Feb 27, 2013 06:30 PM

Seed-starting Kit for Global Change


Software pioneer Bill Gates has been in the business of high-impact philanthropy for close to two decades. The founder of Microsoft's efforts to encourage developments in medical and agricultural research has always aimed at measurable yields. Among the many programs funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the world's largest philanthropic foundation, is a project run in cooperation with Chinese researchers to discover more drought and disease tolerant varieties of rice.

In an exclusive interview on February 12 in Mexico City, Gates shared some of the strategies behind the foundation's programs geared toward global health initiatives and offered his views how budding philanthropists can make pledges toward programs with measurable results. 

Caixin: You are here in Mexico for an agricultural project. Why is the issue of agriculture important to you?

Gates: The foundation funds about US$ 3.5 billion per year through grants. And funding for agriculture programs has grown rapidly from US$ 300 million to about US$ 450 million now. It's a very large program for us and very exciting.

There are a lot of opportunities for us to improve productivity. There are new diseases emerging. There is the heat stress coming from climate change, which also causes drought problems. Seventy percent of the poorest people in the world are farmers with small plots of land.

Thanks to the green revolution that happened across Asia, in India and Pakistan in the 1960s and 1970s and in China in the 1980s, agricultural productivity was raised significantly and the predicted famine was avoided. And now we need to go to a new productivity level. We have a partnership with the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences on so-called green super rice, a project to adapt rice for African conditions. The goal is to help 20 million poor rice farmers — most of whom are women — increase their productivity by more than 20 percent in the next 10 years. It involves countries in Africa, China and us, a three-way partnership, so it's a little more complicated but we have high expectations.

Better farming practices on a large scale are an effective measure to raise productivity, but you mainly support small farming families.

In poor countries, you don't have big farms and you don't have the capital to buy machines. Fortunately for the key staple crops, you can get very high productivity with small holders. If a country gets very rich and the labor becomes expensive, then you will see the process of mechanization. But the staple crops are typically the last to be mechanized.

What does the Gates Foundation want to achieve in China? How can China's experience and products benefit the world?

The Gates Foundation started by focusing entirely on needs in China, such as tuberculosis (TB). China has an unusually high level of TB and we've provided several grants, and tobacco, where China is unique in the high number of smoking dads, by far the largest in the world. We also work a lot on HIV.

But now we balance our domestically focused work by partnering with China to take Chinese innovation in many different areas, including rice, to use it to the benefit of much poorer countries.

In your annual letter you highlighted the importance of measurement. How different is the calculation of results in philanthropy compared to business? And what do they share in common?

Two big differences. In business you make measurements because you have a theory of how to increase profit. In the case of philanthropy or government, that's not your primary goal, which might be welfare or education, etc.

The second thing is that in the private sector your ability to hire or invest depends on your profitability. So if you are not succeeding, you receive fewer resources. In philanthropy, there isn't automatic feedback. So those who aren't having an impact on business get eliminated, whereas in philanthropy, it's something inefficient.

So if you want to make sure your philanthropy is good, you have to have clear goals. You have to measure the steps to achieve that goal.

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