Fulbright Prize honors Bill and Melinda Gates as visionary philanthropists

BASKING: Microsoft's Bill Gates and wife Melinda at the Fulbright ceremony.
BASKING: Microsoft's Bill Gates and wife Melinda at the Fulbright ceremony. (Susan Biddle For The Washington Post)
By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 16, 2010

When Bill Gates heard that he and his wife were receiving the J. William Fulbright Prize for International Understanding, he searched for the former senator's speeches online and, engrossed, proceeded to read 60 in one sitting.

Inspired by the scholar's writings, Melinda French Gates said, "we thought about another Fulbright idea -- the idea of getting rid of old myths, seeing human beings as they are, not as abstractions."

The Gateses have devoted themselves to that continuum of global outreach; drawing from Fulbright, the intellectual foreign-policy expert of the old school, this wealthy, 21st-century couple has modernized activist philanthropy and taken on seemingly insurmountable problems. Largely for that, the Gateses were applauded Friday in a ceremony at the Library of Congress.

From the stage, there were also echoes of today's policymakers. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton "talks about shared responsibility," said Ann Stock, assistant secretary of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the State Department. "Bill and Melinda Gates exemplify shared responsibility. They are stepping up to the plate and charting a new path for philanthropic giving. They are putting their giving all together in a way we haven't seen before."

Before the formal talk, the Gateses sat in a small anteroom at the library and talked about their on-the-ground experiences with the people they are trying to save.

"We work on a lot of diseases. I think about the little girl I met in Delhi who was paralyzed with polio," said Bill Gates, the Microsoft co-founder, who wore that Washington-reception look: dark suit, white shirt, copper tie.

He said that researchers are "that close" to eradicating polio, which made his Delhi encounter even more upsetting. "Some of the most shocking moments [were] listening to the sex workers and the pressures they live with. And if they have AIDS, how they are treated in their communities. That was harsh to hear."

Visit after visit to remote spots around the globe has compelled the Gateses to use their $35 billion foundation to target global health and international development. The foundation has initiatives to help develop methods for eradicating malaria. And earlier this year, it launched a focus on maternal and child health.

The Fulbright Prize comes with a $50,000 honorarium; Bill Gates said he and his wife are leaving the funds with the foundation.

Melinda Gates, dressed in a belted black suit, waved her hands to indicate the scope of some of the problems. "I was in Malawi to see the health extension system. I wanted to see this in action," she said. She noted that health-care workers from clinics go to villages, check on pregnant women and get them to promise to come to the clinic 30 days before their due dates.

"I was in the clinic, and a baby was born, and they placed the baby on the warmer," she continued. "One baby was already there and I asked about the baby. I was told that baby was born outside the clinic and wouldn't make it through the day.

"That is the difference between a health policy and not having one. It is horrific to know that other baby isn't going to make it."

The couple are heartened by some statistics: 1.3 billion people have been lifted out of poverty since 1990. But then there are other numbers to face, such as: 4 million children die in the first 30 days of life.

Standing on the stage, Bill Gates showed a slide with the critical detail that in 1960, 20 million children died before age 5; by 2009, the number was down to 8.8 million. "I love graphs -- they move me emotionally," he said, to some boisterous laughter.

This year, the couple and fellow billionaire Warren Buffett threw out a challenge to other wealthy people to give at least half their worth to charity. Asked about the gambit, Bill Gates said quickly: "I wouldn't call it a challenge."

He then laughed, saying: "A group has chosen to work together and decide how to get more effective. Forty people have joined. We are amazed that 40 have signed up so far."

Melinda Gates then smiled at the effect of their philanthropic conspiracy.

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