Read Bill Gates' annual letter

posted by Jason Kottke Jan 31, 2013

Yesterday, I was part of a small group of journalists and bloggers that got to meet with Bill Gates for a little more than an hour. Gates was there to discuss the publication of his annual letter for 2013, which is a report of how things are going at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Here are a few of my observations about the letter, the conversation, and Gates himself.

- First, the letter. It's very optimistic in tone and not without reason. Hearing bad news about the third-world is de rigueur, but Gates is obviously very proud of the progress being made in various places around the world. From the letter:

As 2015 approaches, the world is taking a hard look at how it is doing on the goals. Although we won't achieve them all, we've made amazing progress, and the goals have become a report card for how the world is performing against major problems affecting the poor. The MDG target of reducing extreme poverty by half has been reached ahead of the deadline, as has the goal of halving the proportion of people who lack access to safe drinking water. Living conditions for more than 200 million slum dwellers have also improved — double the target. Some goals, however, were set at such an ambitious level that they will be missed. For instance, while we have reduced the number of mothers who die during childbirth by almost 50 percent — which is incredible — we will, however, fall short of the goal of a 75 percent reduction.

We're also not on track to meet one of the most critical goals — reducing the number of children who die under the age of five by two-thirds. We've made substantial progress. The number of children who die has declined from nearly 12 million in 1990 to 6.9 million in 2011. While that means 14,000 fewer children around the world are dying every day than in 1990, we won't reach the two-thirds target by 2015.

Still, many individual countries are on track to achieve this target. One of them is Ethiopia, which used the MDGs to drive an overhaul of its primary health care system that has led to a dramatic decline in childhood deaths.

If you read the whole thing, you'll likely be surprised, as I was, at how much has been accomplished over the past 10-15 years.

- I asked him if he saw some trends that were not headed in a good direction and he replied that there weren't many. Two that he mentioned were the quality of governance in some areas of the world and the average income of families that kids are born into is falling (basically because the poor are having kids faster than everyone else). Gates indicated the governance issue is difficult to solve with money alone and that the second problem is being addressed through the Foundation's general efforts.

- Gates stated, with no small amount of dissatisfaction, that both education and energy are drastically underinvested in R&D.

- Over and over, in the letter and during the roundtable, Gates talked about the importance of measurement and results. I got the sense that before the Gates Foundation came along, money was pumped into charitable foundations and donors didn't have much sense what result their giving had, beyond that it had "done good". Gates is obviously running his foundation like a business, where instead of profits or number of Windows installs, the metrics are things like lives saved or children vaccinated.

- In person, Gates is very much like you'd expect: intense, passionate, and super smart. He spoke without notes and as an expert in a wide-ranging number of topics. He pulled so many different kinds of statistics off the top of his head that you'd be tempted to think he's making them up, but I don't think so.

- Gates reminds me a bit of NYC Mayor Bloomberg: he's likely fiscally conservative, socially liberal, but pragmatic above all.

Update: Tyler Cowen posted his notes from the meeting.

He is smart enough, and health-savvy enough, not to waste time with handshakes at the beginning of meetings. People as productive as Gates should not be required to shake hands, and the same can be said for people less productive than Gates.