Melinda Gates on global health, inequality and her own privilege

A: There are absolutely people thinking about this. Then there are others who, no, they’re comfortable with how they act. But one of the reasons the Giving Pledge has been so important is that in some countries – in India, in China – we’re starting the discussion about philanthropy. [The Giving Pledge is a campaign started by Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett, to encourage the wealthy to give at least half their net worth, either during their lifetimes or in their wills, to charitable causes. Its signatories include, among others, designer Diane von Furstenberg, Richard and Joan Branson, and Elon Musk.] I will say that of the 190 people who have joined the Giving Pledge so far, some of them joined because it looks good. But I’m stunned by how many visits we’re hosting at the foundation now with philanthropists – not even billionaires, millionaires – asking us: how did you think about philanthropy? How did you do it?

Q: When you’re in Giving Pledge meetings, would it ever fly to ask people not just to give more but to take less?

A: Look, there are going to be lots of points of view in the room about that topic. But you frame it as: what do we want for our democracy? How do we want the US to look, act and be 50 and 100 years from now? Many people in that room want better outcomes for low-income people in the US. They want to see things get better.

Q: One of the recurring criticisms of large-scale philanthropists is they aren’t interested in any redress of the economic systems that create inequality. In order to rectify inequalities, doesn’t a radical rethinking need to happen?

A: Bill and I are both on the record saying that we believe in more progressive taxes. We believe in an estate tax. We don’t believe in enormous inherited wealth. [In a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” post, Bill Gates wrote, “I definitely think leaving kids massive amounts of money is not a favour to them.”] There are certain places where Bill and I sit where that is not a popular idea. Bill will be the first person to tell you, and Warren Buffett will be the second, that they could not have done what they did without having grown up in the US, benefiting from the US education system, benefiting from the infrastructure that exists here to build a business. [Buffett is a Gates Foundation trustee. In 2006, he pledged most of his fortune to the foundation, in the form of 10 million shares of Berkshire Hathaway stock.]

If they had grown up in – pick your favourite place – Senegal, they couldn’t have started their businesses. There’s no way. So they have benefited. But we do need to think about how we right some of these inequities. How do we open our networks of power for women and people of colour? We have to think about our privilege. I have to think about my privilege every day.

Q: What’s a recent epiphany you’ve had about your privilege?

A: That it’s not enough to read about it. You have to be in the community with people who don’t look like you. When I read about a shooting, maybe in the south side of Seattle, I’m not living the experience. Whereas if I have a friend who’s a person of colour, they most likely are living that experience or know somebody who was part of that community. And so my youngest daughter – she has a lot of friends whom I’m meeting, and they’re of very mixed races; I love that – and I have this motto we go by: every single person who walks through our door should feel comfortable in our house, despite how large it is and that it has nice art. And, believe me, there are people who show up at my front door who are not that comfortable. So sometimes that means sitting down inside the front door with our dog – and I’m in my yoga pants, no make-up on – and petting the dog until they’re comfortable being there. And only if we’ve made them comfortable can we be in real community. I have to do more to break down those barriers. It is very hard for almost anybody to show up at my front door.

Q: What’s something about the tech world that drives you crazy?

A: One thing that does bug me is that, even for the big world problems Bill and I are talking about, sometimes the tech world thinks the solution is to give somebody an app. Well, that’s not going to change everything. I would also love to see more tech innovation on behalf of the world. “Let’s create the next thing that tracks my dog” – that’s fun and nice, but come on, there are people dying.

Q: You tell some personal stories in your book, and those stories share space with the stories of women who have gone through truly horrific things: genital mutilation, or a mother who felt compelled to try to give you her child, so the kid would have a chance at a better life. Was it hard to figure out how experiences so different from your own could co-exist in the same book? The generous way of looking at it would be to say your book is giving these other women’s stories a platform. The less generous interpretation would be that by putting your story in the same book as other, harsher stories, you’re conflating fundamentally unequal situations.

With husband Bill: “I’m actually looking forward to the day Bill and I live in a 1500-square-foot (140-square-metre) house,” she says.

With husband Bill: “I’m actually looking forward to the day Bill and I live in a 1500-square-foot (140-square-metre) house,” she says. Credit:Getty Images

A: One of the things I write about in the book is that I’ve been in an abusive relationship. I’ve never talked about it publicly before. It killed my voice and self-esteem for years. That, to me, is not that different than women in the developing world who lose their voice or have no decision-making power. Certainly I don’t have the experience, thank god, of female genital cutting, and I have not lost a child, but I have been very close to two people’s deaths, where the family let me walk death with them.

And, being a mum, I have some understanding of how horrible it would be to lose a child. Those stories are universal. We don’t have to live everyone’s experience. We just have to have enough empathy to understand how heartbreaking that would be and to say, “Let’s change this.” So I want people to be able to empathise with whichever stories reach them, then turn it back and say, “Okay, what can I do?”

Q: How have the political shifts of the past few years – toward populism especially – affected the Gates Foundation?

A: It’s a much tougher political environment because of the polarisation and things being said or enacted by the Trump administration. But luckily, the president proposes a budget, and Congress disburses the money. So we are working with Congress more than ever. The people who have been there for a while understand that if you want peace and stability in the world, you put money into foreign aid.

Q: I was reading the foreword you and Bill wrote to Peter Singer’s book (Famine, Affluence, and Morality), and it reminded me of a question Singer once asked: to what extent can Bill Gates talk about a moral belief in the equal value of human life while living in a $US100 million home. How do you two determine what a moral expenditure is?

A: We certainly spend money on ourselves. You see it in the house that we built. We won’t have that house forever, though. I’m actually looking forward to the day Bill and I live in a 1500-square-foot [140-square-metre] house. Anyway, just to be clear, the house was being built before I came on the scene. But I take responsibility for it. We’ve already put a certain amount of money in it; we live in a nice place. But we think about expenditures. We think about, okay, $1000 we spend on ourselves or our kids is $1000 we’re not spending on somebody somewhere else in the world. I know we don’t always get it right, but we do think about the world’s resources and our resources.

Here’s a tiny example: up until two years ago we were using plastic water bottles all over our house. My piece is like an infinitesimal drop in the bucket on climate change, but it’s like, “Hey, we have clean-running-water faucets all over the house; we can pour our own thing of water.” So we try to live those values as much as we can and do the best we can. But the one thing I want to make really clear is that a vast majority of the huge funds we have, these billions of dollars, they are going back to society. [The foundation has given out at least $US45.5 billion since 1994, the year Melinda and Bill were married.]

Q: In terms of the work you’re doing – as a human being – what keeps you up at night?

A: Contraceptives. Reproductive health. Any time I see anything in the US that looks like we’re rolling back women’s health, I’m thinking, “What communities does that affect in the US?” “Whom does it affect disproportionately?” Then I worry even more, to be honest, about what the repercussions are going to be on foreign aid in the dollars that we spend in other countries. Because, boy, do I see the difference contraceptives make there.

Q: You’re not thinking about more micro-level stuff late at night?

A: No. I’m thinking about contraceptives, where we’re helping lead internationally. In the US, when something changes, people are going to stand up. But my role is to make sure that I’m advocating on behalf of, for example, women in Kenya. US funding of reproductive health rights affects those women. So I have to think macro. I have to.

To read more from Good Weekend magazine, visit our page at The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age or the Brisbane Times.

Edited version of a story from The New York Times Magazine. © 2019 The New York Times. Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity from two conversations.

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