Bill Gates's Hands-On Charity

By Justin Gillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 1, 2003

GABORONE, Botswana -- Bill and Melinda Gates smiled and nodded as the prostitutes stood up to dance.

Sha-boom! Sha-boom! Hips jiggling, arms swinging wide, the women moved in lock step, singing with no accompaniment. Their lilting voices filled a drab conference room at Gaborone's main hospital, and their modern African rap unfolded as the world's richest couple looked on.


"Be faithful!"


"Save your life!"

Okay, so they were ex-prostitutes. Or, to use the politically correct new term, ex-commercial sex workers. They have been restored to respectability these days, thanks in part to a program the Gateses' money has helped to fund.

They sat back down, and soon the Gateses were firing off questions. Will men in Botswana use condoms during sex to protect themselves or their partners from the AIDS virus? (Sometimes.) Are condoms easy to get? (Yes.) Will men pay more for sex without a condom than with one? (Yes, a premium exceeding 50 percent.)

The scene in Botswana last week was a scripted moment, to be sure, with a handful of journalists in the room to record it. But it accurately reflected just how deeply Bill and Melinda Gates have become enmeshed in the health issues that shorten lives in poor countries.

The Gateses are pouring billions of dollars into world health initiatives, a cause they have backed since 1994 but have tackled with rising fervor in the past couple of years. The extent of their giving has grown so quickly that the world has barely begun to absorb the implications.

Their money is being used to dramatically expand and improve international vaccination efforts. They are bankrolling programs to find new ways to stop the world's greatest killers, including AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.

The Gateses have created a foundation worth $25 billion, the largest in the world, and have pledged to give it most of the rest of their $46 billion fortune, derived largely from stock in Bill Gates's company, Microsoft Corp.

CONTINUED     1                 >

© 2003 The Washington Post Company