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Bill Gates – From IT Revolution to Social Change

When Bill Gates announced his decision to step down from Microsoft’s Board of Directors to dedicate more time to philanthropy, it wasn’t that surprising because he had made similar announcements before. The significance, however, was that this time he relinquished nearly all of his executive power, signaling his readiness to do what he had annouced earlier: giving away most of his wealth to charity.

Although Gates will serve as a technical advisor to current Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, according to his post on the networking platform LinkedIn, it is very unlikely that he will take part in any major strategic decisions. In other words, Gates finally cut his last official tie with the world’s largest IT corporation that has made him one of the richest men in the world.

As Microsoft is moving toward a new era, its 64-year-old founder is doing the same, transitioning himself from a businessman to full-time philanthropist after more than 45 years with the company he co-built with the late Paul Allen, his childhood friend.

He established the William H Gates Foundation with his wife Melinda in 1994. The foundation, later renamed the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, was dedicated to education and global health programs including HIV/AIDS and vaccine research in poor countries around the world.

Melinda’s interest in philanthropy and Gates’ mother’s work as a longtime Seattle civil leader further encouraged him to look into the issue more closely, studying the philanthropic work of American industrialists and billionaires Andrew Carnegie and John D Rockefeller. Gates said their works and principles inspired him to make better use of his wealth in the public interest.

In his keynote speech at a press conference in 2006, Gates said he believed that “with great wealth comes great responsibility, a responsibility to give back to society and a responsibility to see that those resources are put to work in the best possible way to help those most in need.” He and Melinda have already pledged to give away 95% of their fortune and so far, they have kept their words.

It seems that the more he gives, the wealthier he gets.

Since the official co-launch of The Giving Pledge campaign with his billionaire friend and investor Warren Buffett in 2010, Gates’ wealth has steadily climbed from $54 billion to over $100 billion this year, along with the foundation’s rising donations and funding on various programs ranging from local school projects to global healthcare programs across the world. As of 2018, the organization has spent more than $36 billion on charitable causes with a focus on data-driven decision-making, according to its statement on the website.

In 2000 after the ruling of an antitrust lawsuit, Gates left his post as CEO of Microsoft to spend more time on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In 2008, Gates left his full-time role at Microsoft in an official capacity to focus his efforts on philanthropy, and resigned as the Board’s Chairman in 2014.

But his involvement in philanthropy during the past 26 years has not escaped criticisms which were not widely published or openly discussed. That could be because those benefiting from the funding fear they could lose the support. The truth is that several of his decisions have faced scrutiny from development experts in terms of effectiveness and actual impact on global health, one of the foundation’s focused issues.

As a private funding body with little federal regulations overseeing its operation, the transparency of the foundation’s programs is in question. With its charitable giving being the largest so far, its veto power over other major health agencies and institutions also causes concern as it could affect the prioritization of issues. The foundation’s annual contribution to global health has outsized that of the World Health Organization (WHO). It is also the second-largest funder of the WHO, after the United States, and a major contributor to the World Bank.

Academic papers and evaluation of development programs funded by private philanthropists have found that many of them have failed to meet the needs of local people, and sometimes pushed forward the donors’ personal interests. For example, the Gates’s are often criticized for putting too much emphasis on technological solutions for global health problems while ignoring to strengthen the public healthcare system in poor countries. This has resulted in their money mostly going to R&D at pharmaceutical companies.

Gates’ adamant advocacy for intellectual rights protections is another issue of concern as any medical innovations or discoveries made by those companies would unlikely be affordable by poor people. This would effectively defeat the program’s purpose.

Gates has also brought his aggressive, confrontational management style at Microsoft to the foundation. Unlike profit-oriented corporations, a charitable work cannot be expected to deliver clear-cut results and outcomes particularly in the development sector. Just because it did not deliver the exact results expected doesn’t mean it was a failure and should be discontinued.

Now that he will become even more deeply involved in the foundation’s work, calls for the government to come up with regulations on this type of foundation to ensure transparency and a more integrated decision-making process have become stronger. This is particularly important after the lesson of Covid-19 which has shown how crucial a comprehensive healthcare system is at the national and global scales.

Still, what Gates and Melinda have done is admirable and deserves high respect. Gates will always be remembered as one of the most brilliant IT strategists in the PC era. However, how he will be remembered as a philanthropist remain to be seen.