Putting Buffett’s Wealth To Work

Susan Page
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Wednesday - July 12, 2006
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Billionaire Warren Buffett’s handing over of close to $30.1 billion to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a stunning act of generosity. His donation brings the Gates Foundation operating capital to around $60 billion.

Preparing for a trip back to Sub Saharan Africa in a couple of weeks on an orphanage mission, I fantasized about what $60 billion could do there. It’s more than the gross domestic product of every nation in Africa, except South Africa, Egypt and Algeria; $10 billion more than the GDP of oil-rich Nigeria, and almost 60 times that of either Swaziland or Malawi, the two nations where I’ll be working.

To create big change in world health, the Gates Foundation has two simple founding principles: “All lives - no matter where they are being led - have equal value,” and “To whom much has been given, much is expected.”

Armed with $60 billion and these values, Gates and wife Melinda are taking on major challenges: eradicating diseases like malaria, dengue fever and even HIV/AIDS in developing nations of Asia and Africa. A yet-to-be discovered immunization for malaria, the biggest killer of children under the age of 5 in Sub Saharan Africa, is in their sights, as well as expanding education opportunities for all children as well.

But as grand as these goals are, I’m concerned about the central issue of life in much of Africa: poverty - deep, suffocating poverty.

In Swaziland’s kingdom (about the size of Hawaii), the jobless rate is 70 percent - hard to imagine here in Hawaii with our barely 3 percent unemployment.

Economic scarcity like this leads to deadly outcomes:

1) Those lucky enough to be educated (less than 50 percent), usually males, must go elsewhere for jobs, depriving the country of its best minds.

2) Men must leave their families for extended periods to work in far-off cities where they often succumb to the temptation of sex with young prostitutes, who are working this trade because they’re starving, often orphaned, and frequently infected with HIV/AIDS. Another result of poverty.

3) The infected husbands take the disease back to their wives (and sadly, sometimes their daughters). So goes the cycle of infection and death, and an orphan population spiraling out of control, expected to reach 40 million in Sub Saharan Africa by 2010.

Without diminishing Gates’ work to save millions of children from dying of various diseases and then educating them, I dream of an economic development program alongside this so the saved ones won’t overstress already scarce food supplies threatening many regions, like Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, Niger and Kenya, to name a few. Saved from disease only to starve is not a successful outcome. To be educated and not employed isn’t either.

In Swaziland last summer while on a mission called Heart for Africa’s Never Ending Gardens (www.heartforafrica.org), I flopped down on the bed one evening, exhausted from garden planting, and began watching a television program on the country’s only channel. It featured a local rice farmer who had grown several beautiful crops of rice, and then stored bags and bags of the grains in a warehouse. Sadly though, that was as far as he got. He didn’t know how to market his product. And guess where his own country was getting its rice? From China, of course!

Not uncommon, this story speaks to the need for basic business and marketing training, enterprise zones guided by those experienced in the latest farm-to-market techniques, and for governments to buy from within, at least until a free market system is developed and flourishing. Young men in African society, if not working to provide for their families, are left to idleness, despair and drink, and in some cases, such as Darfur in the Sudan, join rebel forces to create death and mayhem.

Checking the Gates Foundation Website, I happily discovered that businessman Gates is “on it.” Here’s what he says: “In order to raise the incomes of rural people and help them work their way out of poverty, strategies are needed that enable them to interact more effectively with the national, regional and global supply chains. These strategies must ensure that smallholder farmers can effectively sell their surplus.”

Gates is looking to invest $30 million of foundation money in organizations that have initiatives in areas of farming to help in these regions.

Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have spent their long professional lives creating products, developing ideas and amassing huge amounts of wealth in our capitalist, free-market system. Now they are giving much of that money back to help people in developing nations. What they know how to do best, create, develop and run businesses, is the most valuable commodity they can donate to help those people out of the cycle of poverty. And, at the same time, help them survive diseases.

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