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Interview: Bono and Bill Gates discuss pandemics, politics, and more

This interview was conducted by Mario Calabresi, Lola Huete-Machado, and Thorsten Jungholt and originally appeared in WELT, La Republicca, Le Figaro, and El País, all of the Leading European Newspaper Alliance, or LENA.

One is wearing a tie and a suit, the other one a black t-shirt, boots, and earrings. One is the richest entrepreneur in the world, the other a rock superstar. They are sitting next to another; Bill Gates is drinking a Diet Coke and Bono a plain glass of water. What on earth are these two doing together in Munich, at the Munich Security Conference?

BG: Our relationship goes back quite a way. We met in New York City, right after 9/11…

B: Yeah, you were eating a Big Mac!

BG: I committed Bono to this work and his experiences in Africa. The Foundation was at a very early stage then. GAVI (Vaccine Alliance) and Global Fund were just coming together and so ever since that time that we supported and loved the work that ONE does. And we realized we’ve had a lot of good success.

B: After our first meeting and the dietary advice (laughs), I went to see Bill and Melinda about trying to get some investment in ONE so we could formalize our operation and hire the best and brightest people to do it. But what I came away with from our first meeting was “it’s not actually about the money here! These two people are going to be our biggest advantage.”

BG: Well, we were pretty naïve… in those days our theory of change was mostly that we would help invent new tools, right through vaccines and drugs. We didn’t really have a good understanding then of how to actually deliver them, how hard it was to get them out to all the poor children, to get them vaccinated, how there were problems in the coverage and how dependent we were on foreign aid to take the existing vaccines and the new vaccines and get them out. So that whole issue of delivery and foreign aid and the need to partner with different governments, that really developed in the years after that.

And what ONE did was take the evidence of where things were working, find the politicians who really cared about this issue and give us a chance to get to know them.  We’ve both been coming down from the learning curve on this, but he wants to tell the story on health. It is a pretty amazing story, we have 15 years of great progress. Assuming generosity stays strong, we’ll have another great 15 years, because the science enables us to do so. We are a lot less naïve now about how tough it is to get these things out than we were when we first met.

B: I have said over the last few days to people that if you are in any way bleak about the headlines, if you are in any way depressed about the state of the world, read Bill and Melinda’s annual letter. It is literally the best news in the world. It’s incredible: 122 million kids saved since 1990. That’s crazy: I think that’s over 13,000 a day, something like that. It’s an enormous thing!  If you are feeling despondent about the wider world, get behind this kind of movement. It brings a great sense of purpose because you’re really having an impact. You can join ONE, feel a part of it, because this is really working.

I: You have attended the Munich Security Conference to raise awareness on diseases as a global security risk. Are you satisfied with the conference?

BG: We are super happy because awareness of the connection between our prosperity, development and security and the connection between health and security is very strong here. So, I calculated today that we’ll talk a lot about epidemics and how we need to work with the security establishment and make investments and be more prepared for those things. And Chancellor Merkel has said that even though she is committed to increasing defense spending, we always have to think about the development spending alongside it.

B: This is the extraordinary thing that we are witnessing, which is the military seem to be sometimes further ahead than their bosses on the need to invest in people, the need to invest in prevention, rather than intervention. I think that is probably because they know more than anybody the cost of conflict. There isn’t a person in Europe who doesn’t think that what goes on in North Africa matters anymore. Five years ago, it was easy to say “I don’t really care, it’s over there”, but now we know just how close the continent is and I think that that has prioritized the work that we do: the work the Gates Foundation does tackling both health and agricultural improvements, and the work that ONE does, which is to give wind at the back of politicians who are prepared to do the right thing.

I: What do you think about the new development strategy of the German government and its stimulus to the so-called Marshall Plan?

BG: This Plan right now does not yet have the concrete numbers and the exact shape, but what is fantastic to see is that it’s soliciting input from the Africans. So, last night I had a dinner here in Munich with the big private-sector investors in Africa… What stops us from having more investments there? What can rich governments like Germany’s, who want to engage, do and what do the Africans themselves need to do?

B: I saw Minister Schäuble yesterday and I was quite taken aback by his passion for this project, the G20’s Compacts with Africa. He was very passionate that it was a necessity for Germany and indeed for Europe to see successful states, a strategy of successful states. There are also very good reasons to discuss fragile states, because fragile states become failed states and then we’re in real trouble. There’s no such thing as ungoverned space—in chaos, radicalism rules. We have to start seeing Africa in a different way. There is jeopardy, but there’s huge opportunity. We’ve seen what happened when Syria, a country of what used to be 20 million descends into oblivion. Can you imagine a country ten times the size of that? That’s what Nigeria is. It’s the stated objective of Boko Haram that Nigeria fails. I don’t know if you know the phrase “grey zone”—have you heard that? Grey zone is where Christians and Muslims get on, and actually and largely in Nigeria, there is a great relationship. It’s a very interfaith community. That’s called a grey zone—if you’re an extremist, you want to destroy that.

I was just in Borno, in northeast Nigeria. I witnessed what two and a quarter million people displaced looks like— chaos. I think the thinking behind the Compact with Africa is that with successful states, people don’t want to leave them. I visited four countries last year with refugee camps. The single biggest thing I heard was we just want to go home. They don’t want to get on boats and come overseas. That’s the place to meet people where they are and help them to thrive. I’m, also, very excited to see the Chancellor talking about education today, and girls’ education in particular, because the statistics are crazy. If a child is born to a mother who can read, he or she is 50% more likely to reach past the age of 5.

I: You gave the program in your speech, you mentioned the three Es: education, employment, and empowerment…

B: Yes, I was pushing that. What you’re seeing coming up for the German G20—is actually extremely strategic and clever. It’s not just compassion and smart aid. It’s trying to rework a relationship that if there are countries ready to tackle corruption, ready to put the people first, ready for good governance, then we get right behind them. We stand with them. Perhaps, and Bill is really strong on this, you know, we can help fast-track connectivity.

I: What about the refugee strategy? Because you started to work with the refugee cause last year, with Syria’s problems…

BG: Yes, as a percentage of our activities, it’s not gigantic. Our deep expertise is in health and, actually, in sanitation and financial services. So we said, okay, let’s take the things we know well and make sure that all these refugees are benefitting from them. We want to make sure you are getting vaccination into these camps, you’re getting toilets that avoid spreading disease, and you have a decent quality of life there.

I: Are you worried about the growing mistrust towards vaccination in the West and in the world?

BG: You know, vaccines are totally safe. In my first meeting with President Trump, I was going to discuss that with him. That message got through. There have been cases in which rich countries’ vaccination rates dropped below the needed threshold, where pertussis and measles cases even led to some deaths… that’s really tragic. It is true that negative rumors sometimes travel much better than positive facts. The positive facts have a hard time in catching up with the salacious things. Even this thing about autism and vaccination which has been disproven now for almost 20 years, that article was withdrawn, and even that is still kind of out there.

So, it is a communication challenge that we have to continue to work on. And that’s partly why we are so careful about vaccine safety, because if any one vaccine had problems, it would taint peoples’ perceptions of all vaccines. We can’t afford to take any risk because the whole endeavor would be hurt by any mistake. That is why safety is such a big thing, and that means that it takes us a lot longer to get new vaccines approved than it otherwise would, but we are totally supportive of that.

I: If President Trump decided to cut money on programs such as family planning, education, what could happen with Africa?

BG: The United States in absolute is the largest money donor, about 30 billion dollars a year and about 10 billion of that is on health things, including malaria and HIV. The Trump administration has not yet submitted their budget, so they haven’t cut anything. When you have a new leadership, it’s incumbent upon civil society and organizations like ours to make clear to them that even in an “America First” framework the stability, that you get, the economic role you get, the avoidance of epidemics that could come to our shores – these are good investments. I know the new Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. I’ll get to see him in his new role in a few weeks. It’s going to be challenging, because the US budget is very tight, there are a lot of priorities, so… the foreign aid story is always tough because you are far away and you’ll get a story about how 2% of it wasn’t spent perfectly and that taints the other 98%. So we are in a time where we really have to speak out about the multitude of benefits.

B: I find Americans to become more patriotic when they talk about what their government is doing to fight HIV/AIDS. They feel a great sense of pride and it is the largest health intervention in the history of medicine. And it was a conservative who led it, President Bush, and I was in the Oval Office and I said to him, “These pills… you can paint them red, white, and blue, Mr. President—they will be the best advertisement of the United States you are ever going to get.” And he kind of laughed, but he went ahead with that, and actually the polling for the United States is really high in Africa. I think it might be a strategic imperative to keep that relationship, not just a moral imperative, so we shall see.

I: In many countries in the West, including of course the U.S., politicians currently win elections by demanding to put their countries first. Not only in the States, but also in Europe, there is this kind of debate. Do you think that this behavior could affect your efforts for Africa?

BG: Well… of course, countries put themselves first. So those words alone are not a problem. The question is, do people see how, since World War II, the fact that countries working together has, in terms of peace and development, been absolutely fantastic. So my view is, yes, America has always had America’s interest first and, yet, it served our interest to do the big aid, it served our interest to be a friend of Europe and work together with Europe. And so… I think the danger is more that people become very short termist, they don’t realize the progress that’s been made and this is a challenge.

B: Seventy years of peace… through global cooperation. I think the memory of a world at war has faded and with it the reasons why FDR and others were trying to reimagine a world of cooperation. The UN, the Bretton Woods institutions, NATO… I think it is probably time to relook at them, but to relook at them in the sense of trying to make them better, if they can be. We have to do that with anything.

And I don’t think there’s a choice, I mean, there really isn’t a choice, this sort of island mentality, the up-drawbridge. You know, diseases and pandemics don’t respect borders. This globalization is with us; we become like King Canute… do you know the story? He tried to stop the waves… and it’s just impossible. I do think we have to understand that people have had a tough time. The financial crisis killed Ireland, and many people were angry, and they knew that it wasn’t their fault… but they were bearing the brunt of it. So people have been angry at globalization, in certain communities especially. We know that globalization has brought hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. And it’s been good for the economy in general, but it hasn’t brought everyone with it. And I think capitalism is a brute—it needs to take instruction… it’s a bit of a beast and it has to receive orders on how to behave. You can’t let it tell us what to do. I think that’s what’s happening.

There’s a reboot and I really believe this is a short-term moment. We’ll go back to a place where people trust each other. People talk about post-truth, post-facts… We might be in the post-trust, and I think to rebuild trust is going to be very important. To rebuild trust you need storytelling.

I: To rebuild trust, in your opinion, will philanthropy save the world or will politics do that?

BG: Well, philanthropy is a pretty small part of the world economy. Even in the US, where we have very broad base given by people of all levels, it is worth 2% of the economy. But it can play a very special role. Sometimes you have problems that no one from the private sector can solve, like malaria. Often these problems require creativity and risk-taking that governments aren’t necessarily the best at, Philanthropy can fund some really great solutions: For example, a lot of the new vaccines that are going to be invented, we’ve been able to get out in front on that in a way that the governments haven’t. But when it comes to delivering at scale – what are we talking about? – education for girls, agricultural systems, the stability, justice, we are totally dependent on governments. So, the big factors in this world are the private sector and governments. Philanthropy, you know, that’s my life, but in the grand scheme of things it’s only a footnote, it’s running pilots that can help the two big sectors work better.

I: Mr. Gates, some people think that you invest a lot of money through the Foundation because you have a return out of it. Why do you do it?

BG: Other than believing that all lives have equal value, I can’t imagine any other motivation for funding malaria vaccines or malaria drugs, or Melinda going to Mali and trying to meet with mothers, trying to understand what their needs are for contraception, or really studying primary health care in Northern Nigeria. So, this is how we spend money. We made the money—you know Microsoft was very successful, provided about half the resources for the Foundation—and now this is the way to give back. There is no other motive for it. It’s very enjoyable work, and it’s gone very well. That’s why I like to work very long hours—because I am excited about the progress.

I: Bono, what is your personal motivation to fight?

B: Valuing all human lives as equal—that is bedrock to this. The only way we can see human potential squandered and not do something is if we don’t believe those lives are as valuable as ours. This idea of the squandering of human potential, it really pisses me off. So, when I see a homeless man in the street, I think he could be a painter or a chess player. I see people who through just bad parenting don’t get into college, because they were unhappy in their teenage years… I see this all around me. I think people will relate to it that way: We must see it as if love exists, and it does, love serves the idea of human potential. And if whatever you want to call the opposite of love exists, it rejoices in the squandering of human potential.

It is an amazing thing when you align yourself with the forces of love—to be abstract, if you don’t mind—because when you throw a punch, it is a way bigger punch than this little rock star’s capable of throwing or even this gigantic philanthropist is capable of throwing. You’re aligning yourself with something else, I think… and so does it feel good? Yes, it does, to be on the right side of history and the thing we’ve all learned is that we thought that freedom, justice for all, equality… we thought that all these things were just inevitable in a way. I think I grew up thinking that: Every day got a bit better—mutual respect, gay rights, women’s rights—everything just seemed to be moving forward. Just recently you get a sense that that might be slowing down and you think, okay, it may not be that given that we move forward and we have to now be very, very strongly voiced, whatever your political color. It’s the moment now to state where you want to be in this conversation, in this onward march of decency.

I: Are you worried about this rise of fake news?

BG: Absolutely! Not only fake news, and that’s a problem, but the idea of a common center, where people are reading about the same things and not just seeing things that they agree with. And, you know, it is a criticism of the digital freedom that is sometimes allowing people to partition off. I think that it’s forcing even the people who see technology as this amazing thing, to think about how to deal with that. I do believe that these are self-correcting systems, that the false facts will lead people down dead ends and in the end that it won’t overwhelm people. But it’s interesting that it’s being discussed so much.

B: I tend to trust the direction of information technology—it’s toward information, and toward better information. And right now we are going through a period where you can be given poor information and you may not have a correcting mechanism. I think that those kinds of correcting mechanisms will be built into systems. Fact checking shouldn’t be that difficult, actually, because there are empirical truth—there really are. And I notice it. I can see in a way as if there were a backlash from this kind of fake news. You can see sites emerging already, to check things. People are becoming conversant with those sites. The control of information, though, that’s the thing to watch, because you can do it in two ways: You can do it by stopping access—autocrats and the like try to do that—or by disinformation. We do have to watch that, where truth loses credibility. That is very, very dangerous. But, in the end, I don’t think the future is strong men, I think it’s educated women.

I: Do you think that we can eradicate malaria?

BG: Getting polio done will be a huge triumph for all the global health and it will really energize the credibility of everything we do and, I think, in particular, it would energize what would be a multi-decade effort to get rid of malaria. The first decade of that is going to be taking particular regions, South America, Southern Africa and South-East Asia, proving that we can do regional eradications. Those places are not as hard as Central Africa, but if we can do those and the tools keep getting better, our understanding keeps getting better. Then, eventually, in the second decade, we’ll go after even Equatorial Africa, where malaria has the strongest hold. So, yes, getting rid of these infectious diseases—you know, that’s what I’ll be working on for the rest of my life. I can’t emphasize enough how much science would give us better and better tools. You know we have to speak out for our funding, that’s important, but we will be much better armed five years from now, ten years from now—so it’s very exciting.

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