Reuters NewMedia - January 25, 2012
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The world needs at least to double its
spending on agricultural research if it is to produce reliable
crops and improve the lives of the one billion people who battle
starvation every day, Bill Gates said in an interview on Tuesday.
A day before flying to Davos to meet political and business
leaders, Gates said he was concerned the austerity drive in
Europe could lead to a fall in foreign aid spending, setting back
the fight against poverty, hunger and disease.
While acknowledging the difficulties policymakers in the richer
world face at a time of slumping growth, the world's second
wealthiest man said now was the time to invest in research and
"The big choice is whether the crisis in the rich-country
governments will cause them to stop increasing the aid that's
been so key to reducing disease, improving food availability for
the poorest, and bringing down the number who suffer from AIDS or
malaria or malnutrition," Gates told Reuters in Brussels, where
he met EU officials.
Referring to agricultural research, he said it was shocking - as
well as short-sighted and potentially dangerous - that only $3
billion is spent each year on seeking to improve the seven most
important staple crops on which the poor depend.
"The number should easily be double what it is," Gates said of
research spending while underlining there had been an increase in
investment by the private sector.
"Capitalism always has a challenge that research is not funded as
well as it should be. That is, that the innovator can't capture
enough of the benefit to society. So they tend to be risk-averse,
and that's why basic research - medical basic research,
agriculture basic research - has to be funded by governments."
European governments have been among the most generous in
providing aid - more than half the world's aid spending comes
from European or EU-level budgets - but there is no guarantee it
will go on rising during the economic downturn.
Europe's aim is to raise its aid spending to 0.7 percent of gross
domestic product by 2015. Some countries are lagging and nations
such as Italy are not best placed to hit the target.
That in turn can have a direct impact on improving the lives of
the one billion people - 15 percent of the global population -
living in poverty and hunger.
"If you don't fund $300 a year, you can't put a person on AIDS
drugs. If you don't buy a bed-net, then there's additional
children who die of malaria. If you don't fund the agricultural
system, you leave these billion that wake up every day wondering
if they're going to get enough food," said Gates.
"The benefit of this money is in a league of its own compared to
other government spending."
There can also be a pay-off in terms of security and cost-saving
elsewhere in richer countries' budgets. Poverty, disease and
hunger frequently go hand in hand with political instability and
the geopolitical insecurity that can foster.
"The national security and economic opportunity benefits of
helping these countries out is quite significant," said Gates,
who gave up day-to-day running of Microsoft in 2000 and set up
the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation with his wife.
"It's a huge cost when you have instability. You've got to look
at upping defense budgets and the human cost that creates, and so
we need to be able to justify this not only on a humanitarian
ground, although that alone should be enough.
"But we need to be able to tell the story of where it stands in
terms of security and economic development as well."
CAPITALISM UNDER EXAMINATION
With a fortune estimated at $56 billion while also heading one of
the world's most generous foundations, Gates straddles the gap
between the globe's super-rich and those battling to survive.
"Capitalism has done a fantastic job," he said. "The state of the
world 300 years ago versus where we are today - you've got to
certainly say that capitalism was one of the elements that came
into that - scientific understanding, reduction in violence.
"We have some pretty dramatic understanding that capitalism can
provide food and access to information at really phenomenal
levels, and that's why it's a little disappointing why the equity
element has lagged as much as it has," he said, referring to the
fact many basic needs are not being met.
"But it's about tuning societal expectations and aid policies far
more than going back to the basic mechanism that inspires people
to try new things... Overall those innovations are changing lives
at a faster rate today than ever before."
Gates, who has pledged to give away the bulk of his fortune,
hopes that over time more super-wealthy people will follow his
"I have a view that they are missing out if they don't do it," he
said. "(Philanthropy) can't be a substitute for government
delivery. What governments do in education delivery, aid
delivery, that's still a primary function.
"But more philanthropy will drive the pace of innovation for all
(Writing by Luke Baker; editing by Robert Woodward)