Why Bill Gates Is Giving Away His Fortune

ByABC News
November 6, 2005, 11:51 AM

Nov. 6, 2005— -- People already know that Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, has more money than anyone in the world. What they may not know is that he's also giving away more money than anyone. Gates is dedicating billions to fight diseases like malaria that are still killers in the developing world even though they have been all but eliminated everywhere else. "This Week" spoke with him earlier this week at a global health summit cosponsored by Time magazine and ABC News.

George Stephanopoulos, host of "This Week:" So how did this all start for you? After you built up Microsoft, made your fortune, you're the world's richest man, how did you decide to start giving it away and how did you choose global health?

Bill Gates: Well, the first thing was the decision that it probably wouldn't be good for my kids, for it to go to them, and so then the question of--

Stephanopoulos: Will they get nothing?

Gates: They'll get something, but not a substantial percentage. Then, the question is how to give it back to society to have the best impact. And so my wife Melinda and I talked about what was the focus in the United States that we think could have the biggest impact? And then we picked education and scholarships. And then on a global basis, what was the greatest inequity? And as we learned about these health issues, we realized that that's where you can make a huge change and that has such a positive effect on all the other things.

Stephanopoulos: Melinda has said that the night before you got married, your mom wrote her a letter which was a real inspiration. What did she say?

Gates: Well, my mom was very involved in the community, always gave a lot of time in nonprofit activities more than anything else. And she thought that given the success, which was just starting then, that responsibility was commensurate with that, and so very excited that Melinda would be there to partner with me and help us make the right choices.

Stephanopoulos: Let's talk some of the specifics. You've given away about $6 billion over the last five years. And a real special focus on malaria. How did you choose it?

Gates: Well, there's about 20 diseases that don't exist here in the United States that are killing millions of people in poor countries. The worst of those are malaria and AIDS. And so we've made those a particular focus. The exciting thing is that the biology has improved, so the chance of having new medicines and vaccines are stronger today than ever. And yet because the people who need these medicines can't afford them, we haven't put the resources of the world behind us. And with our foundation, with others, with governments now, we're changing that. We're getting the brightest scientists to come and work on these problems.

Stephanopoulos: You said that the way the world is dealing with malaria is a disgrace.

Gates: We should be putting more resources into malaria. The fact that all these kids are dying, over 2,000 a day, that's terrible. If it was happening in rich countries, we'd act. And so making that more visible, getting more resources, I think that needs to be done.

Stephanopoulos: Can malaria be wiped out?

Gates: Absolutely. It's not going to happen overnight, and we should take the tools we have today and get those applied, because we can save half the lives just that way. But with breakthroughs that will come over the next two decades, yes, we can make malaria in the whole world like it is in the United States today, something that we just don't have to worry about.

Stephanopoulos: Earlier this year, there was a headline in a Swiss newspaper that said, "The health of the world depends more on Bill Gates than the World Health Organization." Now, that says something about you, and it also says something about the World Health Organization. Flattering to you, but it shows that perhaps we're not all doing enough together.

Gates: Well, the World Health Organization is a critical institution. And we should all adopt the idea of making sure that the best people go to work there and that they get more resources. I think governments overall are the key actors here, and the most that even a large foundation can do is raise the visibility, be an advocate and take on some of the more risky elements, including drug discovery.

Stephanopoulos: But do you ever think about that there are times when you may become a substitute for government action rather than a spur to government action?

Gates: Well, in fact, we measure ourselves by how much we're getting other foundations involved and governments involved, and there's been a dramatic increase, probably because the visibility is much higher. Events like the summit on global health get people thinking, "Hey, how is my country doing? What should I do?"

And so the last five years have been the best ever, drawing more resources in, the brightest people in, and that's something we need to make sure continue that trend.

Stephanopoulos: Over all the time you've been working on these issues, was there any one moment that sticks out, one ah-hah moment where you said, "Yes, I know this is what I need to do, and I know it can work?"

Gates: Well, there was a dinner after I'd given the first $125 million, where a lot of scientists came. And they were there to be nice about--

Stephanopoulos: Sure, after you give out $125 million.

Gates: And I said, "Well, could you do more if you had more money?" And they all kind of looked at each other like, "Well, are we really supposed to say." But then they were talking about each, the disease that they devoted their life to and how a little bit of resources could help them move forward. That was very exciting to hear them.

Stephanopoulos: Must have been exciting for them.

Gates: Well, yes. I mean, many of those scientists now are the partners who are making the breakthroughs with us.

Stephanopoulos: Do you think you'll be remembered more for the work you're doing on global health than for Microsoft?

Gates: Well, I don't care whether I'm remembered. I do think that empowering people with the Internet and PCs is my lifetime's work. That's my job; I'm thrilled about that and the new things we can do there. It's also neat in terms of giving all this money back, to take my position where I've been, maybe, the luckiest person and help the people who have been unlucky to have better lives. I feel very fortunate to have found that and [to] be able to get engaged and hopefully energize that field as well.

Stephanopoulos: So, you've got the president and the leaders of the Congress, both parties in one room. You've got one minute. What's the one thing you asked them to do?

Gates: Well, I think there's some science here that they ought to fund in a better way. Be willing to take some risks. I think the image of the United States in the world at large could be improved if our commitment to help with some of these tough conditions was more obvious. And we tracked the progress there.

Taking on long-term goals is tough, because these are things that take way more than any electoral cycle. The benefits will show up when somebody else is probably in office. And yet, that's the only way to make the breakthroughs.

Stephanopoulos: Do you feel any pull to get involved in that political role yourself?

Gates: No, I don't think I'd be good at it or perhaps even enjoy it. So between Microsoft and the work of the foundation, that's going to keep me busy.

Stephanopoulos: Mr. Gates, thanks very much.

Gates: Thank you.