Business Unusual

Why you should read the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation annual letter

There are more billionaires now than ever before and more charities too. Few compare with the size, scope and impact of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

It is the largest by total funds at over $50 billion made up mostly of the shares in Microsoft and Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway. Buffet decided to give most of his fortune to the foundation in 2006.

The Gates Foundation has set ambitious goals to tackle issues of poverty, healthcare (child mortality, vaccines, malaria, HIV, TB, sanitation), agriculture, climate change and education.

The 2019 letter looks at nine insights that are either an opportunity, or a risk. The foundation wants to tackle these with the help of everyone out there.

Here are the ones that might affect us the most:

Africa is the youngest continent

The most significant impact of reduced child mortality is that more children survive and create a larger generation bubble than the previous one.

That might seem like a problem, but it could be a boon. If education and opportunities can be adequately provided, that generation is likely to both increase economic output to better take care of themselves, the older generation and - because their children will have a better chance to survive - there will be fewer born in the next generation.

But there's a big if attached to providing good education and opportunities. Many African countries are run by leaders past their retirement age, but it's hoped they will appreciate the needs of this generation and focus on giving them the best opportunity to succeed.

Current flush toilets use terrible technology

When first introduced, toilets were game changers. They became part of city infrastructure at a time when fresh water was available and cheap enough to use to get rid of human waste.

Fast forward to cities that are growing faster than infrastructure can be built and make use of what is now a dwindling resource and you can understand why the foundation wants a new plan to process human waste.

Mobile phones can still have a major impact

There are more people now with mobile phones than without, but the foundation believes there is one particular group that can transform societies if they have more access to cellphones. Women. The opportunities that helped men find work, run a business and find information once they had the use of mobiles, should apply as much to women, who are much less likely to own a phone.

Cities are growing, and they are bad for climate change

The most significant carbon contributors are the fossil fuel energy sector and agriculture. They account for almost half of total carbon emissions. Manufacturing takes it to nearly 75%, and this includes the industries that build our cities.

Urbanisation is growing to the point that the sum of all the world's buildings built over centuries will double in the next 40 years. We'll need the cities, but not the resulting carbon emissions. New methods and materials are required to address this.

The rest of the points and the letters from the last decade are all available online, allowing us access to what they hoped to achieve and what in fact, they did.

There are questions about whether the rich should have the power to choose the projects. In this case, it's hard to argue that the projects are not good ones, but some billionaires might select causes carrying personal benefits without having to account or explain.

Foundations can also look to give away the minimum (5% in the US) to become wealth creation schemes. The Gates Foundation is slightly above that amount - it's an efficient way to reduce tax obligations while still living a good life. This foundation will not remain a legacy though. Both Buffet and the Gates have stipulated that all assets are distributed within 20 years of their death.

They may even spend it all if the targets they set can be met in their lifetimes. Their efforts have seen child mortality halve in the last decade from 10 million. Should vaccine distribution improve, polio could be eliminated. This week a new phase of testing may see gene editing result in the number of malaria-spreading mosquitoes crashing, preventing almost 200 million infections and 400 000 deaths in Africa.

Rather than simply change the world with software, they may change the world again using the enormous wealth that software has generated.

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