The deadline for nominating candidates for the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize is today. Sadly, the Switch isn't eligible to formally nominate candidates. But if we were, we'd recommend Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates.
During his years in business, Bill Gates was a polarizing figure. Critics charged that his business practices, especially his ruthless treatment of the upstart Netscape browser, were harming innovation on the Internet. But since Gates left Microsoft in 2008, his philanthropy has attracted universal acclaim.
Gates now manages the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the world's largest charitable foundation. In 2006, Gates persuaded Warren Buffett to donate $31 billion to it, doubling its financial resources.
In addition to vast resources, Gates has also used the logistical and managerial talents he honed at Microsoft to spend them more effectively. He has leveraged the fame and connections developed over three decades of running Microsoft to persuade the world leaders to tackle some of the world's toughest and most important problems.
At the top of his list is global health. Gates has poured billions of dollars into efforts to eradicate polio and fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. Getting the job done doesn't take just money and medical expertise, it also requires the cooperation of leaders in the countries where those diseases are most prevalent.
The campaign to eradicate polio is a good example. When Gates began focusing on the disease about five years ago, it was concentrated in just four countries: India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria. Polio still exists in those countries because, thanks to poverty and (in Afghanistan and Pakistan) war, they lack the infrastructure required to identify and reach unvaccinated children in remote areas.
In the past five years, Gates has donated hundreds of millions of dollars to the cause of polio eradication, helped raise funds from other donors and lobbied world leaders to make the disease a priority. He has promoted the use of information technology to make vaccination campaigns more efficient. In an interview with Ezra Klein last year, Gates described how aid agencies in Nigeria had begun using GPS devices to verify that vaccination workers were reaching the right households. "When they come in at the end of the day, we plug that in and see if they really went where they were supposed to go," Gates said. With help from Gates and other donors, India eradicated polio in 2011.
Gates is a key backer of a multibillion-dollar plan to eliminate the disease worldwide by 2018. Some critics have questioned whether it's worth spending billions of dollars to prevent a few hundred cases of polio per year. But Gates argues that when it comes to infection rates, zero is a "magic number." Eliminating the last polio infection will guarantee that no one is ever infected with polio again. That will free up the roughly $2 billion per year the world will otherwise need to spend to fight the disease.
Literalists might object that Gates doesn't meet the precise criteria for the Nobel Peace Prize. In his will, Alfred Nobel instructed that the prize go to the person who has "done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses." Gates hasn't focused on reducing standing armies or promoting peace congresses. But the Nobel Committee has long taken a broad view of what kinds of activities promote "fraternity between nations." In 2006, for example, the committee recognized the Bangladeshi economist and entrepreneur Muhammad Yunus, whose microcredit programs have lifted thousands of people out of poverty. The next year, it recognized former vice president Al Gore for his work on climate change.
Gore's and Yunus's work won't lead directly to fewer armed conflicts. But reducing poverty and slowing climate change would both have a salutary effect on world peace in the long run. Exactly the same point applies to Gates's efforts. Growing health and prosperity will help now-poor nations mature into the kind of wealthy, liberal democracies that tend not to go to war with one another.
In the past, the Nobel Committee has tended to recognize government officials and political dissidents, not wealthy philanthropists. Bill Gates has never been elected to political office, and he hasn't suffered for his beliefs the way Nelson Mandela or Liu Xiaobo have. But his combination of wealth and leadership gives him the potential to improve the world on a scale that few others can match. And in the six years he has worked on philanthropy full-time, he has made impressive progress.
Even more important, Gates is setting an example for other wealthy people to emulate. Gates and Buffett created the giving pledge, a campaign to persuade the world's billionaires to commit to giving the bulk of their wealth to charity before they die. Dozens have signed up. Awarding Gates a Nobel Peace Prize wouldn't just recognize his own contributions to public health around the world, it would also encourage other billionaires to follow his lead.