I spent two days in Berlin this week. My visit brought me into contact with artists and activists, politicians, scientists, actors, and even rock stars. Not bad for 36 hours.
The main reason I’d come to town was to accept a Bambi Millennium Award that was being given to Melinda and me for our work in global health and development. The Bambis are a bit like the German Oscars, though they honor people in the arts, culture, and politics. (You can learn a bit more about the awards and their background here.) It’s televised live across Germany and has some categories where the audience votes during the show for the winners.
It was a real honor for Melinda and me to be recognized. Melinda is in Ethiopia this week, so I represented us both, and spent my few moments on stage thanking Germany for their leadership in foreign aid and their support of exactly the kind of work we were being recognized for. I also asked the audience to stay involved, and keep working for better health and well-being for people in poor countries who are benefiting so directly from foreign aid.
The event included a traditional red carpet walk, with a whole lot of spectators and photographers. I was a little surprised at the cheers that went up when I got out of the car, but then I realized that most of the screaming from many of the young people lined up (mostly teenage girls) was for Robbie Williams, who’d arrived just ahead of me. It still was a lot of fun and not the kind of thing I get to do very often.
It’s a particularly interesting time to be in Berlin because recently reelected Chancellor Angela Merkel is deep in negotiations to form a coalition government since elections in late September. She’s tremendously busy doing this, but took time to meet with me privately. It was a great meeting.
Germany’s support of foreign aid has produced remarkable outcomes for poor people around the world. In 2007, they pledged to work toward getting to 0.7 percent of their GDP in foreign oversees assistance. In the meantime, the world economic crisis and the euro crisis intervened, and in 2011 their aid spending was 0.39 percent instead of 0.7. So there is a great opportunity for Germany to increase its commitments and impact. Still, in 2011 Germany was second overall in total foreign aid, behind only the United States. (The U.K. overtook Germany this year.)
Chancellor Merkel cares a lot about Africa, and as a scientist, she is keenly interested in developments in disease and global health. We agree on a great many things, and I hope this next term of office and her presidency of the G8 in 2015 will present the opportunity for even more results-oriented investments for the poor.
Our foundation has worked very closely with ONE over the years, and I spent some time with Youth Ambassadors from ONE. They are working to promote Article ONE in Germany, which is a statement of principle that commits the government to extend its commitments to the world’s poorest by working to end extreme poverty by 2030 through engagement on health and agriculture, transparency, and new energy. The Ambassadors have been working throughout the summer to line up support for Article ONE —particularly from members of the newly elected Parliament—and to remind political leaders of the needs of the poor, often in very creative ways. Our meeting was hosted by world renowned artist and architect Olafur Eliasson at his studio in Berlin. He’s been a passionate advocate for development and has worked with ONE for a number of years. Earlier this year Melinda visited with him, and so it was my turn, and he gave me a tour of his studio and architecture offices. He’s also developed a LED solar powered light for use in the developing world, called Little Sun.
Another great part of my trip was an event held for digital entrepreneurs and poverty advocates at a cool coffee house and digital workspace called BaseCamp. I spent an hour talking about the impact of technology on the world, particularly the poor, and got to learn about some digital startups in Berlin that are trying to provide social goods as part of their businesses. I encouraged even more innovation that can help drive development, and listened to a number of the participants’ own thoughts about where that might lead.
The day before, I’d gone over to visit ResearchGate, a company that I’m personally supporting, that is a kind of LinkedIn for scientists around the world. It allows them to upload data and papers, ask questions, look for source materials or expertise, and connect with scientists studying similar topics. I’d been enthusiastic about the company when I made my investment, so it was a chance to get updated on their progress. One of the cool aspects of ResearchGate is the way they encourage their users to upload failed experiments. Other researchers really benefit from knowing about previous failures, but traditionally, the way you publish papers in journals doesn’t encourage researchers to publish their failures. ResearchGate is dramatically improving scientific collaboration, so it was exciting to check in with them. All in all, I got to meet some very cool and committed digital entrepreneurs in Berlin and I was impressed by how vibrant that scene is here.
Besides Chancellor Merkel, I also met with a number of other politicians and ministers. Notably, newly elected President Joachin Gauck made time for me. While much of his role is ceremonial, the position plays an important role in Germany’s public life. President Gauck is a former Lutheran minister and was a vocal human rights advocate in East Germany, so I was interested to meet him. We both care a lot about advocacy for the very poor, and he was extremely supportive of the work the foundation is undertaking. I hope we get the chance to work more with him going forward. I also met with Johanna Wanka, the Research Minister, and Germany’s finance minister, Dr. Wolfgang Schauble, who was mildly optimistic about increasing aid in next year’s budget given that Germany (and Europe) seem to have overcome the worst. I also spent some time with Jörg Asmussen, Executive Board Member of the European Central Bank.
In the end, it was two days of talking about innovation and development with people who share many of the passions that motivate the work that Melinda and I are involved in. In that, Berlin was a lot of fun and quite energizing for me (even if I had to put on a tuxedo for part of it). Later next week, I’ll post some thoughts on my time in Nigeria, which came just before Berlin.