At Davos, Bill Gates proved he is a true problem-solver

Whatever his detractors say, the Microsoft founder is setting a constructive tone for other executives to do something about global crises

At the 2022 World Economic Forum, Gates spoke about Ukraine, global health and climate change. AP
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In Davos last week, it was notable that two of the major announcements during the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting involved Bill Gates.

There was the news that a coalition of governments and private sector companies focused on decarbonising industry had expanded its membership and levels of funding. Also, a global health alliance had been formed to ensure that some of the most vulnerable populations, particularly in Africa, had access to medicines and vaccines.

At the news conferences for both initiatives, Mr Gates lent gravitas and star power. On his blog he is described as a “technologist, business leader, and philanthropist” but this belies the stature of a figure who is firmly positioned at the apex of the public consciousness. Such is his heft that he is frequently cited as the lynchpin of the more bizarre conspiracy theories doing the rounds on social media.

In Davos, Mr Gates was a hopeful but rational voice.

“Global health equity has made progress [but] we saw once again with Covid, we're not there. Whether it was getting the vaccines or now getting the therapeutics out, it's a lot of hard work,” warned Mr Gates, who established the eponymous foundation with his now ex-wife Melinda 22 years ago, during the launch of the pact with Pfizer and countries such as Rwanda and Malawi.

Mr Gates also conceded that the conflict in Ukraine meant that the world’s capacity to respond to crises was being stretched.

“In terms of resources for health … food, availability of fertiliser, the tragedy of the war goes far beyond the battlefield. And we'll see this year … the generosity of governments in terms of things like funding … budgets are incredibly stretched. The pandemic alone put us in that situation,” he said.

With the war, maintaining the momentum on health innovation and health improvement would be "a huge challenge", he pointed out.

"The pandemic was a setback. We have more malaria deaths now than we have three years ago, routine vaccination numbers went down a fair bit. So yes, there's a risk that in terms of resource trade-offs or even attention, that global health issues will get a lot less focus than they deserve, as we deal with so many challenges.”

Yet, despite the sobering analysis, Mr Gates’s presence in the room in Davos is expected to make an impact by way of bridging the gaps that he spoke about, whether in terms of awareness or funding.

Similarly, he has supported the Forum’s First Mover programme that encourages companies to decarbonise their supply chains and seeks to turn green hard to abate industries such as aviation, cement and steel.

The war in Ukraine has disrupted global food prices. Bloomberg
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Gates’s presence in the room in Davos is expected to make an impact by way of bridging the gaps that he spoke about, whether in terms of awareness or funding

During a news conference in Davos last week, John Kerry, the US special presidential envoy for climate, took a moment before anything else to thank Mr Gates. “Very important – thank you to Bill Gates, who is our primary implementation partner, and who helped from the very beginning to give this a sense of importance that it ought to have," Mr Kerry said.

Mr Gates himself said that solving climate change is "harder than any problem mankind has ever solved" because it involves "the entire physical economy”. But beyond such commitments, he is making the effort to tackle the problem by helping develop alternative and clean forms of energy. In November last year, for instance, TerraPower, a company he started, announced that it had chosen Kemmerer, Wyoming – historically a coal town – to build a sodium-cooled nuclear reactor.

“It is very promising in terms of the cost and safety advances," he said during a Reddit Q&A recently. "If things go well, a lot of these reactors will help solve climate change. Eventually we want reactors globally but the first ones will be in the US even though competing with natural gas electricity is hard here.”

Mr Gates has also written bestsellers, most recently How to avoid a climate disaster and How to prevent the next pandemic, to share what he has learned with as wide an audience as possible. And just so you realise he isn’t only about brain power, he has also been able to leap over a chair from a standing start, as he demonstrated during a TV interview in the mid-1990s. He says he still keeps fit by playing tennis.

There have no doubt been missteps in his career, such as his association with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. But he has admitted his mistake and has been unafraid to speak publicly about his painful divorce from Melinda.

Conversely, Elon Musk, another larger-than-life figure, seems to have little time for Mr Gates. He has repeatedly mocked him on social media and lately revealed that Mr Gates holds a huge short position in Tesla, the electric vehicle maker owned by Mr Musk, arguing that a bet against its shares dented the Microsoft founder’s climate credentials.

Mr Gates remains sanguine about the criticism from Mr Musk. “There’s no need for him to be nice to me,” he told the BBC recently.

That neatly sums up his approach, which sits in stark contrast to that of Mr Musk. The latter is determined to be a disrupter at all costs, seeing himself as both the problem and the solution to any issue, whether it is by aiming to improve Twitter or promoting the adoption of cryptocurrencies.

Mr Gates positions himself as part of the solution. By doing that he acts as a role model for other leaders in business and government, creating scale and momentum to meet our goals.

Published: June 03, 2022, 4:00 AM
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