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Gates' charitable foundation: gift or PR gambit?

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Opinion Perhaps Bill Gates' father reads The Register because he told the Sunday Times in yesterday's edition that Bill Jr would be giving away his $100 billion fortune, which in fact is not news at all. We pointed out last Thursday that Gates was not winning in the foundation stakes. Our challenge that Gates should funnel his loot into a foundation and make it the world's largest ever has been accepted, it appears. The Gates' kids are to receive $10 million each (there's a sub-text that there will be no more Baby Bills), but the bulk is to be given for developing Aids and malaria vaccines. Gates said that: "Melinda and I want our children -- and all children -- to grow up in a world without Aids." We see grave problems with the achievement of these objectives, which were said to arise from the concern of Dr and Mrs Gates (he has an honorary doctorate from the only private Dutch university) at "the level of disease and poverty they found [sic] in developing countries". The truth is that they have absolutely minimal experience of these things from their personal travels. There are several significant hurdles to Aids vaccination: it is assumed that Aids is caused by a micro-organism; it is assumed that worldwide mass vaccination would be carried out; it is assumed that objectors to being infected with a "minor" dose of Aids (and there would of course be millions) would be ignored and compulsorily vaccinated, lest they infect anybody. We should bear in mind that in the latter days of smallpox, many more people were being killed by cowpox from the vaccination than from smallpox itself. Less and Less effective So far as malaria is concerned, anti-malarial prophylactics are becoming less and less effective, so it is likely that a long-term, effective vaccine against malaria is a pipe-dream anyway. The alternative would require eliminating static water in affected areas -- something that not even the Gates' billions could achieve, and which is anyway a geological and engineering impossibility. Spraying swamps merely makes malaria more difficult to eliminate as the strains tend to become resistant. There is of course great joy about this announcement from immunologists and pharmacologists, who see well-funded career paths and almost unlimited resources. So what are we too make of these grand, philanthropic plans? We see the announcement as little more than a attempt at special pleading for saving Microsoft from the imposition of grave remedies at the end of the trial. There are several clues that support this view. Paramount is the timing: it was chosen with PR precision (effectively giving it to the press on Monday, the best day for announcements) to allow some groundswell to develop before the next phases of the trial. The findings of fact are due from each side on 10 August. There was no need to make the announcement at this particular time, since it is made clear that the gift is an intention during their lifetime. Politically correct The emotional plea of these plans is quite clear: it is not politically correct to be anything but wholly supportive of attempts to eliminate Aids, or to advocate research funds for such unfashionable diseases as arthritis and asthma, from which many more people suffer, and which are amenable to better relief. Most expenditure on Aids has been wasted, and official prognostications have, for the main part, been proved to be entirely wrong. We should not forget the photocall possibilities of children with malaria, and how they could be saved if their lot were just a little better: imagine what that could do for the Microsoft public image. Had this announcement been made in the US, there would have been the usual carping and trying to ignore someone else's scoop. Promulgating it in the UK through the Sunday Times makes it more neutral in the US, and may be an intended small favour to the paper's owner, Rupert Murdoch. Of course, it would just be another coincidence if there were some joint business announcement soon. Had Gates issued a press release, it would have looked very calculated, and been immediately deemed to be an attempt to influence the outcome of the trial. Using his father to leak the information removes Gates Jr one step further from the process, and increases the suspicion that the story is a carefully planned public relations exercise. Dies in disgrace The final clincher that this was a carefully designed PR campaign was the Sunday Times' unattributed comment that one of Gates' favourite books is Andrew Carnegie's The Gospel of Wealth in which the philanthropist wrote: "The man who dies rich dies in disgrace." The Sunday Times piece volunteered that "Gates has read it several times". We don't believe that. The purpose and the timing, we believe, was an attempt to soften American public opinion and to put pressure on Judge Jackson to deal with Microsoft leniently, in view of this charitable intention. The Gates' foundation spokesman Trevor Neilson claimed that there was no relation between the intended donations and the trial. Microsoft should not be allowed to get away with breaking the law on a massive scale, with the consequent deep and considerable repercussions on users, developers, their respective organisations, and -- if you will -- the progress of the developed world. Melinda Gates' role in this should not be minimised -- her influence on Gates is considerable, and positive it would appear. After all, he's a happy Dad with a boy and a girl, no operational concerns about Microsoft, and able to accept invitations to have his ego stroked to the end of his days. Gates' $100 billion, or whatever it turns out to be, is not a great deal of money so far as world health is concerned. It would not even fund the NHS in the UK for two years. Far better would be to use the cash to set up a health scheme for those many Americans who are denied healthcare in the US because of poverty. The availability of health care to all is a sign of civilisation. ®

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