President Hennessy with Bill Gates

Stanford President John Hennessy leads a question and answer session with Bill Gates following the billionaire philanthropist's presentation on campus. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

At Stanford, Bill Gates says foreign aid is threatened, but big ideas can turn the tide

Scientists and engineers, Gates says, need to focus on developing products that help improve the lives of the world's poor even though the market directs people to help the wealthiest.

Steve Fyffe

Bill Gates spoke to a capacity crowd at Cubberley Auditorium.

When Bill Gates talks about Africa, he uses words like "optimistic," "excited" and "hopeful" – a sharp contrast to headlines describing famine, war and disease.

Understanding better than most the realities on the ground there, the billionaire philanthropist chooses instead to focus on what's being done to improve the lives of people on the continent. He aims to inspire others to join his effort and drive home the understanding that foreign aid works.

During a visit this week to Stanford, Gates brought that enthusiasm to a capacity crowd at Cubberley Auditorium, where he described three programs supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that he believes will have great impact on reducing the spread of disease and improving agricultural production.

"I want to give you a sense of optimism and excitement about the progress we're making," said Gates, who just returned from a trip to Ethiopia and Zambia.

The first innovation he spotlighted was a cheap meningitis vaccine. He said the drug, if applied properly, has the potential to eradicate a certain strain of the disease in a region of Africa, known at the meningitis belt, where children are particularly hard hit.

"It's horrific. People can see their kids getting (meningitis) and by the time they get it they're not able to treat them," Gates said.

He also cited research showing that the risk of acquiring HIV goes down among men who are circumcised, and described a newly developed plastic ring to make the procedure easier and less expensive for teenagers and adults.

L.A. Cicero Bill Gates talking about a vaccine for meningitis being used in Africa

A low-cost meningitis vaccine was among the innovations Bill Gates spotlighted in his Stanford presentation.

"It is a fantastic development. It's just plastic, it's very cheap," he said. "It reduces the pain involved, it reduces the cost involved, very straightforward."

Lastly, Gates noted a specially designed triple-layer bag being given to farmers to store their crops to avoid insect infestation.

"So now there are over 1.7 million households that will increase their income by $150 a year, which is a lot," he said. "That's a pretty dramatic thing."

Gates said he's optimistic that progress can be made with these innovations but warned it can be hard to convince scientists and engineers to turn their energy toward making products for developing nations because it's not as profitable as creating them for wealthy ones.

He said he was encouraged to hear, during conversations with Stanford researchers, that they are working on malaria and tuberculosis drugs.

"There is a real danger that science wouldn't focus on those needs, that it would just simply do what the richest need," he said.

Stanford President John Hennessy said Gates' "message of innovation as key to improving the lives of people around the world clearly resonates on this campus."

Hennessy presented Gates with a solar lamp created in Stanford's Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability course.

Gates also took questions from the audience and Twitter. The event was streamed live online.

Students asked about how the foundation prioritizes projects and funds, the role of social scientists in foreign aid work, the impact of any reduction in aid by governments, and the relevance of the Internet in aid work.

"The Internet is a tool that can reduce that distance, have us feel a common sense both of the problem and of the successes," he said.

But the man who built his fortune by selling software said the Internet's reach was limited since most of sub-Saharan Africa doesn't have online access. And he encouraged students to think beyond computers when they imagine innovation.

"It could mean a bed net that doesn't tear apart after a couple of years because of a new fiber. It could mean a new seed," he said.  Innovation "takes many different forms."

The foundation, Gates said, plans to award $100,000 to 10 people who innovate – this time not by developing a new product, but by coming up with new ways to convince people that foreign aid is effective.

Gates said aid is threatened as governments face budget deficits and many consider trimming their spending on projects outside their borders.

"If we could get innovators to care about these problems, we could get broad awareness so we could get rich governments to continue to stay generous," Gates said.

Hennessy closed the presentation by asking Gates to offer words of advice to students.

"Pick a country," Gates said. "If you pick something that you know in depth, then that really kind of animates you … then you get down on the level where you actually meet the people and that's when you really can't give it up."

Brooke Donald, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-0224,