, and Warren’s been OK with that, because he knows we’re trying to move very difficult problems forward.
There’s a line right at the end of your letter that says, “The future will surprise the pessimists.”
Despite the things that people read in the headlines, the world is getting better. Poverty has been cut in half—in half—in 25 years. We talk about the fact that 122 million children are alive because of the malaria vaccine work that’s happened and bed nets getting out there. I travel to the developing world three times a year, and I’m out in remote, rural, dusty villages. Farmers are hooked up to markets; they’re having more income; they’re putting their kids in school. You have to look at the numbers, to rely on the facts, but it’s palpable when you’re out on the ground.
Still, it’s not getting better fast enough. Bill and I are impatient optimists. We want it to get better faster, and we see things we have in the U.S. that, if brought in the right way to these countries, people will take them up and use them.
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