News and analysis
February 22, 2016

Clean Energy and Women’s Equality Top List of Concerns of Bill and Melinda Gates

In their latest annual letter, Bill and Melinda Gates have some fun while underscoring serious issues, including a push to rethink the division of labor in households in developing countries.

In their annual letter outlining their latest thoughts about philanthropy, Bill and Melinda Gates focused on their quests to find a sustainable source of clean energy and to rethink the household division of labor so that women in developing countries have access to greater opportunity.

This year’s letter took a somewhat different approach than those of the past: It was aimed at high-school students "because you’re the ones who will ultimately be solving these problems," the couple wrote.

The broad goals of the foundation, which has $43.5 billion in assets, is to improve global health in the developing world, in part by reducing poverty, and revamp education in the United States.

The couple did not announce any changes in how the foundation would make grants to those causes.

Rather, the couple’s 12-page letter, peppered with pop-culture references and scrawled notes in the margins, outlined a way to approach those issues. Inequalities can be reduced and social ills cured, they wrote, by focusing on two challenges faced by people stuck in poverty: a lack of time and limited access to environmentally friendly energy sources.

Clean Energy

The couple each wrote a section of the letter, and in his, Mr. Gates told high-school students that if he had one wish to help the world’s poorest people, particularly in places like sub-Saharan Africa, it would be to find a clean, cheap source of power. But lighting up remote villages and urban slums has to be done without exacerbating climate change, which Mr. Gates noted, harms the poor people disproportionately.

Population increases make it very difficult to expand access to energy, while simultaneously reducing emissions.

"In short, we need an energy miracle," Mr. Gates wrote.

That miracle, he suggested, is technological innovation.

In December, as world leaders gathered in Paris for a round of climate talks, Mr. Gates announced the creation of the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, a group of investors who pledged $20 billion to help develop low-emission energy sources.

Students can help, he wrote, by educating themselves about the challenges posed by climate change and by not being afraid to advance solutions that may seem "crazy."

"Study hard in your math and sciences," he wrote. "You just may have the answer."

Sharing Household Tasks

Ms. Gates, in her section of the letter, took on the imbalance of unpaid work throughout the world. Globally, she noted, women and girls spend twice as much time cooking, cleaning, and caring for children and the elderly as men. As a result, opportunities are cut off from women.

To change this, Ms. Gates suggested a concept developed by Diane Elson, a sociology professor at the University of Essex, who boils down the solution to three words: recognize, reduce, and redistribute.

What that means, Ms. Gates said, is that to reduce inequalities and improve opportunities for women, unpaid work must first be recognized as labor, the workload must be lessened, and the tasks must be redistributed between men and women.

Like her husband, Ms. Gates sees technology playing a major role.

"Some of you will become engineers, entrepreneurs, scientists, and software developers," she wrote. "Perhaps you can improve on the mortar and pestle, the 40,000-year-old technology I see women using to grind grain into food every time I travel in sub-Saharan Africa or South Asia."

Though the subject matter of the letter is dire — the Gateses noted that more than 1 billion people today, for instance, don’t have access to energy to heat their homes and power hospitals — but the tone is personal, light, and optimistic. They opened by answering questions they have received on visits to high schools. Among them: What’s their favorite cereal? (Cocoa Puffs for Mr. Gates, Wheat Chex for Ms. Gates.) In discussing the challenge of devising zero-emissions energy sources, Ms. Gates channels Matt Damon in the movie The Martian and writes in colored ink in the margin, "What Bill’s saying is, ‘We’re going to science the $#!% out of this.’ "

The Gates foundation dropped a hint this month that it is interested in exploring issues of inequality in the United States, providing a grant for a major academic effort to uncover what might work to close the wealth gap. Even so, the foundation’s president, Sue Desmond-Hellmann, made clear in an interview with The Chronicle last summer that her major goal is to instill more discipline in how the foundation works so that it can achieve its pledge to make a difference in American education and global heath.

The couple will host a live-streamed Q&A about their letter with 50 high-school students on Tuesday, February 23, at noon Eastern time. See more information on Bill Gates’s thoughts on energy and Melinda Gates’s ideas about time.

Send an email to Alex Daniels.