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Bill and Melinda Gates and the tough questions

Bill and Melinda Gates and the tough questions

Haddis Desta Tadesse is the director for Ethiopia and representative to the African Union (AU) at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. He oversees strategic partnerships across Africa and investments in Ethiopia’s agricultural development, health, financial services, water and sanitation, nutrition and emergency relief.  Over the years, he has built diplomatic relations with key partners and stakeholders, including governments, the AU and the UN donors, the private sector,   NGOs and members of the press. Haddis has been with the Gates Foundation since 2007, and began his work in Seattle where he managed government relations work in Africa before moving to Ethiopia to establish the Foundation’s office in 2012. Bill and Melinda Gates’ Annual Letter – the 10th one – was launched on February 13, 2018. This year’s letter is a compilation of the ten “tough” questions they have been asked throughout the years.  Birhanu Fikade of The Reporter sat with Haddis to discuss those questions and understand how it relates to the foundation’s work in Ethiopia. Excerpts:

The Reporter: Both Bill and Melinda Gates talked about ten tough questions they have been asked and one of the questions was why they don’t give as much to America as they do to other countries They have also been asked about their financing mechanisms. How do you prioritize projects for financing?

Haddis Desta Tadesse: Yes, people do ask why Bill and Melinda Gates don’t do more in the US. First, it is important to note that we invest over USD 500 million in the US, primarily on education.  We spend the remaining amount globally. But there is a good reason for that.  We look at inequities around the world and we chose to focus on the greatest inequities seen across many places. Mothers still die while giving birth. Many children die before the age of five. Preventable diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS are killing more people in developing countries.  Because of this, the Foundation chose to focus on saving as many lives as we can.  And we spend more money to overcome those challenges. Yes, we do spend less in the US but it’s because the disease burden is low and there are more resources than in developing countries.

They both wanted to address the questions they have been asked. Is that peculiar for this year’s annual letter?

Yes, both Bill and Melinda often get asked a lot of questions through emails, social media channels or in person. Some of the questions tend to be related with their work. Some are more personal and some fall in between. Hence, they thought to reflect on the questions publicly. They wanted to create public discourse and debate and for that we have picked the ten tough questions out of many they get asked. They have tried to answer as candidly as they can. The questions include what happens when a husband and wife disagree and how they make decisions in such situations. These sorts of questions are what they get asked and they wanted to surface some of them to the public domain.

You also represent the Foundation at the AU. Do you get asked tough questions as well?

We get asked lots of questions and some of them are easy to answer and some aren’t.  Some questions will need some time to explain and answer. I represent the Foundation broadly in Africa and the questions we get range from why we are working with certain governments in a particular country to why we are seemingly open to GMO products. They ask us why we support private sector companies. Some ask whether Bill Gates is giving out money aiming to get more money in a back channel or in a different way. We get asked these sorts of questions. I try to answer as candidly as I can. We don’t have a monetary motive out of the things we do. This is a family that has done exceptionally well. They have an enormous amount of wealth. What they want is to make the world a more equitable place for all of us to live in.

There was a particular question that enquires why they are giving their money away. There are three reasons: they get to do meaningful work that contributes to the betterment of society; they want to pass the value of giving to their children and; they actually have a lot of fun doing this.  Furthermore, they enjoy learning new things. Their experience is in software and he ran Microsoft dedicating his life to the business.  Now they are learning about agriculture, financial services and about health systems in Africa. For some people like Bill and Melinda, it’s fun to learn new things. It’s a combination of these things that make them give what they have.

Reading is also what he says he loves the most. He must have been a voracious reader?

He is such a voracious reader that you can’t keep up with him.  He actually shares through his website ( the books he likes and people can read them.

Bill Gates is widely acclaimed for his philanthropic contributions. But he is also criticized for some of the things he does or says. He is an outspoken person when it comes to supporting science and innovation, GMOs and vaccines with GMOs being the most controversial one. What’s your response to those critics?

For me the question should be; what are the problems we are trying to address? HIV/AIDS might be one or agricultural productivity or nutrition could be the other. Once you have selected where to focus, the second question will be who is best in tackling the problem? On the first question you get criticized for selecting a set of topics. For instance, we don’t work on cancer. Cancer is becoming an issue in developing countries and we get criticized for focusing on HIV, TB or malaria but not on cancer. But the answer is that even if we are big we have limited resources.

We have to pick areas where we can do something and make an impact.  For the second question, while you try to deal with some of the toughest issues, you have to look at everybody who has the ability to solve them.  In some cases, we look at governments and in many cases we look at international development organizations to solve the problems. Local and international private sector players might also be needed to address the challenges we have picked. For vaccines, very few countries have the capacity to develop them locally. They don’t have the resources and research capacities to develop vaccines for example for HIV/AIDS. Neither do local companies have that capacity. But big pharmaceutical companies have the resources and technical capabilities.  Depending on the problems we are trying to address, we might look at those who have the necessary resources for our cause.  We are not helping multinationals to make them become more profitable. It’s the problem we are trying to solve that takes us to them so they can help as they have the capacity to do so.

Six months ago you mentioned that some 5.6 million people will die by the end of 2030 due to HIV/AIDS. So far, the virus has killed 35 million. What are the new developments following the global report that was launched by the Foundation?  

I would say it’s a work in progress. The number of people who are receiving ARV treatments has increased significantly.  The death rates have gone down and Ethiopia is a good example for reducing the levels of HIV related infections and moralities. We continue to work on the treatments and at the same time we are interested in finding cure for the disease.  If there is a possibility to create vaccine for HIV/AIDS, it will be a game changer. There are a number of trails taking place. I am not up to speed at what stage are the trials at the moment. Malaria doesn’t have vaccines either. These are the areas we heavily invest on for better outcomes. I am confident that we will have some results of the trails in the years to come.

In the letter both Bill and Melinda Gates pointed out that they have invested over USD 50 billion in the last 18 years. How much of that has gone to Ethiopia.

Perhaps it’s difficult to tell exactly how much money has been spent in the last 17 or 18 years of our operations but roughly speaking, it will be around USD 600 million. We have 200 projects we fund here and Ethiopia is one of our prioritized countries globally. We started out slow but gradually increased our investments as we learn more about the country and its development. Currently, Ethiopia is one of the two top countries where we have most of our investments. Nigeria is the other country that receives most of our investments.

However, six months ago, when we spoke about the global report on the Millennium Development Goals and Sustainable Development Goals, you mentioned that there is USD 500 million set aside for Ethiopia?

I think what I said was half-a-billion was what we already have invested.

Can you perhaps mention how much money is committed?

As I mentioned earlier, we have invested about USD 600 million, and that rate of investment will continue perhaps at a higher level.  But it’s hard to specifically tell how much is committed as going forward the amount of money varies depending on the type and size of the project we choose. If we decide to invest in new project we will increase the amount of investment and go deeper. I would say, our annual investment will not be below USD 150 or 200 million.

One of the recently added projects is a poultry farming project. Could you say a bit about that?

Sure. The poultry business as a whole is exciting to us. It’s interesting at least from three points of view. One is it’s a very good source of income for the smallholder farmer communities. They raise chickens, collect eggs and make money. The second point is that women are predominantly the managers of raising chicken. Hence, it benefits women which we like to see happening more. The third area is focused on nutrition. The consumption of chicken has significant nutritious benefits to children and families. Ethiopia has a high rate of malnutrition. Therefore, poultry is a good source of income, has economic benefit for women and has nutritional values. For those reasons we have made a couple of investments. We made investments on the genetic improvements of chickens so they can produce more eggs. We want to make sure that large number of farmers has access to quality breeds of chicken. We have invested in a private company called Ethio Chicken so they can expand their operations in different regions to be able to sell their chickens to farmers.

One of the organizations the Foundation finances in Ethiopia is the Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA).  How do you evaluate and measure their achievements? How do they fulfill your expectations?

Agriculture is the main economic engine for Ethiopia in many ways. It contributes to the significant part of the GTP. The majority of export commodities are sourced from agriculture. There is a clear need for Ethiopia to transform its agriculture sector.  ATA is tasked to help with the transformation process and we are one of several supporters of ATA. How do we value progress? It’s a long-term game. The business of transforming the agriculture sector in any country, including Ethiopia that has a very complicated agroecological zone and political environment, takes time.

We have to take a few steps to get to the long-term goals.  For example, the work they have done in expanding row planting of teff in the country, or digitizing the soil type of the country, is exemplary.  These are some of the things ATA has been doing and we have been supporting that. Currently, they are getting into a cluster strategy where they can produce certain commodities in certain areas. You can actually track outputs and how they reach markets and how farmers are benefiting out of that. At the end of the day, you can create the policy you want and proclaim success butut for us the success is how the farmers, their associations and farmer communities are benefiting from the interventions ATA and others have made. Our measurement always goes back to the farmers to see how their lives are getting better.

Last year figures showed that some 7.8 million people in Ethiopia needed emergency food assistance. What was the role of the Bill and Melinda l Gates Foundation during that time?

In a rain fed agriculture environment like Ethiopia where there is low penetration of irrigation, anytime when we experience erratic rain it’s certain that we will be hit by drought. This has been the history of Ethiopia. I think in 2016 and part of 2017 we had experienced severe drought which affected agricultural outputs.  Although some parts of the country did well to compensate. But still, well over seven million people are in need of food assistance. A new assessment has been conducted recently to determine the status.

When we saw what has happened we wanted to make sure that ongoing agricultural projects continue. We strengthened our work in the sector so that farmers become more resilient for future droughts. We have to look at both short-term and long-term challenges. Most of our investments are focused on the long-term challenges.  In the short term, we saw a need by the government, particularly by the National Disaster Risk Management Commission (NDRMC), which coordinates efforts to reach the affected communities. We have extended financial support to the government agencies that are tasked to provide support to those communities. We are good at the long-term solutions. But as the same time, when an emergency arises, we step up and provide our technical and financial assistance. We have been doing that for many years.

On top of the drought we are experiencing political crisis as well. How has that disturbed your activities on the ground?

Anytime you have political unrest or unrest of any kind, development becomes causality. In particular, areas where you have some unrests, it’s gets hard to execute the work you have to do. But the impact is broader than that. As a country, whether Ethiopia or not, it has implications on the business environment.  It affects to some extent the confidences of investors. In this case, as business and exports slow down, it has implications on hard currency which the country needs much of.  Our foundation is not that much impacted. But when the overall environment is impacted, the progress in health and agriculture development slows down.  The other thing I would say the situation will impact is its influence on development.

One of the reasons we like working in Ethiopia is because we have a strong partnership with the government which has a pro-poor development agenda. Thus, an event like this distracts the focus of the political and economic leaders of the country with whom we work with. It takes them and the resources away from the core development focus they use to have. Authorities might be forced to divert resources from development-oriented projects to deal with the crisis. Our hope is that the political challenges get resolved as quick as possible. It’s a very serious destruction that comes at a period in Ethiopia where we need to be laser focused on growing our economy and improving the lives of every Ethiopian.