THE LATEST eye-popping gift from Microsoft multibillionaire Bill Gates goes to a carefully crafted project to bring the achievements of modern medicine to children in the poorest parts of the world. The idea is to accelerate research and development on, for instance, vaccines against HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis and to extend the global use of new vaccines that protect children against respiratory, diarrheal and liver diseases. These afflictions cause several million child deaths annually. The new five-year program would undertake to double the number of children saved each year.

Singling out a particular constituency (needy foreign children) and a particular sector (health, vaccines) in the Gates style is bound to ruffle a few bureaucratic feathers. But of course it's his and his wife's money, and they are in a position to decide on their own what gaps cry to be plugged. In this instance, their judgment seems sound. They have started a global fund to prompt official, corporate and individual sources to fund the purchase of vaccines and the improvement of immunization services. The fund will work with a new international coalition of development and finance organizations, philanthropies, the pharmaceutical industry and others. The coalition will only kick in "once it is evident that [recipient] country resources for immunization have been maximized." And after five years, sustainability, not dependency, is the goal.

There has always been a heavy quotient of private voluntarism in the combating of misery. Sometimes it comes hooked up to a quest for commercial, political or personal advantage, but it is welcome -- especially when the benefit flows directly to children, who are inevitably among the most vulnerable and dependent among us. Says Carol Bellamy of UNICEF, a player in the new vaccine "partnership": The Gates gift is a major step toward ensuring children equal access to lifesaving vaccines.