The World's Greatest Philanthropists

Levelling the playing field

What the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has set out to do is audacious but worthy

Dawid Bilski

It’s truly a case of arriving curious and leaving inspired. It’s a balmy morning in Seattle as we enter the 11,000 sq ft Visitor Center of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), arguably the world’s most powerful with over $40 billion in endowments. A brief walkabout inside the Center, which is divided into a series of six galleries, drills in how much we take for granted, the life of relative privilege that all of us have been born into. For instance, alongside the glass façade of the building is the Walk for Water exhibit that has footprints burned into the wood floor to show how far some people must go to get water to drink, cook and clean. Not only have Olson Kundig Architects and Studio Matthews put in a lot of thought into designing the entire experience, the layout is peppered with exhibits that comprehensively depict how the foundation is making life easier for the millions whose paths will never possibly cross that of their benefactors.

In India, whenever extended dirt-caked palms are thrust in our face, our response, depending on our frame of mind, is either to fidget for lower denomination currency or look away. Even if we give, it is with the unexpressed expectation of the return of some good karma. Seldom do we think and ponder: why? Doing that is too much trouble and way too much responsibility. But Bill and Melinda, after returning from a trip to Africa in 1993 and having encountered extreme poverty, did ask ‘why’ several times over and then consciously decided to dedicate the rest of their lives to remedy the inequity as best as they can. A piece in The New York Times in 1997 that mentioned how millions of children in poorer countries die from diseases eliminated long ago in the US was another important turning point that would eventually define their foundation’s priorities.

In order to understand the problem, Gates started to gather evidence of what was contributing towards these deaths. He saw a clear breakdown of the market mechanism that he had always believed in. He had not seen a failure of capitalism at such a large level, where only the needs of those who could pay were being addressed.

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