Jun 24, 2007

Be activists Bill Gates tells Harvard students

Interesting talk by Bill Gates at the Harvard commencement of 2007

“When you consider what those of us here in this Yard have been given — in talent, privilege, and opportunity — there is almost no limit to what the world has a right to expect from us,” Gates said. “Be activists. Take on the big inequities. It will be one of the great experiences of your lives.”

Gates said one thing he did not learn at Harvard, however, was about the world’s inequities. He said he was shocked to learn that millions of children die each year of diseases that are absent from the industrialized world and that could be treated if the will was there.

After analyzing the problem, Gates said, he figured out the cruel reason that nothing had been done.

“The answer is simple and hard. The market did not reward saving the lives of these children, and governments did not subsidize it. So the children died because their mothers and fathers had no power in the market and no voice in the system,” Gates said. “But you and I have both.”

Gates urged graduates and others in the audience to work to create market forces that provide incentives — profits for businesses and votes for politicians — to help the world’s poorest and least fortunate.

Gates said he believes that the biggest barrier to solving the problems of inequity is not a lack of caring, as some believe, but that finding ways to contribute are too complex. Many people, he said, would help if they only knew how.

To do that, he said, requires determining a goal, finding the highest-impact approach, discovering the ideal technology for that approach, and continuing to do what works best now while those other things are going on. And above all, he said, don’t get discouraged.

“The crucial thing is to never stop thinking and working — and never do what we did with malaria and tuberculosis in the 20th century — which was to surrender to complexity and quit,” Gates said. “In line with the promise of this age, I want to exhort each of the graduates here to take on an issue — a complex problem, a deep inequity, and become a specialist on it…. You have more than we had. You must start sooner and carry on longer.”

The full transcript is here. Some more interesting words from Gates:
But if you want to inspire people to participate, you have to show more than numbers; you have to convey the human impact of the work – so people can feel what saving a life means to the families affected.

I remember going to Davos some years back and sitting on a global health panel that was discussing ways to save millions of lives. Millions! Think of the thrill of saving just one person’s life – then multiply that by millions. … Yet this was the most boring panel I’ve ever been on – ever. So boring even I couldn’t bear it.

What made that experience especially striking was that I had just come from an event where we were introducing version 13 of some piece of software, and we had people jumping and shouting with excitement. I love getting people excited about software – but why can’t we generate even more excitement for saving lives?

You can’t get people excited unless you can help them see and feel the impact. And how you do that – is a complex question.

Still, I’m optimistic. Yes, inequity has been with us forever, but the new tools we have to cut through complexity have not been with us forever. They are new – they can help us make the most of our caring – and that’s why the future can be different from the past.