Blessed are the rich


Bill and Melinda Gates have for many years run a major charitable foundation into which they have put $31 billion.
It came back into the news this last week (July 2006) when Bill Gates, the richest man in the world, announced that he was to work ‘full time' for the Foundation and only ‘half time' for Microsoft.

It was followed days later by an announcement by Warren Buffet, the ‘Sage of Omaha' and the second richest man in the world, that he was to become a trustee of and give 85% of his fortune to the Gates Foundation in annual tranches of $1.5 billion for as long as Bill Gates personally is running it.

The secret of Mr Buffet's incredible success as a professional investor is always to make his money work hard - and that requires good ideas and the best management you can get. The same principles apply to running charities.
And so this mega-foundation will now have double its original worth. It will be able to make grants of $3 billion per year and on its own will be able to tackle some of the biggest and most intractable problems the world has. As some measure of its importance, it now has five times the disposable income of Unesco. Accordingly, it can take forward its plans to finance improved education and the finding of cures for illnesses predominating in the third world, such as aids, malaria, and polio, for which there is no profit motive amongst the drug companies. After all, the poor of the world simply cannot afford to pay the prices which the drug companies normally demand for new drugs. The Gates Foundation, though, finances research by the drug companies in order to have their undoubted expertise, but at the same time ensuring that the new drugs produced are affordable.
Bill Gates was and is the man whom computer geeks love to hate, even though he was once of them. Why? Because he has built his ‘evil empire' on software which was not very good, but which through very far-sighted marketing strategies obtained for him a quasi-monopoly in key sectors - and in the process killed many products which were in fact a lot better. Geekworld by contrast always wants the very best software from a technical point of view and all at zero cost. Perhaps neither attitude is ideal.
But now we have the biggest charity in the world run by someone who is not known to be particularly religious and so does not have the hang-ups both of many religious charities and which are to be found in the aid criteria of the religiously constrained American government. The US government, for instance, refuses to back AIDS programmes which rely on the use of condoms as a first line of defence, preferring instead to promote the futile policy of encouraging sexual abstinence. The Catholics and the Muslims are also against condoms and so indirectly responsible for countless deaths.
It will be something of an irony, therefore, if the former head of the evil empire known as Microsoft, together with the most successful investment capitalist of our era, become the real saviours of mankind. What will the religious community do then? Blessed are the rich.


[With acknowledgements for the cartoon to Matthew Martin, the Times 3rd July 2006]



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