If you look for a Seattle institution with the widest global footprint, I’d put the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation above Starbucks, Microsoft, even Amazon (or Boeing, formerly of Seattle). With an endowment of $53.3 billion and a global reach, it’s typically ranked as the largest or second largest charitable foundation in the world.
The Gates Foundation, by its own descriptions, “focuses on improving people’s health and giving them the chance to lift themselves out of hunger and extreme poverty.”
Yet locally, at least, it sits in splendid isolation inside its boomerang-shaped headquarters across from Seattle Center.
Aside from the divorce of Bill Gates and Melinda French Gates, who remain co-chairs, and an occasional story critical of a foundation-funded effort (such as Africa’s agricultural “green revolution”), the best glimpse into the institution comes from its annual report.
The 2022 Goalkeepers Report is especially important. It examines where we stand in the Sustainable Development Goals agreed to by the leaders of 193 countries in 2015, under the auspices of the United Nations. These “big, bold” objectives were meant to be achieved by 2030.
Big and bold, these 17 goals include the end of poverty and hunger, and ensuring good health, quality education, gender equality and climate action, among others.
Yet Gates and French Gates write in the introduction to Goalkeepers, “Seven years in, the world is on track to achieve almost none of the goals …. As it stands now, we’d need to speed up the pace of our progress five times faster to meet most of our goals.”
The pandemic was a blow to progress, along with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, severely curtailing grain exports that are especially important to Africa. Also, “from Afghanistan to the United States, the rights of women would be hurled back decades.”
Changing this trajectory isn’t the responsibility of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, but its grants play an important role, and the latest report is the best benchmark we have.
In a New York Times interview with science writer David Wallace-Wells, Gates gave this overview:
“We’re in a worse place than I expected. The effects of the pandemic and now the effects of the war in Ukraine are very dramatic, and there are huge setbacks on all these measures. And these measures are super important — even if we missed the goal, we’re still talking about millions of lives.”
In the foundation’s report he talked about how the need for investments in agriculture and research and development were essential. Humanitarian assistance is not enough, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, whose most important crops are at risk. One big reason is heat from worsening human-caused climate change.
“Hunger might not be a completely solvable problem,” Gates wrote. “No one can reasonably promise that every one of the world’s eight billion humans will always have enough to eat. But ensuring that sub-Saharan Africa and other low-income regions can feed their own people? That’s a very achievable challenge, so long as the world changes how it approaches food crises.”
(According to the nonprofit Northwest Harvest, 1 in 6 Washington children live in a family that faces challenges in putting enough food on the table; the state ranks 10th nationally in overall wealth and 34th in food insecurity).
French Gates noted that economic power for women was stalling.
“We can’t just talk about empowering women without making sure they are actually gaining power in their families and communities.”
In much of the developing world, women are second-class citizens and don’t have reproductive freedom (the latter issue coming to the United States thanks to the far-right majority of the Supreme Court).
The world’s population is expected to reach 8 billion this November, according to the U.N. That compares with 2.5 billion people in 1950.
This enormous increase has many causes. But one has been slower decline in fertility rates in some parts of the world, especially sub-Saharan Africa, according to a separate U.N. report in 2020. It emphasizes “intensified support for family planning, including through the implementation of effective government policies and programs” to further reduce fertility. And the right of individuals and couples “to decide freely and responsibly on the number, spacing and timing of births.”
To be sure, the Goalkeepers Report shows a dramatic decline in deaths from HIV/AIDS. Global smoking prevalence is declining. Cases of tuberculosis are going down. And scientific and technological breakthroughs can help move the world forward.
But reaching the U.N. goals by 2030 seems unlikely.
The Gates Foundation and all philanthropies are working against several headwinds.
One is the return of so-called great power competition. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has galvanized NATO, which former President Donald Trump sought to weaken. Sweden and Finland want to join the alliance.
Russia has been embarrassed by the performance of its armed forces against Ukraine. President Vladimir Putin made another threat Wednesday to use nuclear weapons, while announcing a partial mobilization of troops.
On the other side of the world, China is threatening democratic Taiwan, which it considers a renegade province. For decades, the United States has carried out a policy of “strategic ambiguity” as to how it might respond to an invasion. President Joe Biden set that aside, promising America would defend Taiwan against a Chinese invasion.
Saudi Arabia, ostensibly an American ally, is a prime mover of climate-change emissions as an oil producer, denies equal rights to women, murdered a Washington Post journalist and is helping Russia by importing its oil.
None of this is mentioned by the Gates Foundation report. But its work around the world will be hampered by all these frictions and more.