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(AP photo)

Bill Gates wants money from Congress

COMMENTARY | March 11, 2010

The multi-billionaire testifies on behalf of global health spending, saying vaccines, drugs and innovative approaches are saving millions of lives. It’s a cause that’s not well understood, he says, and not very well covered.

By Dan Froomkin

Bill Gates is the world’s second-richest man, so when he shows up for a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, alongside former president Bill Clinton, he draws crowds and even a few journalists. (Here’s the video.) But the cause to which he is devoting much of his life and fortune – that of saving lives by investing in global health techniques and programs – is still not well understood, or particularly well covered.
Gates and Clinton were testifying on Wednesday in favor of President Obama’s $8.5 billion Global Health Initiative budget proposal (with Gates encouraging Congress to add one or two billion more, if possible).
After the hearing, Gates told reporters he is confident the committee – and ultimately the rest of Congress – will continue its bipartisan support for global health spending, despite the budget pressures created by the recession. But the public’s lack of understanding of the issue is nevertheless of some concern. “Relying on enlightened politicians to do something” is not a strategy for “long-term sustainability,” Gates said. It’s important for the voters to appreciate the benefits, too, he said. “This is their money.”
To the wider audience, the message about the importance and value of global health spending is obscured by two false impressions about foreign aid, Gates said.
One problem is that American citizens are under the distinct impression that foreign aid spending is much larger than it really is. Just last year, for instance, the Kaiser Family Foundation reported that 45 percent of those polled incorrectly named foreign aid as one of the two largest areas of spending by the government. In fact, foreign aid amounts to less than 1 percent of the federal budget, and health spending is only about a quarter of all foreign aid.
The other problem, Gates said, is that people still think of foreign aid being distributed as it was during Cold War: to prop up friendly governments, without any accountability for what the money was actually used for.
“Getting out the word that ‘Hey, this is very different,’ that’s important,” Gates said. By contrast to money looted by dictators, money spent on global health can be tracked and assessed with great accuracy, he said. “This stuff is quite measurable.”
Gates has a lot to say on the subject of how global health spending is the best investment for saving and transforming lives – how dollars translate directly to saved lives. The public does seems to grasp the importance of U.S. efforts to bring low-cost AIDS drugs to Africa, he said.  “Most people know someone who is on an AIDS drug,” Gates said, so it’s natural for them to ask: “Why can’t other people get it?” Similarly, people seem to connect right away with the idea of insecticide-treated bed-nets as a way of preventing malaria. But the “vaccination story,” he said, is “not as well known as we’d like,” despite his belief that they are the world’s most cost-effective public health measure. In January, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced a 10-year, $10 billion commitment to support a "Decade of Vaccines."
Gates and his foundation have embraced the Internet as a way of getting the message to the public – including “the most poignant stuff,” Gates said. The Living Proof Project Web site is full of moving videos and photo galleries.
But still, what seems like an incredible no-brainer to Gates – an overwhelmingly obvious confluence of common sense and moral obligation – can sometimes be a hard sell.
“Ideally, we’d like people to go and see these things,” Gates said. But since that’s not possible, it’s up to journalists.

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