Gates foundation’s polio win is result of a historic alliance

Polio is on the cusp of eradication, thanks to philanthropic cooperation between the Arabian Gulf and the West. Joe Cerrell helped to bring the people and resources together.

Joe Cerrell, the head of global policy with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Antonie Robertson / The National
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The goal is nearly in sight. By the end of this year, or early next at the latest, Afghanistan and ­Pakistan will declare themselves free of poliomyelitis and, assuming no new cases after a three-year period, the world’s health authorities will be able to claim the global eradication of this dreadful disease.

That achievement is a testimony to the hard work of many people: the doctors, nurses, aid workers, logistics experts and religious experts who have been enlisted to the fight against ­polio. But it will also be thanks to a historic philanthropic alliance between the Arabian Gulf and the West. Joe Cerrell has been part of that cooperation for the past 15 years.

Mr Cerrell is no stranger to worthy causes. He worked for former American vice-president Al Gore on the production of the film An Inconvenient Truth, which probably did more than any single initiative to raise popular awareness of the danger of climate change.

Since 2001 he has been with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, most recently as managing director of global policy and advocacy, at the heart of the drive against polio by the billionaire’s philanthropic organisation – with the help of his friends in the Gulf, including the UAE.

“There is a long history of philanthropy in the Middle East. Zakat goes back to the founding of Islam,” says Mr Cerrell in Abu Dhabi, during one of his regular visits to the region. “In the UAE and Kuwait, it goes back to the founders of the states. We at the foundation have a lot to learn from the region.”

Of course, the region’s vast oil-driven wealth has also made it a natural source of philanthropy, especially for causes that focus on the Muslim world. The battle against poverty and disease is of particular interest in the Gulf because, as Mr Cerrell points out, 40 per cent of people in the world who survive below the poverty line live in Muslim countries.

But it is not just a case of digging into a sackful of cash and handing out to poor people. The new philanthropy, of which the Gates Foundation is a pioneer, weds sophisticated financial techniques to traditional charitable models to maximise the impact for recipients.

The new approach has been the driving factor behind the Lives and Livelihoods Fund, which Mr Cerrell has helped to develop since it was launched last year.

The problem is that the traditional techniques face several difficulties. One is sheer need. The cost of meeting “sustainable development goals” for poor countries is estimated at “several trillion dollars”, says Mr Cerrell, but the world stumped up only US$139 billion last year.

Lending to poor countries – to develop agriculture, prevent disease and build infrastructure – is almost by definition not profitable for the commercial banks. “The private sector is doing its bit, but it’s risky for them in places, for example, like Sub-Saharan Africa,” he says.

The other source of philanthropic finance is “concessional loans” – with lower rates of interest and longer repayment periods – from the big international aid groups, such as the World Bank or the increasingly important Islamic Development Bank.

But even with these, the recipient can often end up having to cover sizeable repayment charges. The Lives and Livelihoods Fund was developed to ease this problem by increasing the financial impact of development loans for the recipients.

“We can turn $20 into $100 by leveraging up the impact of donations,” says Mr Cerrell.

The aim is to raise $500m from development organisations, including the Gates Foundation and Gulf governments, to support $2.5bn of investment in poor countries.

Mr Cerrell reports some significant progress towards meeting that target. Mr Gates’ organisation matched a $100m donation by the Islamic Development Bank via its affiliate the Islamic Solidarity Fund for Development, and the government of Qatar weighed in with another $50m.

“We’re talking to several other people, including the UAE government, about the balance and the conversations are far advanced. There will probably be one ‘anchor partner’ in the $100m category but we expect others, too,” he says.

The cash will be invested mainly in agriculture and health projects in poor Muslim countries, with a smaller proportion earmarked for infrastructure development. Many will be in “micro” projects with direct impact on the lives of people in countries such as Senegal.

“Agriculture is a big focus, and something the UAE can help on. Growing things in a tough climate is something the Gulf knows very well,” says Mr ­Cerrell.

But the big headlines will ­always be generated by the ­programmes to get rid of fatal or debilitating diseases. Smallpox was declared eradicated decades ago, polio is well on the way to being wiped out and the campaign against Guinea worm, in which UAE donors have also been prominent, is also nearing success. Mr Gates can now turn his attention more fully to malaria, one of the biggest killers of people on the planet, and is reporting progress from orthodox techniques such as netting and spraying.

“We’ve cut the rate of infection in half from these methods,” Mr Cerrell says. “But there are still as many as 800,000 fatalities from malaria each year. It’s a major human toll and we haven’t yet developed an entirely reliable vaccine. We’re still a few years away from that. But Bill [Gates] thinks it might be possible to get rid of it by 2030, that’s his goal.”

Mr Gates also met Prince Mohammad bin Salman during the Saudi Arabian deputy crown prince’s recent visit to the United States and signed a deal to develop charitable work in the kingdom via a training programme for young Saudis in the field of philanthropy.

“It’s not as developed in Saudi Arabia but there is a long tradition of charitable giving there that we can all learn from. It’s a two-way process and we can learn a lot from them,” says Mr Cerrell.

But the UAE will remain a central focus for the Gates Foundation. Mr Cerrell was in Abu Dhabi to attend the first meeting to be held in the UAE of the Tidewater group of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which gathers to coordinate opinion between OECD governments and the main aid groups.

The meeting was co-chaired by Reem Al Hashimi, the UAE Minister of State for International Cooperation and also head of the Dubai Cares charitable organisation, with which the Gates Foundation has had a long association.

“Over the past three years the UAE has exceeded the 0.7 per cent target of gross national income for foreign aid. Many countries aspire to that but not many achieve it,” Mr Cerrell says.

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