NEW YORK – Bill Gates and Melinda French Gates combined characteristic optimism with sobering questions about persistent gender inequality and hunger at an event focused on reaching global development goals that the Gateses' foundation convened on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly.
Bill Gates again made the case for investments in agricultural technologies — like modified seeds that are drought resistant — to address food insecurity. But the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation also announced Wednesday a $100 million donation meant to respond to hunger and malnutrition more quickly. The donation will fund projects like a private sector partnership to subsidize fertilizer for African farmers, as well as other initiatives.
French Gates lamented the slow movement toward gender equality in a speech, asking, “How can we go about changing the face of power in our institutions, in our communities, and, yes, in our families?”
The annual Goalkeepers events at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York took place for the first time in person since before the start of the coronavirus pandemic. They are meant to draw attention to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals related to poverty, hunger, equity, health, education and climate change mitigation.
Progress toward meeting many of the goals by 2030 has stalled and in fact, slid backwards, according to assessments by the Gates Foundation as well as U.N. agencies.
However, the foundation did mark some successes, honoring the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, for her leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic. It hailed the European Union’s export of more than a billion vaccine doses and promised new investments in health care manufacturing in African countries.
In a speech accepting the Global Goalkeeper Award on Tuesday evening, von der Leyen said she shared it with “millions of ordinary Europeans who have helped us all make it through the pandemic.”
That is despite the world’s dismal record on health equity as measured through access to tests, treatments and vaccines. Numerous barriers hampered broader vaccine production -- from lack of manufacturing capacity and raw materials to opposition, from Gates and others, to loosening intellectual property rules.
“The bottom line is that should never, ever happen again,” said Mark Suzman, the foundation's CEO, when asked if the foundation should do anything differently to ensure equitable vaccine access. He also emphasized the foundation's commitment to building better pandemic response plans.
Vanessa Nakate also received an award for her work to reduce suffering. The Ugandan activist started protests to demand action on climate change in her country and now has founded initiatives to install solar panels and efficient stoves in schools there.
In an interview with The Associated Press earlier this month, Nakate said the human costs of the climate crisis are still missing from global summits like this one. “It’s really the human face that tells the story, that tells the experiences of what communities are going through,” she said.
The foundation also recognized Afghan journalist Zahra Joya, founder of the news organization, Rukhshana Media that covers issues affecting women, and the doctor, Radhika Batra, who cofounded an Indian nonprofit, Every Infant Matters.
Abby Maxman, Oxfam America president, pointed to the blockbuster profits earned by fossil fuel companies as an example of the gulf between what the world knows it needs to do in order to achieve a livable future and the actions we are actually taking.
“It really is extraordinary that as humanity faces these truly existential crises, there is still more incentive to destroy our planet than to save lives and save the planet,” she said.
At this year’s general assembly, Antonio Guterres, the U.N. Secretary-General, told world leaders in his opening remarks that they need to tax the profits of fossil fuel companies.
Leaders are not bound by the suggestion, and the U.N. generally lacks enforcement mechanisms to hold countries accountable for their commitments and pledges, like those made to meet the global development goals.
Helping to hold leaders accountable and convening discussions are roles philanthropies can play, said Patricia McIlreavy, president and CEO of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy. Even the name, “Sustainable Development Goals,” can make what they represent hard to understand, she said.
“I don’t think we put things in layman’s terms often enough to kind of connect people to it. I mean, it’s Jackson, Mississippi. It’s having access to clean water. It’s having an expectation of being able to survive and thrive,” she said.
Goalkeepers is only one of several events in New York on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly. The Clinton Global Initiative reconvened this year for the first time since 2016. President Joe Biden hosted the fundraising drive for The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria that is seeking to raise $18 billion. The Gates Foundation announced Wednesday a commitment of $912 million over the next three years to the Global Fund.
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