New Generation of Gulf Leaders in the Fight Against Global Poverty and Disease

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New Generation of Gulf Leaders in the Fight Against Global Poverty and Disease

UAE Media Summit 2012

Remarks at the UAE Media Summit 2012
Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
October 9, 2012
As prepared


It’s a pleasure to be back in the Gulf, and here again in Abu Dhabi.

I first began coming to this region when I worked full-time at Microsoft. Even then, I was impressed with the pace of progress here. But since I began devoting most of my time to philanthropy, I have been visiting the Gulf more often – forming deeper friendships and a stronger understanding of the region. And I see change accelerating every time I visit.

I’ve been especially impressed with the young leaders I’ve met here. They’re gifted, but also humble.  They care deeply about their region, but they’re also concerned about the rest of the world.  They’re shaping the future, and in some ways, they seem already to be living there.

But they have an abiding respect for the past as well. One of the things that makes this region so special is the way tradition and change exist side by side.

You combine rising prosperity and a commitment to education with a deep custom of charity, in keeping with the teachings of Islam.

I want to talk to you today about how these unique gifts of the Gulf region – along with rising technology, strategic philanthropy, and new media – give you a key role in the fight against poverty and disease, with a special impact in the Muslim world.

Philanthropy and optimism

It is a very exciting time to be working on humanitarian goals – whether in health, or agriculture, or education, or other efforts to lift the lives of the poor. Good news is sometimes hard to see these days, because it is often obscured by bad news. But there is good news in the world, and it’s spreading. In significant and far-reaching ways, the world is a better place to live than it has ever been – in living standards, economic freedom, better health and longer life.

In 1960, more than 20 million children died before they reached their fifth birthday. Nothing is more tragic than the death of a child.  But today, the number of child deaths has fallen below 7 million. In little more than fifty years, the world has cut the number of child deaths by nearly two-thirds, even with more children in the world.

To me, this is one of the greatest accomplishments of the modern age. It is proof of the fantastic things that can happen when innovation is shared widely in the world.

This is why Melinda and I started our Foundation. We already knew the power of innovation to improve the lives of people who can pay for it.  We started our philanthropy so we could foster innovation that would improve the lives of the poor.

Our giving is guided by the belief that all lives have equal value.  We believe that innovation should be for everyone.  But we soon saw that in poor countries, millions of children were dying from diseases that had been ended in rich countries. We knew that we could prevent millions of deaths just by reaching children with vaccines. That’s what triggered our first large investment in philanthropy. And we have since increased that commitment.

We are calling the first ten years of this century the “Decade of Vaccines.”  Our foundation has pledged to spend $10 billion in this decade to pay for research and development and delivery of vaccines to the poorest children in the world – to drive down the number of childhood deaths even further.

But saving the lives of millions of children is not something we can do alone.  We don’t have enough resources. We don’t have enough knowledge. We don’t have enough access in many regions of the world.

To reach our goals, we need partners.

That is why I am so happy to be here.  This is a great place to form deep friendships and long-term partnerships to fight for humanitarian goals. 


In particular, I have met with leaders and prominent citizens here to seek help in ending polio. As you all know, in the 1970s – after more than 10,000 years of disease and hundreds of millions of deaths – the world eradicated small pox.

Ending polio is the next great goal for global health.

Polio cases have dropped more than 99 percent over the last twenty years.  From a high of nearly 400,000 cases a year to fewer than 200 cases so far this year.  From a high of 125 countries, down to just a few countries.

We can see the finish line.

But the last few years have given us a humbling lesson in how difficult it is to end a disease. There have been new outbreaks and discouraging setbacks.  Today, polio is still paralyzing children in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria.

To win the fight, we have to reach the children who face the greatest risk. I remember visiting Nigeria a few years ago.  I had the chance to vaccinate a set of infant twins. Then I met with a group of mothers. We talked about the barriers to vaccinating children, and they all said:  “We need to have permission from our husbands; we need the imams to talk about vaccination and give permission during prayer.”

Of course, many imams are strong advocates for vaccination.  After all, people making Hajj each year must be vaccinated against multiple diseases, including polio.

This shows how important it is to have the support of the whole community.  To reach the children, we need the help of the mothers and the fathers and the leaders.  To reach Afghanistan and Pakistan and Nigeria, we need the help of their neighbors, their fellow Muslims, and the rest of the world.

This is everyone’s cause. If we don’t move forward, we move backward. If we don’t end it, it returns to countries that already are rid of it.

Some might say:  “But wait a minute.  Polio is down to only a few hundred cases this year. It’s not that big a threat.  It’s not worth so much effort.”

I say just the opposite.  The more we drive down the numbers, the harder we have to work.

Right now, I am spending more of my time on the effort to end polio than on any other cause.  It’s the top priority of our foundation.  We are convinced that ending polio is achievable and will bring lasting success.  It will lay the foundation for a better public health system for children in the poorest and most remote places. It will help us create strong vaccination systems that will boost the fight against other diseases. We can end polio! And when we do, it will rejuvenate the whole field of global health.

But first, health care workers have to get vaccines into every high-risk area.

Philanthropy in the Gulf

For years, we were confronted with a very difficult barrier. In a key tribal region in Pakistan, Taliban leaders had declared that health care workers could not enter to vaccinate the children.

People who had worked for decades to end polio couldn’t do anything about it. There was no chance that outsiders were going to have any sway among the leaders in the tribal area.

But then there was a breakthrough. His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, with deep friendships in the region, sent a group of doctors from the UAE to Pakistan and negotiated for their entry into the crucial areas. The doctors vaccinated 20,000 children against polio and measles. This was a fantastic thing for those children and their mothers and fathers, and for the cause of global health. 

It is also a mark of why this region can play a pivotal role in improving the lives of the poor. The leaders and citizens here can reach out as partners to countries where they have special access and special kinship – areas where the rest of the world doesn't have the standing to intervene in the way that leaders here can do.

In another example, last year, our Foundation established a partnership with His Highness to deliver vaccines in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Without the partnership of His Highness, there is little our foundation could do in those regions. Together, we can have a huge impact.

And giving inspires more giving.

His Highness’ leadership in vaccination has emphasized the importance of this cause, and others are now following his lead.

Just yesterday, our foundation announced a new partnership with the Islamic Development Bank. The partnership will provide financing and grants for agriculture and malaria – and for crucial polio eradication efforts in Pakistan.  Our foundation is honored to become a partner in the fight against polio with the Islamic Development Bank.

Last year, I met a family here in the Gulf that was determined to use its resources to help fight disease. This particular family is very wealthy, but also very modest. They didn’t want to talk about their generosity. But some friends explained to me that in Islam it is permitted to talk about one’s charity if it will inspire others to give. And so this family was willing to talk to other families about their goal. 

During Ramadan, they hosted a gathering to build support and now they are all funding delivery of polio and meningitis A vaccines in Africa.  I just met again with the family and their friends. It is inspiring to be part of these efforts to solve problems for the poor. 

And there are so many more.  The Khalifa foundation’s funding of nutrition programs.  Dubai Cares’ support of education programs. President Khalifa’s commitment to the eradication of guinea worm in honor of his father, who was one of the earliest supporters of the eradication program.

This region’s prosperity and generosity have made you an important player in the world’s humanitarian efforts, and there are several emerging factors that I believe will make the giving here even more effective.

The first factor is the rise of strategic philanthropy.  The world has a much stronger understanding today of how we can make an impact with our giving. We have all made mistakes with our giving in the past – not getting all the results we might have had.  But we’ve learned, and now we know; there are clear models of success.  If you can get health, agriculture and education right, it’s a springboard to development, and it works even in very poor countries.  For a long time, people throughout the world were happy just to have the good feeling that came from giving.  But that doesn’t seem to be enough anymore.  After all, the point is not for the giver to have a good feeling, but for the people we’re trying to help to have a good feeling.  And so today we’re all more determined to make sure we do the greatest good for the largest number with the resources we have.  That is strategic giving.

Second, we know that the most powerful leverage in philanthropy comes through technology and innovation.  This is the great power of philanthropy – to invest in the innovations that the private market ignores because the people who benefit can’t pay.  The highest-impact, most-neglected area of human ingenuity is innovations for the poor.  Whether it’s through vaccines that can save lives, or health tools that reduce infant deaths, or new seeds that get six times the yield in harsher conditions – innovations for the poor are the pivot that can change the world.

And the UAE is making massive new investments in technology and innovation.

Khalifa University is producing the first Emirati nuclear and biomedical engineers trained here on home soil.

Abu Dhabi is sponsoring the Masdar Initiative, gathering businesses and research universities to focus on renewable energy.

As you deepen your research into technology, I want to exhort you to do something that the West largely neglected to do for a very long time.  For too long, we in the West worked almost exclusively to develop and apply technology to meet the needs of the rich world, only for those who could pay. As you grow into a world hub for research, I hope you constantly search for ways to apply technology to help people who can’t pay.

Humanity’s greatest advances are not in its discoveries – but in how those discoveries are applied to improve the lives of everyone.

There is one more factor that will help this region play a growing role in world’s humanitarian work.  The media.  This region is home to deep innovators in the field of media.  And focused, continuous media coverage is key in any effort to improve the lives of the poor.

The media here reach the wealthy, who should know about the lives of the poorest.  And the media also reach the poorest, who should know about the threat of disease and the power of vaccines.  The world has not yet fully tapped the power of the media as a force for good.  In fact, I think “media” is too passive a word to capture the dynamic role it can play.  The media is really a voice.  And if it raises its voice – to show how bad things can get and how good they can be -- the media can become the conscience of the world.  I hope this is a role you see for yourselves.

The great cultural tradition of charity in Islam already makes this region a natural leader in solving the problems of the poor. Your rising prosperity and technological skill gives you the power to advance the humanitarian agenda. Your innovative new media gives you a chance to raise your voice for the poor – and change the world for everyone.

You have a phenomenal opportunity.

Skeptics will tell you that nothing will change – that poverty has always been with us.  But I am optimistic -- because these new tools and technologies have not always been with us - and that is why the future can be better than the past.


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