It’s tough to be a humanitarian

Sept. 27, 2007
Billionaire software mogul Bill Gates took flak recently over comments he made while collecting an honorary degree from Harvard.

Leland Teschler

Gates said words to the effect that what he’s accomplished by founding Microsoft has been no great contribution to society. So he wants to “give something back” through philanthropy aimed at reducing world poverty.

Critics argue with the idea that Microsoft’s products haven’t given society “value.” They point out that though Gates’s intentions are noble, his gifts aren’t likely to be any more effective than much larger aid programs that have been around for years.

On this score, I can give Bill Gates some advice based on my own small attempts at helping people in need. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, I was part of a group that raised and sent funds to orphanages in Romania. Conditions in these institutions were horrific: It wasn’t uncommon to find them with no heat, no working plumbing, and not even glass in the windows.

We quickly found out how difficult it was to help these children. Raising money was the easy part. Getting that money to the right people was much tougher. We arranged for a shipment of shoes to one orphanage. It never got through the orphanage door. The institution’s Romanian staff appropriated the shoes for their own use. Ditto for the first shipment of toys we arranged.

Later, we contributed funds for buying a van to haul supplies from a nearby village. We got word that soon after the van arrived, it disappeared. The aid organization through which we worked did some nosing around and eventually found the van. The orphanage director had sold it to line his own pockets.

The irony about these incidents of larceny was that they happened despite close supervision by professional aid workers from an organization that had an international reputation for keeping such shenanigans to a minimum.

So when Bill Gates donates the bulk of his $90 billlion fortune to charitable uses, I hope he has better luck than we did. I am afraid a sizable chunk of Gates’s philanthropy will get diverted to parties who don’t need it nearly as badly as those it is intended for.

But the real irony is that even if Bill Gates decided not to give away a single penny, he has already had a great positive impact on reducing poverty. The two biggest success stories in poverty relief over recent decades are China and India. The total number of people below the poverty line in those countries fell by 390 million in 30 years. These improvements are largely due to these countries warming up to capitalism. But it is debatable whether these changes would have taken place without the productivity improvements made possible by the PC and, by extension, software developed or sold by Microsoft.

When all is said and done, it’s likely that history will remember Microsoft as a far bigger force in reducing poverty than any charity from Bill Gates

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