lifestyle

The one where we recorded an interview with Bill Gates on an iPhone.

Jamila interviews Bill Gates. iPhone set to record.

By JAMILA RIZVI

I had my very own Derek Zoolander moment yesterday.

Having travelled down to Canberra the previous evening, I was prepped and ready for one of the biggest interviews Mamamia has scored to date; richest (or second richest, depending on which list you consult) man in the world, Microsoft founder, global philanthropist and arguably, the most influential figure of the last century, Bill Gates.

A few minutes before my allotted interview time, I decided to take out my notes for one final scan. I prefer not to be looking down at a page of questions during an interview because as I learned from Kim Kardashian – eye contact is critical.

Instead, I just have my Mac Book or iPad sitting on the table next to me; it’s for comfort purposes more than anything else. I don’t need it, but I’d be anxious if it wasn’t there. So, I pulled my laptop out of my bag and propped it up on the coffee table in the waiting room, hitting the ‘power’ button while I rehearsed a friendly-but I-mean-business delivery of ‘it’s a thrill to meet you Mr Gates’ in my head.

And then it hit me: My questions are IN the computer.

As in, IN the computer. My APPLE MACINTOSH computer. Shit.

Desperate not to ruin my interview before it even starts by revealing my preference for Gates’ competitor’s product, I bolt from the room. Thankfully my sister works in Parliament House (where the interview was taking place) and I was able to print out a few pages on the Assistant Treasurer’s computer. Well. That’s at least a few of my tax dollars well spent for the 2012-13 financial year.

Rushing back to the interview room, I sit down at the table and get my papers in order. I rearrange the angle of my chair and the one next to it. I take a sip of coffee. I pull out my iPhone and open up the Voice Memo application, so that I can record the interview in full.

My iPhone.

DAMN YOU STEVE JOBS AND YOUR ALLURING SLEEK AND SIMPLE DESIGNS, WHICH APPEAR TO HAVE INFILTRATED EVERY ASPECT OF MY LIFE.

At that moment, in walks Bill Gates. He doesn’t wait for his assistants but strides confidently towards me, wearing a broad grin that reveals the smile lines around his mouth. I hold out my hand and introduce myself, explaining where I’m from.

He doesn’t say who he is. Fair enough really.

My new friend Bill has come straight from the airport, except for a brief detour via the Prime Minister’s Canberra residence, the Lodge. He is as bright and sunny after his long haul flight, as only someone who owns an extremely comfortable private jet could be.

Bill Gates waits patiently as his media adviser sets up a second recording device (definitely NOT an Apple product). Gates tilts his head to one side, looks at me with his piercing eyes and opens his hands so that the palms face upwards, as if to say ‘alright, let’s get started’.

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Photo courtesy of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

So I do. I ask this outstanding global philanthropist about his commitment to eradicating polio. Something he has been dedicating his time to for over a decade but a fight that came to a head in recent months following the Global Vaccines Summit in Abu Dhabi, organised by Gates’ Foundation.

“We’d been working literally for a year and a half saying that the polio effort really needed to step back and have a new plan…. and taking a hard look at why. Although up to 2000 we’d brought the cases down a lot, from 2000-2010 we’d kind of plateaued.

Gates explained that instead of saying ‘we’ve got this much to spend, what can we do’, he asked the experts to tell him how much it would cost to eradicate polio once and for all. Progress was no longer good enough. Gates is a man who wants results.

$5.5 billion was the answer that came back.

“I think we can make that happen” was his response.

Gates describes the feelings of trepidation, expectation and wild excitement as the date of the conference approached. Having had positive indications from the United Kingdom and Norway, both pledging significant sums, Gates was quietly confident that the $5.5 billion target was achievable.

“It was really exciting because once you pick a date you can’t say ‘oops, you know, we’re not ready’. Your credibility is really at stake. Our team and all the partners were quite ecstatic. Pretty much we could date the successful plan to that event,” he said.

Gates also explains the goings-on behind the scenes that make an event like this all the more difficult to pull off. The cultural and logistical challenges that the onlooking world media don’t consider. “No one had ever done a conference like that in the Middle East before, so even just the logistics of when is the Crown Prince coming, which Clerics are appropriate to have (were a challenge). So it was novel,” he says.

Melinda and Bill Gates.

Bill Gates and the foundation he runs with his wife Melinda, are world renowned for their data-driven approach to solving global problems. The man is a computer geek after all. Numbers matter.

I ask him how he balances his strong commitment to evidence based aid work with the lack of data integrity that is unfortunately a reality when working in the developing world.

“It’s surprising how much data is very late or very wrong, –  just some type of estimate. Even something as basic as population numbers aren’t that well understood,” Gates says.

“There are a few things, if you go and interview people about if they’ve had siblings or children die. They know that. But if you survey them about if their children have had vaccines, they might forget or they might say yes because they think you want them to say yes.”

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“There’s a lot of innovation there. When we send the vaccination teams off we put a phone with a GPS tracker in the box. So every 3 minutes it records where they’re located and when they come back we can see that they really go everywhere they needed to. And if they miss some kids, we can go out and make sure those kids get vaccinated.”

Bill Gates addresses the Press Club in Canberra.

I take Gates back to an issue much closer to home for Australians; the growing influence of the anti-immunisation movement in the developed world.

These are people who peddle in lies and scare-tactics to influence parents against accepting the undeniable scientific evidence that supports vaccination.

“In a sense, you can grow complacent because you don’t see kids dying of measles and pertussis (in the first world),” Gates warns.

“But as they saw in Switzerland and other places when the ‘antis’ get enough percentage, all it takes is one case to come in and it will kill a lot of children. Society owes it to itself to have very high levels of immunisation, so that these cases can’t come in.

“It is somewhat embarrassing that Vietnam has a higher vaccination rate than most rich countries. They really do achieve 99 per cent whereas some rich countries are falling down to 95 per cent, which can give you pools of kids that could be infected and killed.”

We speak about philanthropy and what drives the charitable giving of the extremely wealthy. I note that Australia is statistically a very generous nation, with many people of ordinary wealth giving their time and money to charity – particularly in times of natural disasters. I ask Gates what we can do to encourage the richest Australians to be more charitable, following in the American tradition.

Gates seems reluctant to openly criticise Australia’s super wealthy for not giving more generously, instead choosing to speak about his ‘Giving Pledge’ where millionaires commit to donating 40 per cent of their money to charity over time. I get the impression that Gates won’t willingly berate those who could be doing more, because he is applying quieter, more personal pressure outside of the media spotlight.

Photo courtesy of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

I cite a recent TED talk from philosopher Peter Singer, in which Singer praises Gates, his wife and Warren Buffet as perhaps the greatest altruists the world has ever seen. Gates is quick to disagree.

“I don’t consider myself as philanthropic as someone who has less money and who gives in such a way that they deny themselves some pleasure,” he said.

“I don’t deny myself – you know, I’ll have less food so I have more to give or I won’t go to the movies or I won’t have a vacation – I’m able to take care of the things I want and be philanthropic.

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“So although the numbers are very big, in some ways it’s showing less of a real moral trade-off than those who are poor and give. Those people are amazing.”

I ask Gates about his willingness to tackle the world’s less glamourous but perhaps most deserving causes. We discuss the practicalities involved in convincing those countries, businesses and individuals who do wish to be generous with their money, to donate to causes where the money will make the most difference, rather than those which make for the best sound bite or an attractive press conference backdrop.

“We should all go back to the basics and make sure our work is impactful,” Gates stresses.

“New toilets? No they haven’t gotten enough attention. What the rich world does in terms of flush toilets isn’t affordable in slums and so we have to invent a new way to do it. And when the top scientists were told this is what we need to do, they said ‘oh that’s interesting’. They hadn’t known that that was important work, so we have to challenge them, get them drawn into this as a great impact thing.”

I ask Gates, who must receive an obscenely large number of requests for financial assistance, how he chooses one cause over another. How do you prioritise the needs of children suffering from one kind of disease over those who are suffering from something else? How do you even know where to begin? It’s a phenomenal responsibility.

” There are a lot of great causes,” says Gates simply.

“It’s important that people don’t sit and wait to try and make sure they pick absolutely the best. As long as you really get to know it and put your time into it, then that’s super worthy.”

“My wife and I when we were getting going with the foundation, decided that for the world this is of all lives have equal value – that a child dying anywhere in the world was as tragic as one dying say, in the US. So that we would learn about why so many children die and try and change that.

“That brought us to the world of vaccines and the miracle that small, small, small amounts of money can save a child’s life.

I finish by asking Gates about his own childhood. When speaking with friends and family ahead of this interview, one person requested I ask on behalf of her little boy, what Gates’ favourite toy was as a child. While initially taken aback by the somewhat out-of-left-field question, Gates laughs at me and generously casts his mind back to his own childhood.

“My favourite toy…. I had trucks, I had Lego.

“I was 13 when my school got a computer and that became my favourite toy but that’s a little older.

Yes. I fell in love with that one,” he says.

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