The aid aristocracy of Britain was out in force on Monday evening for a one-night-only gala performance by Bill and Melinda Gates of a lecture on how aid is making a real difference, called ‘The Living Proof’.
Much of the hour and half performance was exactly what you would expect from Gates (well, Bill anyway) – oodles of charts and statistics. Bill opened the show with a slide of what they think is “the most beautiful picture”. Van Gogh’s Sunflowers popped up. Not that said Bill. Then da Vinci’s Vitruvian man. Nope. Then the Microsoft logo. Nope (a little less convincingly?). The image that actually gets the Gateses going, they say, is a graph of global mortality since 1960. Fifty years ago, 20 million children under 5 died each year, today it is 9 million. Taking into account growing world population that’s a big achievement and, with new vaccines and better health services in poor countries, they argued, that number could be halved again to less than 5 million by 2025. (Although the most telling contribution of the night came from their guest speaker Dr Debrework Zewdie, a deputy director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria, who survived an impoverished childhood in Ethiopia thanks to free school milk provided by UNICEF. Her claim that “I am one of many who are living proof that aid works” was definitely the line of the night.)
There were, however, two surprises in the presentation. First, that Bill and Melinda make a slick double act, running the show like a pair of seasoned daytime TV hosts (albeit with a lot more statistics than usual). Second, they barely mentioned the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation once, reserving all the praise for what the British government’s Department for International Development (DFID) achieves with taxpayers’ money rather than philanthropy. ‘The UK aid budget is having a huge impact’, enthused Melinda. ‘You [the British public] deserve a strong thank you for your huge commitment’, raved Bill.
This enthusiasm for oft-maligned government aid is a hallmark of the Gateses’ approach to philanthrocapitalism. Knowing that the scale of the challenges in global development is beyond even their own substantial means, they have assiduously partnered with governments like Britain’s to lever more cash for initiatives that they have had a hand in creating, like the Global Alliance for Vaccination and Immunisation and the Global Fund. (Indeed, much of the ‘living proof’ they presented came from Britain’s contributions to GAVI and the Global Fund, rather than DFID’s own programmes).
The Gateses may have been honouring Britain for its leading role in the fight against poverty, but the political leaders who put it there and who had formed such a close alliance with the Gates Foundation – Tony Blair and Gordon Brown – did not get a mention. (Nor did Bono, who sat relatively anonymously in the audience and whose One organisation will henceforth do the bulk of the heavy lifting for the Living Proof campaign.) Instead, there was a shout out to the new, Conservative, International Development Secretary, Andrew Mitchell, for promising to stick to his predecessors’ plans to increase the aid budget, even in the new age of austerity. Mr Mitchell even got a special nod for his tough language on results (“we look forward to working with you on impact evaluation”).
On Wednesday, Britain’s coalition government will announce deep cuts to public services, from which the international development budget is expected to be exempted, even though it is not much of a vote winner with the public. We don’t know whether the Bill and Melinda show was timed to shore up the new government’s will to continue to make aid a budget priority, just in case of last minute temptations to resile from commitments, but they were certainly keen to head off the aid critics, taking the corruption issue head on (the Global Fund’s programmes are independently audited, we learned) and making the case that vaccines in particular are a good investment (smallpox eradication has saved the world £800 million a year, apparently).
Judging by the sceptical grumblings of one Conservative-connected thinktank head after the Gateses’ performance, the British government’s aid budget is likely to face further political pressure in the future, even if it survives the axe this time. This event may have been the first attempt to publicly lobby David Cameron’s government, but it probably won’t be the last.