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On the Road

Red Letter Days

Melinda and I just got back from several days on the road, where we got to talk about our Annual Letter and I attended a landmark meeting about saving children from life-threatening diseases. I thought I’d share a few impressions from New York, Brussels, Davos, and Berlin. (I’m also writing because I’d rather think back on this great trip than on my hometown Seahawks’ loss in the Super Bowl.)

Debating skeptics

Throughout the trip we heard from people who were skeptical of our argument that life will improve faster for people in poor places in the next 15 years than ever before. They would say: “There’s political deadlock, there’s war in the Middle East, there’s Ebola. How can you seriously say life is going to get better?”

We encouraged those skeptics to step back and see how the headlines don’t capture everything that’s going on. In so many areas that are fundamental to people’s lives, the gap between rich countries and poor ones is closing. Since 1960, the life span for women in sub-Saharan Africa has gone up from 41 to 57 years, despite the HIV epidemic. Since 1970, the percentage of children in school there has gone from the low 40s to over 75 percent. And as we argue in the letter, the gap between rich and poor countries is closing increasingly fast, thanks in part to advances in technology.

This kind of progress doesn’t make news nearly as often as tragic events do. Bad news comes in headlines, but improvements come one life at a time. That’s why we wanted to highlight them in our letter.

Calling for global citizens

Melinda and I tried a couple new things with this year’s letter. One is that we wrote it together for the first time, which was fun. Another is that we used the letter to get behind a new public campaign. It’s called Global Citizen, and it’s designed to give people a way to lend their voice on global issues like health and poverty, helping partners urge governments and companies to take action. Global citizens will be especially important this year: they’ll be holding leaders accountable for meeting the global goals that the United Nations will adopt in September. If you aren’t already a member, I’d encourage you to sign up.

The one thing we should have mentioned

During the trip, someone asked us, “How come the word ‘Ebola’ doesn't appear in the letter?” 

That person had a point. We should have written about Ebola. The ongoing outbreak is a tragedy for the victims, their families, and their communities. Yet it could have been even worse. In fact I think there’s a decent chance that in the coming decades, we’ll see a deadly pathogen that’s far more infectious than Ebola (for example, one that spreads through the air instead of by physical contact). If that happens we could be looking not at roughly 9,000 deaths, as Ebola has caused so far, but ten million or more. That’s why we need to be studying the lessons of this epidemic.

I’m optimistic that the world can get ready to handle a really infectious deadly disease, but the Ebola outbreak shows how much work we need to do. I’ve been learning a lot about this subject over the past several months and will be sharing more thoughts about it soon.

A big success—and a near miss—for saving lives

I’ve been to plenty of dull conferences, but the one I went to in Berlin last month wasn’t one of them. Donors from around the world—governments, corporations, foundations, and others—had come together to pledge funding for Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance, a group that helps provide immunizations for millions of children in poor countries.  The meeting turned out to be more dramatic than I ever expected.

Gavi had set a goal of raising $7.5 billion in pledges to support its work from 2016 through 2020. That money would have a phenomenal impact, allowing an additional 300 million children to be immunized, preventing up to 6 million premature deaths, and unlocking as much as $100 billion in economic benefits for developing countries. It had taken most of the year to get commitments lined up, with the hope that everyone would come announce them in Berlin.

We already knew that because of their funding cycles, a few of the donor governments couldn’t make commitments as far out as 2020. But as the conference approached, we started hearing about other problems. For example, the recent surge in the U.S. dollar was essentially devaluing many of the pledges. I began to think we might fall well short of our goal.

In the end, though, several donors stepped up and increased their commitments. The United States, Germany, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Norway were especially generous. Our foundation also pledged more. The community came together and raised all $7.5 billion.

I was blown away by the outcome. The world’s commitment to Gavi is just one reason that Melinda and I can confidently predict that life will get better even faster for the poor in the coming years. Every dollar raised means getting vaccines out faster and to more children—which means more lives saved.

Ask me anything, Reddit

From Berlin, I flew home to Seattle, drove straight to the office, and sat down to do my third Ask Me Anything session on Reddit. These are always fun—Redditors ask lots of smart questions, way more than I had time to answer. I’ve posted a page with the questions I was able to get to.

It was a fantastic way to wrap up an exhilarating week.

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