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Laura Bush, Melinda Gates, CARE President on Women’s Issues, U.S. Foreign Aid

March 9, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
In recognition of International Women's Day this week, Judy Woodruff speaks with former first lady Laura Bush, Melinda Gates of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and CARE President Helene Gayle about issues facing girls and women around the world, and how programs to address those issues fit into the U.S. foreign aid picture.

JIM LEHRER: Next, maternal and child care as an international issue.

The U.S. now spends $474 million on the problems faced by women. And the administration’s new budget would add another $372 million.

Today in Washington, the private aid group CARE held a conference to give a special push to that effort.

Judy Woodruff talked earlier today with three prominent participants at that meeting.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Former first lady Laura Bush, Melinda Gates, Dr. Helene Gayle, the president of CARE, thank you, all three, for talking with us.

Mrs. Bush, you’re here together, the three of you, to talk about what girls and women around the world are facing, and yet this is at a time when President Obama is having to worry about cutting programs for women and children in this country. What does that say about the challenge you face?

LAURA BUSH, former first lady of the United States: Well, we are here all together to celebrate or to mark International Women’s day and to talk specifically in this case about maternal health, about what we can do for women at the time they deliver and what we can do for babies and families in those few months of — after a woman delivers.

And this is the problem. This is the question that everyone’s asking now: How can we help people in our own country, as well as people around the world?

And both Melinda, obviously, and Helene, with CARE International, have worked worldwide to make sure people have good health, especially babies and women and children. And that’s really what we’re going to be talking about is how we can allocate resources? What can we do to make sure people come together to help both people here in the United States, as well as not neglect people around the world?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Dr. Gayle, CARE, the organization you head, works in some 70 countries to fight poverty. How worried are you right now? I mean, in the climate that we are in right now, Congress is talking about cutbacks across the board, including in foreign assistance. How worried are you?

HELENE GAYLE, CARE USA: Well, I’m pretty worried. And I’m worried because I think that if the American people and if our Congress understood better what a good investment this is that they might make different decisions. We’re here for our national conference. We have some 1,100 advocates who are going to go to Capitol Hill tomorrow and try to convince their lawmakers that, in fact, it’s a good investment.

You know, the American people think that we spend something like a quarter of our budget on foreign assistance. But if you ask them how much they would be willing to spend, they say they’d be willing to spend 10 percent. And yet we spend less than 1 percent of our budget on foreign assistance.

It’s a good investment. It saves lives. It helps to grow economies. And it’s great for peace — long-term peace and stability. So I think the news — the message has to be that this is a good investment and it’s in our — it’s in our short-term, but it’s also in our long-term interest to make sure that we invent in foreign assistance.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Melinda Gates, you with your husband, Bill, run the wealthiest foundation in the world. You are very focused on vaccines, on education. But in particular, you’re interested in women and girls. Some people are going to listen to this debate about public assistance and say, why can’t the Gates Foundation pick up the slack? Why doesn’t it work like that?

MELINDA GATES, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation: Well, I think what people have to understand is, even though our foundation looks very large, the problems that we’re choosing to tackle are absolutely enormous, and our money is actually tiny in this. All that philanthropy can do is be a stimulus, is to stimulate innovation.

So what we’ve tried to do is help bring down the vaccine prices, so then as governments procure those vaccines – so our government has been very generous and needs to continue to be — to buy these very inexpensive, sometimes a few cents, 13 cents for measles vaccines, will save a child’s life, but you need government funding to do that if you’re going to cover millions of children, which we can do.

So it’s not a matter of, can we do this? We know how to do this. It’s a matter of, will we do it? And will we be generous enough to keep doing it?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mrs. Bush, another argument one hears at a time the United States is fighting two wars, facing turmoil, as we’ve all been watching in the Middle East, the Republican chairman of the House subcommittee that’s focused on foreign assistance, Congresswoman Kay Granger of your home state of Texas is saying whatever foreign assistance we give has got to be tied to national security. How do you —

LAURA BUSH: Well, it is, really. I think disease and all the things that we treat are tied to national security in a lot of ways that we maybe don’t realize or that the American people don’t realize. If other countries have a chance to be stable, then that helps us. If there are ways we can prevent — and we can, because we are a wealthy country — if there are ways we can help other countries defeat diseases – I mean, as Melinda was telling me earlier, we’re about to totally eradicate polio. And can you imagine? That would be so terrific.

But all of these are helpful to other countries. If you take the burden of health care, of diseases off the backs of some other countries, it gives them a chance to use their own very limited resources in ways that help their people. And also there’s a hopelessness associated with deadly diseases, that if that can be alleviated, people can build their own economies in their own countries and they’ll be less reliant on the developed world for help.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Melinda Gates, there’s also the competition when it comes to domestic needs, which we mentioned a moment ago. We’re still coming out of the recession in this country, people focused on jobs. As we mentioned, President Obama has been — has now been recommending cuts in women and infant programs in this country.

You were with President Obama yesterday. Did you say anything to him about some of these international programs?

MELINDA GATES: Well, Bill and I have spoken with President Obama before several times about the international programs. And he has a huge commitment to them. He’s kept up the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief that was started under the Bush administration because he believes in that. He’s kept up the president’s malaria initiative. He’s invested in maternal and child programs. Those are all parts of his international budget.

So we’ve spoken with him about that and the importance of that before. Yesterday was really focused on education, because both the state budgets here are under tremendous pressure to cut education funding in our schools, which is imperative. You’ve got to fund our U.S. schools if you want to create jobs, and so that’s what yesterday was focused on, really, with him.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But what’s your sense of his commitment to the kinds of things you’re talking about today?

MELINDA GATES: Huge commitment. Huge commitment. He completely gets it. He completely believes in these maternal and child programs in particular. And he knows that also, if you build up a woman so she stays alive and her child stays alive and she’s not taking care of her child, she can feed that child, she can educate it, and she can build her economy. And guess what? We export to those emerging economies, and that creates jobs for us. So they’re all linked. They’re all hand in hand.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Still, Dr. Gayle, there are the voices out there saying, Wait a minute. At a time when this country has so many needs — I mean, we hear, for example, the Tea Party arguing foreign assistance is a waste. And these on top of arguments we’ve been hearing for years, that foreign assistance, it’s not spent efficiently.

And they ask, why can’t the private sector, why can’t an organization like CARE pick up what the government…

HELENE GAYLE: Well, it’s going to take all of us. And as Melinda said, there is no one institution, there is no one organization that’s going to do it. It’s going to take the government; it’s going to take the private sector; it’s going to take the NGO sector, like CARE and other organizations. But it’s going to take all of us working together to be able to use our comparative advantages, if you will, to really build this solution.

And, you know, I think if people — again, I think if people understood what a good return on investment this is, there would be a very, very different dialogue around this. When people realize how inexpensive it is — pennies — to save a child from dying needlessly from a diarrheal disease or measles or the diseases that we don’t even have here in this country, that for a $2 loan that a woman can take out from a microfinance program to start a business, that then sends her children to school, her children will be more likely to be healthy, earn an income themselves, and what a virtuous cycle you create, you know, with that $2, those are the kinds of things that I think people don’t realize.

And that, you know, if we leave, the potential of half of this world behind, it’s not in our best interest, either. It is in our best interest to have safe, stable and growing economies around the rest of the world, and that’s what we’re invested in.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, finally, Mrs. Bush, to those people watching this interview, listening to this interview, who are among the group who think foreign aid is 25 percent of the budget, how do you get the message across so that we’re at least dealing with facts?

LAURA BUSH: It’s really important, obviously, for people to realize that it is a very small percentage, only 1 percent of our total economy, of our total budget, and I think that’s important for people to know. But I also know that Americans are very generous and that many, many Americans are proud that their taxpayer dollar has saved lives in Africa through the president’s malaria initiative or through PEPFAR, the emergency relief plan for AIDS.

And when I travel, which I did five times to sub-Saharan Africa, and visited programs there, they were run by programs like CARE or Catholic charities, some faith-based, some small programs, World Vision, many, many programs that Americans also invest in through their churches or their synagogues or other ways.

So I think people really — I do know that Americans are generous. And I think they would not like the idea of someone who’s been on an ARV with HIV to be taken off of it. And it’s really a risk.

JUDY WOODRUFF: An antiretroviral.

LAURA BUSH: Diseases don’t respect borders. You know, just at the edge of the American border, that isn’t the edge of diseases. We need to be sure that we’re looking worldwide. And it is in our security interest, as well as our moral interest, to pay attention to the rest of the world.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, I hear it in your voice, as I do in the voices of Melinda Gates, Dr. Helene Gayle, Mrs. Laura Bush. Thank you all very much for talking with us.

LAURA BUSH: Thank you.

MELINDA GATES: Thanks, Judy.

HELENE GAYLE: Thank you.

JIM LEHRER: Tomorrow night, we’ll get another view of this from Texas Congresswoman Kay Granger.  She does chair the House subcommittee that oversees foreign aid appropriations.

Editor’s Note: For the record, the Gates Foundation is an underwriter of NewsHour Global Health coverage.