Meet the world’s most powerful doctor: Bill Gates
The software mogul’s sway over the World Health Organization spurs criticism about misplaced priorities and undue influence.
By NATALIE HUET AND CARMEN PAUN
Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates | Stephen Voss/REDUX
Some billionaires are satisfied with buying themselves an island. Bill Gates got a United Nations health agency in Geneva.
(Politico.eu) — Over the past decade, the world’s richest man has become the World Health Organization’s second biggest donor, second only to the United States and just above the United Kingdom. This largesse gives him outsized influence over its agenda, one that could grow as the U.S. and the U.K. threaten to cut funding if the agency doesn’t make a better investment case.
Concerns about the software billionaire’s sway — roughly a quarter of WHO’s budget goes toward polio eradication — has led to an effort to rein him in. But he remains a force to be reckoned with, as WHO prepares to elect one of three finalists to lead the organization.
“All of the candidates are going to have to ally with him in some way,” said Sophie Harman, associate professor of international politics at Queen Mary University of London. “You can’t ignore him.”
Evidence of Gates’ unprecedented influence abounds in ways subtle and showy.
“He is treated liked a head of state, not only at the WHO, but also at the G20” — Geneva-based NGO representative
Already a decade ago, when Gates started throwing money into malaria eradication, top officials — including the chief of the WHO’s malaria program — raised concerns that the foundation was distorting research priorities. “The term often used was ‘monopolistic philanthropy’, the idea that Gates was taking his approach to computers and applying it to the Gates Foundation,” said a source close to the WHO board.
The billionaire was the first private individual to keynote WHO’s general assembly of member countries, and academics have coined a term for his sway in global health: the Bill Chill. Few people dare to openly criticize what he does. Most of 16 people interviewed on the topic would only do so on the condition of anonymity.
“He is treated liked a head of state, not only at the WHO, but also at the G20,” a Geneva-based NGO representative said, calling Gates one of the most influential men in global health.
The member country delegates POLITICO spoke to did not voice particular concern over Gates’ influence and were confident he is well intentioned.
However, his sway has NGOs and academics worried. Some health advocates fear that because the Gates Foundation’s money comes from investments in big business, it could serve as a Trojan horse for corporate interests to undermine WHO’s role in setting standards and shaping health policies.
Others simply fear the U.N. body relies too much on Gates’ money, and that the entrepreneur could one day change his mind and move it elsewhere.
Gates and his foundation team have heard the criticism, but they are convinced that the impact of their work and money is positive.
“It’s always a fair question to ask whether a large philanthropy has a disproportionate influence,” said Bryan Callahan, deputy director for executive engagement at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. “When it comes to the priorities that the foundation has identified and that we choose to invest in, we hope that we are helping to create an enabling environment,” he said.
Steve Landry, the Gates Foundation’s director of multilateral partnerships, said the foundation provides “significant funds” to program teams that then decide how to use them best.
The Gates Foundation has pumped more than $2.4 billion into the WHO since 2000, as countries have grown reluctant to put more of their own money into the agency, especially after the 2008 global financial crisis.
Dues paid by member states now account for less than a quarter of WHO’s $4.5 billion biennial budget. The rest comes from what governments, Gates, other foundations and companies volunteer to chip in. Since these funds are usually earmarked for specific projects or diseases, WHO can’t freely decide how to use them.
Polio eradication is by far WHO’s best-funded program, with at least $6 billion allocated to it between 2013 and 2019, in great part because around 60 percent of the Gates Foundation’s contributions are earmarked for the cause. Gates wants tangible results, and wiping out a crippling disease like polio would be one.
But the focus on polio has effectively left WHO begging for funding for other programs, particularly to prop up poor countries’ health systems before the next epidemic hits.
The Ebola crisis of 2014, which killed 11,000 people in West Africa, was a particularly bruising experience for WHO. An emergency program drawn up in the wake of the epidemic has so far received just around 60 percent of the $485 million needed for 2016-2017.
Gates’ influence over the WHO was called into question once again during the race to succeed Chan as its director general.
Outgoing WHO boss Margaret Chan has also had to scale back her attempt to get countries to increase mandatory contributions for the first time in a decade. Chan initially hoped for a 10 percent hike, but WHO will end up asking for just 3 percent more this month after some countries objected.
That makes the Gates Foundation’s input all the more important. “They come with a checkbook, and with some smart ideas,” said Laurie Garrett, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Most of the Gates Foundation’s influence in the WHO is very discreet, she said, adding that it can also decide to take initiatives outside of the organization, as it did with GAVI, which helps the poorest countries buy vaccines in bulk at a discount, or with a recently launched Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, an alliance to develop vaccines for emerging infectious diseases.