WASHINGTON — The man who helped make computers a part of modern life — and in the process became the world’s richest person — is shifting his primary focus to dealing with the problems of the world’s poor.
Bill Gates, cofounder and chairman of Microsoft Inc., will give up day-to-day leadership of the company in July and turn his attention to piloting the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which he and his wife began in 2000, and pushing his concept of “creative capitalism.”
“There are roughly a billion people in the world who don’t get enough food, who don’t have clean drinking water, who don’t have electricity, the things that we take for granted,” Gates said in a recent speech.
Those problems reflect a situation he is determined to change — both through the foundation and by enlisting the forces of the broader global economy.
The Gates Foundation, boasting a $37.6 billion endowment as of mid-2007, has directed its attention largely to improving health care and fighting poverty in the developing world, and boosting access to education and information technology in the United States.
Now, Gates has announced an ambitious goal of moving the corporate world toward “creative capitalism” — an approach under which, he said, “governments, businesses and nonprofits work together to stretch the reach of market forces so that more people can make a profit, or gain recognition, doing work that eases the world’s inequities.”
Convinced that “there are two great forces of human nature: self-interest and caring for others,” Gates used a speech to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January to outline his vision of “a system where market incentives, including profits and recognition, drive those principles to do more for the poor.”
The recognition a company gets for its good works can have business value, Gates said in Davos.
It “enhances a company’s reputation, appeals to customers and attracts good people to an organization. In a market where profits aren’t possible, recognition becomes a proxy for profit,” he said.
Gates used his Davos visit to announce his foundation’s expanded foray into agriculture, pledging $306 million in grants to improve seeds, soil and market access for rice farmers, coffee growers and others in poor countries, largely in Africa and South Asia.
“If we are serious about ending extreme hunger and poverty around the world, we must be serious about transforming agriculture for small farmers, most of whom are women,” he told reporters.
Gates’ own unmatched resources provide just a starting point for his and his foundation’s philanthropic potential.
Financier Warren Buffett, chief executive officer of Berkshire Hathaway — ranked as the world’s second-richest person behind Gates — in 2006, committed much of his own wealth to the Gates Foundation, in the form of matching funds that effectively will double annual giving.
Gates has been supportive of rock star and social activist Bono and his Product Red initiative, under which companies share the proceeds of specially Red-branded merchandise with the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.
Microsoft and Dell Inc. have become the latest companies to join the campaign. They jointly advised users by e-mail Feb. 4 that they would contribute between $50 and $80 to the Global Fund for each purchase of a Red-branded Dell personal computer running Microsoft’s Windows Vista.
Gates has estimated that money generated by the Red campaign has been used to save more than 2 million lives.
At Davos, Bono said of Gates’ impending transition to full-time philanthropy: “I think it is an extraordinary thing that this man has not just changed the world once, but has now set aside the next act of his life to change the world again.”
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