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Gates Foundation CEO: Helping vulnerable countries ‘requires action, not just rhetoric’

Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation CEO Mark Suzman joined Yahoo Finance’s Julie Hyman at the 2023 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, to discuss how recession, COVID-19, and climate change are threatening vulnerable nations as well as the solutions available to address these risks.

Video Transcript



SEANA SMITH: Our coverage of the World Economic Forum continues. Let's head over to Julie Hyman in Davos, Switzerland.

JULIE HYMAN: Thanks, Seana and Dave. Well, one of the things that we try to examine at Davos is the disconnect between the goals that people talk about at Davos and the actual action that ends up happening. One of the people who's well poised to talk about that is Mark Suzman, the Head of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. And I asked him about that, whether things get done after Davos.

MARK SUZMAN: I think you've hit the nail on the head in terms of today's Davos, where there is a huge amount of commitment in principle. The theme of Davos is around new forms of cooperation, collaboration, rebuilding a world of prosperity, focusing on issues like gender equality and women's economic empowerment or climate. But when it comes to the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable, which is the one third of the world heading into recession, many across countries, across Africa, Asia, Latin America, we're actually not seeing a lot of concrete action and discussion.

And so one of my roles here this week is to really try both to highlight what we at the Foundation are doing-- and today, we're actually announcing a record budget of $8.3 billion for this year to try and tackle these issues because we're saying the urgency is now-- and to try and prove some of the models, saying there are actually things we can invest in and scale, such as in the area of gender equality, that can make a transformative difference, but it requires action, not just rhetoric.

JULIE HYMAN: Well, so you guys have a lot of resources, as you just alluded to. But you still can't do it alone. You need cooperation from other organizations, both in the private and public sector. And you allude to this in your latest letter, where you talk about "shockingly little money has been spent to meet the needs of farmers in low-income countries even by donor nations that have made public commitments to do so." So when you come to something like this and there are representatives from those nations, what are the sort of levers that you have? How do you try to convince these other entities to fulfill those commitments?

MARK SUZMAN: Well, agriculture is a great example because if you think about climate change-- and there are multiple panels about climate change here this week, but they're nearly all focused on energy and climate mitigation. That is critical. The carbon transition is fundamentally important, and we don't want to take anything away from that.

But the people who are suffering most from climate change right now are poor farmers in developing countries, largely in Central Africa, bits of Asia. If you think about the devastating Pakistani floods last year that put a third of the country under water or the devastating drought in the Horn of Africa, yes, these are areas that have had weather problems before but never of this scale. They are clearly climate change-induced.

And there has been an official commitment by the world to double their resources in what's called climate adaptation, how do you help these poor farmers adapt? Can you create new practices of better water use, of developed new drought and flood resilient crops and livestock? We have made a significant investment. I actually announced a $1.4 billion investment at COP around it, which we were very concrete about.

Here's what we're doing about supporting women farmers here. Here's what we're doing about supporting research and development in crops. And what we try to do is show and almost shine a mirror back and people saying, you've made a commitment.

And don't say there aren't shovel-ready projects to put resources into because we can give you a list of a dozen right now that you could and should be doing. And then we try and encourage those partnerships. So that's what's underway right now. It's been a struggle because currently, it's only a tiny proportion of the total resources that go on climate go on these kinds of issues.

JULIE HYMAN: One of the other big topics here at Davos besides cooperation is the economic backdrop for the globe, which is a little bit sobering right now. We know things are going to be slowing. Whether we get a recession in the US and beyond is still an open question. What effect does that have on the most vulnerable? What's the process of the sort of ripple effect from developed economy slowdowns and recessions on the folks that you serve?

MARK SUZMAN: Yeah, huge. COVID has been devastating for everybody in every country. But in many ways across parts of Africa, Asia, Latin America, the non-COVID effects of the COVID crisis, the economic effects are even more profound because what you've had is countries which never had the kind of resources that the United States or Europe had have exhausted their fiscal power in response to COVID are now facing a debt crisis, raising interest rates, other challenges, which leave them with no resources to actually invest in their own people.

You're seeing countries paying many more in debt reservice payments than they are in the health and education of their own people. And that's not fully understood or internalized in most of the world. And that comes on the back of two decades of unprecedented progress.

The other thing that people don't realize is how much the world got better in the first two decades of the 21st century. We had literally hundreds of millions of people moving out of extreme poverty. We reduced preventable child mortality from over 10 million deaths a year to fewer than 5 million.

Those trends were continuing, and they have stalled and stopped and, to some degree, reversed. And so that's the message that I'm bringing is saying we need to address that, take action. And again, we can bend that curve. It is very positive to actually-- or very possible to have significant improvements very quickly if we get the resources in action now.

JULIE HYMAN: Finally, I want to ask a little bit about the operations of the Foundation, which obviously does a lot of work, as you've been describing. I'm curious what the involvement of Bill and Melinda Gates is at this point? Bill Gates sometimes comes to Davos. He is not here this year. But is it sort of something they've put this energy into and now it's its own thing and runs its own? Talk to me a little bit about that.

MARK SUZMAN: Absolutely the reverse. So Bill and Melinda have both been hugely engaged over the last year. In fact, we just finished-- the reason I'm able to announce our new budget today is we had our board, and we-- over the last year, we created a new board of trustees, a great set of people working with Bill and Melinda as co-chairs to approve it.

And Bill and Melinda have worked very closely with me, with our teams, literally approving every single decision. I sat down with them, and we were going over line item by line item, every bit of the budget we were approving. They've been engaging in all our internal and external strategies.

Melinda was recently in India and in Senegal and Rwanda for the Foundation. Bill will be doing multiple trips to Europe and Africa later this year. So, no, they are more engaged than ever, fully committed to everything we do at the Foundation. And frankly, I think we see the need of what we do is sadly more important than ever at a time that others are not yet stepping up, but we hope that will change.

JULIE HYMAN: So really interesting to hear that Bill and Melinda Gates are still very involved and hands-on with their namesake Foundation. Back to you guys in the studio.