July 17 marked the 14 Annual Nelson Mandela Foundation Lecture, a yearly series that features talks from noteworthy influencers. The lectures challenge listeners to think deeply about social issues and how to effect positive change in the world.
Big names have graced the stage over the years. The list of past speakers includes Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former President Bill Clinton, and Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
Microsoft founder, and more recently prominent philanthropist, Bill Gates delivered this year’s lecture on the topic of “living together.”
He recounted his first experiences with Nelson Mandela, and the great strides that have been made across the African continent. He followed this by touching on further progress he sees as necessary to making Africa as a whole more equitable.
Gates covered a number of important topics including income inequality, childhood mortality, economic stability, and improving healthcare, among others. The biggest takeaway from the whole affair, however, might not be the speech itself, but the opportunity for renewed focus on the role of large philanthropic organizations and helping the poor that Gates has brought to the fore.
The Debate Over Social Issues
Gates’ presence at the lecture sparked interesting debate about the role of philanthropic organizations and the work of The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in impoverished nations, specifically.
Many have commended Gates’ efforts to improve the quality of life for the world’s poor. He has tackled a number of challenging issues with his signature strategy: directing sizable amounts of his wealth at the problem (and encouraging other members of the super rich to do the same).
Cynics, however, are skeptical of the goals of these philanthropic efforts, and question every time a preeminent figure like Gates makes an appearance.
It seems counter-intuitive at first. How could contributing much-needed funding to a worthy cause possibly be bad? Listen to a devoted critic long enough though, and they will list a million complaints.
Of large organizations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation specifically, there are questions regarding their true intentions, disappointment at their ties with large corporations, and incredulity that they can even empathize with the people they purport to aid.
All interesting lines of inquiry, and certainly valid criticisms of any large group with vast resources. Gates’ Foundation has achieved clear results in controlling diseases like malaria and polio. They have also worked with companies like Monsanto to introduce GMO crops to parts of Africa.
Are their actions purely out of altruism, or to benefit their influential corporate allies?
Critics are quick to point to the latter possibility. They cite it as reason enough to dismiss charities outright, and distrust philanthropists completely. Is it prudent to do so though? Is it impossible for the wealthy to do good with ulterior motives? Should the super-rich be shut out of the debate on helping the poor, simply for the possibility of impropriety?
What We Can Learn
This discussion won’t conclude anytime soon, but we as a species can still learn from it right now. Philanthropic organizations are not a panacea for poverty, despite their undeniable positive impacts.
They are still valuable, however. We must not bar the wealthy from speaking about inequality. Rather, we should recognize that they are part of the solution and can spark short-term change across many areas of concern.
To achieve long-term progress, we have to make use of sustainable policies. This includes dialogue across ideological lines about issues, along with attempts at combining philanthropy with practical state-driven solutions.
Instead of dividing our endeavors, we can unite, and improve our vision of tomorrow through shared goals and constructive criticisms of all possible solutions.
Watch this video of Bill Gates’ lecture as it was streamed live:
Featured Image: Screenshot Of SABC Digital News YouTube Video