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Why Melinda Gates thinks the U.S. must protect foreign aid

September 21, 2017 at 6:20 PM EDT
As President Trump stressed his “America-first” approach in remarks to the United Nations this week, Bill and Melinda Gates hosted a conference to unveil the results of a three-year-long Gates Foundation study on the world’s major health issues. Judy Woodruff spoke with Melinda Gates about the importance of U.S. leadership in world health, and how tech is affecting teens today.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: This week, as President Trump addressed the U.N. General Assembly in New York, repeating his America-first approach to world affairs, Bill and Melinda Gates were also in town, hosting a conference to unveil the results of a three-year Gates Foundation study assessing progress on some of the world’s major health issues.

I spoke with Melinda Gates yesterday, and began by asking whether her foundation’s priorities were compatible with those of the Trump administration.

MELINDA GATES, Co-Founder, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation: Well, I think the messages you are hearing there are different than the messages we’re giving.

We’re really trying to reinforce what 193 nations set out to do two years ago. They set the set of sustainable development goals that — and if we follow those goals, just like the previous goals that they set the previous 15 years, we will see incredible progress around the world.

But Bill and I really believe that that takes nations reaching out to one another. We know that progress is possible. We have seen it. Childhood deaths have been cut in half. Poverty has been cut in half. Maternal mortality has been cut in half.

But that’s because of people working together. And that’s really the message that we’re giving. We need to keep up this progress. But this progress is not inevitable.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you — as you say, you have seen progress. You have called on world leaders to step up their global giving.

But you have also cited a loss of U.S. leadership in this field. You have talked about it contributing to confusion and chaos and, in particular, affecting those most vulnerable populations around the world.

Expand on that a little. What do you mean by that?

MELINDA GATES: Well, if we want peace and security and stability around the world, we have to make investments in people around the world.

Bill and I travel the globe all year long. We’re in some of the most remote rural places in Africa, and India and Bangladesh. People don’t want to get up on the high seas and get in a life-threatening dinghy to go to Europe if they have a prosperous society where they are.

And that means we have to keep up these investments in foreign aid. For the U.S., it’s less than 1 percent of our American budget goes to foreign aid. But those investments are what means people have health and they have prosperity around the world.

It also means, if we make the right investments, we won’t have things like Ebola show up on our doorstep or Zika. We have to make these investments. And even the generals are talking about the fact you make these health, you make education investments, they lead to the right things, and, frankly, you buy less bullets.

And so that’s the thing that’s right for the American people to do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How worried are you, though, that the investments on the part of the United States may be cut significantly?

MELINDA GATES: Well, this administration has proposed significant cuts to foreign aid.

But what I am very optimistic about is Congress. We have had very good bipartisan support for these issues for a very long time. President Bush was the one that came up with the first emergency AIDS plan for relief. It’s why we have had a substantial cut in HIV deaths over the last many years.

We have seen the last administration come forward and do a whole program around malaria. So, we know on the Hill there is really great bipartisan support for things like maternal and child health. And we’re counting on Congress to keep up that funding. And Bill and I are having a lot of conversations with Congress about that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what do you say to those who are still out there criticizing some foreign aid, saying much of it is just not as effective as it should be?

MELINDA GATES: I would say I wish you could go where Bill and I travel.

If you saw the difference in Tanzania today vs. when I traveled there for the first time 15 years ago, or Ethiopia, or Rwanda, or India, these investments are what puts a country on a path of prosperity.

If you look at investments in South Korea, they moved from a low- to middle-income country. They now give aid to the rest of the world. We can put all countries on that trajectory, but we have to make these investments up front.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Melinda Gates, a few other things I want to ask you about.

One is something you have written about recently, the effect of technology on children. You wrote a column for The Washington Post in which you said, despite the fact you have spent most of — much of your life, your career in tech and in the tech world, you were not prepared for what it meant to try to parent children in this environment.

What have you learned about that? What advice would you share for parents?

MELINDA GATES: Yes.

So, I’m a fundamental believer in technology. I think it does incredible things for society. But it means we have to be on top of it as parents, and we have to really think about what it means for our children.

And what really struck me to write that article was, I have a daughter who is going to graduate from college in a year, and I have a daughter who just graduated from eighth grade. We just finished middle school.

The difference in just that span of time, from my oldest to my youngest daughter, was profound in terms of technology. And so, as parents, I think we have to be incredibly thoughtful about what our children are doing on that computer that’s literally in their pockets.

Some parents are putting that computer in kids’ pockets age 5. I think that’s far too young, but even what rules we have and being on the same media that they’re on. It means we have to learn and keep up with them and be thoughtful about our rules and also thoughtful about when they shouldn’t be on their phones, so they have real conversations with people, and they can empathize with others and not just be online on their phones.

JUDY WOODRUFF: More broadly, some of the biggest companies in the tech world are increasingly being seen in a negative light. They’re being seen — and this includes Microsoft — being seen as taking on greater — having more and more power, but not taking on and accepting the responsibility that goes with it.

And that includes issues like privacy, fake news. You and your husband have obviously been deeply involved in that in the past. What’s your take on it?

MELINDA GATES: Well, my take is that the technology is moving really fast.

And I think that a lot of these companies are trying to do the right thing. They’re also keeping up with it. They’re hearing — if I talk to people inside of Microsoft, or I talk to Satya, or I talk to many of the other leaders at Microsoft, they’re actually hearing their employees, the millennials, saying to them, hey, there are things we want you to do as a company to do the right things for the world.

And so a lot of tech companies are trying to catch up themselves. I ultimately trust that they will do the right thing, but the tech is going so fast that everybody is looking at this.

JUDY WOODRUFF: One other aspect of the technology field, and that is women.

There has been a lot of reporting in the last few years about how women are simply not as represented as they should be and they’re not being given a fair shake, and even worse in the field of technology.

You worked in that field. How do you see that?

MELINDA GATES: Sure.

So, I’m a computer science graduate. I had a fantastic career at Microsoft. And I think, though, what you’re seeing is, at the time I was in college, we were on the rise; 37 percent of graduates were women in computer science. Same — we were on the uptick, like law and medicine.

Those fields have gone up, but computer science has gone down now; 18 percent of graduate in computer science are women. That means you have a problem.

And yet this is an industry that should be incredibly welcoming to women. Tech is pervasive for us in society now. It’s going to be an industry that is going to pass financial services as the biggest industry. So they need to look at things about, what do we need to do to make industry more welcoming for women?

What is it — why do women drop out in — all the way through K-12 and college? How do we create pathways through computer science, like that opening computer science course in college? Some of the best places, community colleges, colleges, universities, they’re doing great things to welcome women in, giving real-world problems, explaining to women, you can be a computer scientist.

So, I think we have to lean into this and figure out what solutions are working and then spread those across the field. And there are. You’re hearing more conversation about this, and you’re hearing some of the things that are going on in the Valley that aren’t good. You’re finally seeing the transparency come to light.

And once something becomes more transparent, then you can start to really work on the solution. So, I’m cautiously optimistic that things are actually going to get better.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Melinda Gates, who did work in the field and now with her husband, Bill, runs the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, thank you very much.

MELINDA GATES: Thank you, Judy.

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