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The Thinker and the Salesman: Bill Gates and Bono On Solving Global Poverty

What does the world’s richest man (and largest philanthropist) have in common with the world’s biggest rock star (and most effective social activist)? A capitalist’s outlook on solving global poverty

Published: Nov 30, 2013 06:09:53 AM IST
Updated: Nov 27, 2013 03:22:04 PM IST
The Thinker and the Salesman: Bill Gates and Bono On Solving Global Poverty
Image: Glen Davis for Forbes
Bill Gates and Bono at the second annual Forbes 400 summit on Philanthropy, United Nations, New York

Forbes: While you two are an odd pairing on paper, I have a theory that there are more similarities than you might think.

Forbes: You both played chess growing up. You both started college—neither of you finished  it. You both built global businesses. You both were affected deeply by your first trips to Africa—Bono after Live Aid, and Bill before your honeymoon with Melinda on safari—and you both consider Nelson Mandela one of your top heroes. So given this, Bill, true or false: The first time you had a chance to meet Bono you didn’t really want to because you thought it would be a waste of time?
Bill Gates:
Yeah, we have a mutual friend, Paul Allen, and Paul said to me several times, “You know, Bono is really serious about poverty and the stuff you’re working on; you should talk to him.” And I have to admit, I did not make it a priority. And then there was a Davos [meeting] that was in New York after 9/11, so Bono, Bill Clinton and I met, and I was kind of amazed that he actually knew what he was talking about and had a real commitment to making things happen. It was phenomenal. Ever since then we’ve been big partners in crime.

Forbes: Bono, you’ve said that you’ve learned a lot from Bill. What has he taught you, and why did you seek him out?
Before I tell you what I learned from Bill, I’ll tell you what I taught him. It’s an interesting story about not judging your friends. I said to Paul Allen, “Would you help me get to Bill Gates? Because we really need to professionalise our operation, and we need funding, and I know that he’s interested in the same things that we are, and Melinda, too.” Paul’s a kind of shy guy, but he usually answers my emails, and he stopped answering them. Actually, I got a little cross with Paul, and I said, “Well, that’s not very nice.” This is the one thing I’ve ever asked him to do.

I had no idea, of course, that he’d been asking Bill, but Bill was actually like, “No, I don’t want to meet him! It’s Sonny Bono, or whatever.”

I went up to see Bill and Melinda, and I said, “Look, we have an organisation, and we’ve got very, very smart people. Brilliant people. But we need to professionalise.” President Bush had taken over the White House. Our rather relaxed attire going into Bill Clinton’s White House we felt was no longer appropriate, and we really needed to be more formal. So we got a million dollars from Bill [Gates]. And then he later told the New York Times or somebody that that was the best million dollars he ever spent. That’s a great compliment, coming from Bill Gates, and it makes funding a lot easier.

But what was shocking for me as an activist was to learn how important the role of commerce was in ending extreme poverty and the role that entrepreneurial capitalism has played in taking people out of extreme poverty. Right now capitalism is in the dark. It’s on trial. There’s a sense of the “us” and “them”, the 99 percent, the 1 percent, those who’ve gamed the situation, those who’ve been screwed by the situation. Some of these accusations, of course, are ridiculously far-fetched. But some of them are not. It’s critical that [entrepreneurial philanthropy] somehow coheres in the 21st century into a new sort of shape and form. What I learned from Bill and Melinda is that it wasn’t just going to be their cash that would be put to work but that the most important thing that they would contribute would be their brainpower.

Forbes: Bono, I believe you have called yourself an “adventure capitalist”. Maybe talk a little about RED and where you’re taking your advocacy.
I remember going to see Bob Rubin just after he left being Treasury Secretary. We asked him his advice on tackling HIV/AIDS. And he said, “You know, if you want to move the dial on this, you’ve got to go about it like Nike almost. You’ve got to explain to, say, America, the scale of the problem and how the problem can be solved. And you’ll probably have to spend $50 million doing that, the same way Nike spent marketing their ideas.” I said, “Bob, where do we get $50 million?” He said, “That’s your problem!”

We formed RED. And now RED, with the help of the Gates Foundation—by the way, I couldn’t do anything I do without the Gates Foundation—was an attempt to sort of piggyback the great companies like Apple or Microsoft, Armani, the fashion company, Starbucks. At the French Open all the great tennis players came out with their red tennis racquets, because the Head company has gone RED. So we use RED not just to raise the ... I think it’s $207 million we have raised so far to buy AIDS drugs for those people who can’t afford them—but to create heat and excitement around the issue of solving the problem. When lawmakers met in Congress in difficult times they would feel heat. We used to get this thing up on the Hill here in the US, and [they weren’t] feeling that one, that AIDS emergency. So we wanted to be in shopping malls, where they would feel it. When they walked down the street and saw a Gap T-shirt, they’d feel it. When it comes to appropriations—and this year was a struggle to get funding for the Global Fund [which provides money to combat AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria]—the heat is very important.

That’s what RED does. It creates heat, so that when the other organisation, ONE, can actually go in Berlin, in France, in Paris, in London, we go after the big government budgets and tackle it that way.

Forbes: Bono is the activist who’s become a capitalist. Bill, you’re one of the alltime capitalists and philanthropists who’s now had to increase how much you work with governments. Can entrepreneurial  philanthropy and activism be practiced purely, or do they inherently need to be merged?
I think the key to all philanthropy is how you unlock the much larger sectors—the government sector and the business sector. Say you have a goal, like reducing the number of children under five who die every year. The direct philanthropy in terms of inventing vaccines, buying vaccines, getting them delivered, isn’t really going to make a big dent in that problem. Unless you get the brilliant minds of the pharmaceutical companies engaged in the invention, unless you get the government aid budgets from the generous rich countries engaged, and unless you get the people on the ground—which in many cases are working with the developing country and how they train and manage all these primary health care workers. Unless you’re deeply engaged with that, you’re probably not going to have a big impact.

There are pieces, like some of the research, like the malaria vaccine piece, where philanthropy actually can fund a very substantial, even the majority of that. But when you get into the delivery mode, the $130 billion a year of government aid budgets focussed on these poor countries, making sure that gets used the right way, that it’s not being cut because of budget problems and that you’re drawing in the power of the private sector that’s developing these countries—that’s part of how you’re going to win and get that number to drop in half in the next 15 years.

Forbes: How do you make sure that the money you put in isn’t just propping up bad governments?
Well, it depends on how measurable the sector you’re operating in is. In the case of health, figuring out how many people survived by getting HIV drugs is pretty straightforward. Figuring out your vaccine coverage that reduces measles, that’s down from over a million a year to $300,000 a year. That is one of the most straightforward things. And because you buy the vaccines and ship them into the country, you know you’re controlling that procurement piece—you have a little bit of training money, a little bit of labour money, maybe a few percent of that can go astray.

But it’s not like building a road, when you send money to the government and no road shows up, or you know you’re paying twice as much for it. The health and agricultural sectors, which are very critical to the poorest—getting the health right, the nutrition right—those things actually you can operate in a mode where at most corruption would be 5 percent, and if you can’t withstand a few percent, like someone who came to the training session, then you’re an idealist who really doesn’t belong in the game of helping poor countries.

Bono: There’s a cure for that disease of corruption. There’s a vaccine, at least. We call it transparency. One of the things we’ve been working on in the ONE Campaign, and have been working on with the support of Bill and Melinda Gates, is a revolution. A transparency revolution. This wave of transparency is coming through all manners of commerce, just bringing daylight so that people can see what’s going on in those transactions and judge for themselves if their governments are dealing with them fairly.

Forbes: Hand in hand with transparency, of course, are numbers. Bono, you’ve admitted you’re a numbers geek. Talk a bit about “factivism”.
Well, that’s just me pretending to be Bill. I’m Irish; we do emotion very well. You’re just experiencing some of it, and it can go on and on and on! I’ve learned to be an evidence-based activist, to cut through the crap, find out what works and find out what doesn’t work. Repeat what works, increase it and stop doing what doesn’t work. I don’t come from a hippie tradition of let’s-all-hold-hands and the world’s going to be a better place. My thing’s much more punk rock.

I enjoy the math, actually. The math is incredible! I was telling people recently there are 9 million people on AIDS medication. In 2003 there was 50,000. This is the most extraordinary thing. I just want to give thanks to the taxpayers who are paying for that. Because this is a remarkable thing. Numbers work. In the last 10 years infant mortality is down. I think it’s 7,256 less deaths a day. That’s down from 9.4 million to 7.2, something like that. I love these numbers.

Forbes: Okay, so based on numbers and data, what’s the biggest course change either of you made?
You’re always learning—field visits, meeting with scientists, looking at the numbers; it’s a collage of those things that come together. For our health work, it’s been figuring out how primary health care systems can be really well run—and that gets you the vaccine coverage, it teaches the mother about things to do before birth and after birth, the nutrition things, the reproductive health supplies. It’s amazing how some countries spend very little on their primary health care system and they get 95 percent of the kids vaccinated, and some spend a lot more and get 30 percent vaccinated. So the importance of personnel systems and helping get those right, the measurement, training, hiring.

In our US education work, it’s been the most dramatic where we’ve been focussed on school structure in the first four years and not so much on helping the teachers learn from the very, very good teachers. And that shifted around, because we saw about 10 percent or 15 percent improvements with the thing we called the small schools initiative—that just wasn’t going to be enough. So we got very focussed on how do teachers get feedback, what are the exemplars doing right, can you help people improve—essentially, their personnel system and not just the compensation piece, because that turns out to be secondary to the idea of professional development, analysis and measurement. It’s kind of obvious at this point, but it took a lot of time and money to have that be a primary model that we apply.

Bono: Applying transparency to development, actually, was a big lesson for us. It’s strange, but the two parties most important in the transaction that we call development assistance are the two sides of the equation who know the least about it. The taxpayer and the child who’s been vaccinated or the student who sits in a class. That has got to change. And I think it will be wonderful when it does.

I remember, for instance, we worked on debt cancellation, and we were in a ghetto outside of Accra. There were no latrines for, whatever it was, 80,000 people living there. And years later, after fighting for debt cancellation and having this money well spent by the Ghanaian government, I saw the latrines! I was like, “Wow, I have to use these!” I went in, if you’ll excuse me, and I’m standing there and I look up on the wall, and it says “Paid for by HIPC.” HIPC. What’s HIPC? HIPC was the UN’s idea for Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative. And they were largely leading the vanguard on this debt cancellation. But that was their signage! Does anyone know what that was?

In the Oval Office with President Bush before the AIDS initiative, I remember saying to him, “You can paint those pills red, white and blue if you have to, Mr President. If you do this, this will be the best advertisement for the United States ever.” And it has been.

Forbes: If this rock thing doesn’t work out, I’m sure K Street has a job for you. I know you come from a family of salesmen—you’ve become maybe the most effective lobbyist in the world. How have you embraced that?
Well, thank you. It’s the ideas that win the day, and when we go for a meeting with Angela Merkel, say, a couple of months ago or together, me and Bill, went to see pretty much most of the French government a few months ago, we tried to bring ideas with us that will solve the problem that we are presenting. Our strategy, you could call it sort of inside-game maneuvering with those ideas—but then outside mobilisation, so there’s always a moment where you can lean in with the policymaker and just say, if they are being rude to you: “Coming to a stadium near you … ”

Forbes: Last question. There’s a lot of pressure on you guys, as people expect big things. Do your amazing first acts create self-imposed pressure for your second acts?
Well, yes. But that’s fun. You have the possibility to fail. I think Warren’s generosity to the foundation made that even more acute, because if it’s money that you made yourself, it’s like “Okay, I have a right to make a mistake.” With his money, even though he’s been nice enough to say it’s okay to fail, I don’t feel like I should. It’s kind of fun. You want to wake up in the morning thinking, Am I working hard enough? Am I thinking hard enough? Have I found the right people? Why isn’t this thing that I thought would go well not going well? That’s kind of a dynamic thing, and I feel glad that that kind of challenge—philanthropy has that every bit as much as my previous work did.

Bono: I haven’t left my day job yet, though there’s always this possibility when U2 puts out an album that no one will be there to buy it. And according to my band, if I keep doing these type of events, that’s going to be closer than we thought. I have a tricky one, you know, because I have to balance being an artist, which is my gift, and being this salesperson. In U2, I sell melodies, I sell songs. Here I try to sell ideas, but I have to believe in them, and then I’m a pretty good salesman. There is a huge pressure in not wanting to screw up the position that you’ve been put in. I do feel that, and I know that everyone in ONE feels that and everyone in RED feels that, because we’re serving. Though Nelson Mandela asked us to serve and Desmond Tutu threatened us on a regular basis that if we stop serving we wouldn’t go to heaven, the pressure is internal, as Bill says.

In this kind of work you do see people crack under that because these are matters of life and death a lot of the time. So it’s lucky that we get to, Bill and myself, drink heavily. That’s a joke. But we actually do have a lot of fun doing this. It’s very exciting to see the progress that’s been made in the last 10 years. And you get to hang out with Warren Buffett, who is a comedian.

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(This story appears in the 13 December, 2013 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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