Gates Foundation to Support Health, Agriculture Initiatives in China

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is planning to address several public health challenges in China, including smoking and HIV/AIDS, and will try to tap the country's expertise to improve African agriculture, the Seattle Times reports.

While China's economic boom has generated significant wealth in recent years, several regions of the country remain impoverished and are experiencing various epidemics. To tackle the HIV/AIDS problem, the foundation opened an office in Beijing last year and has committed $50 million to the effort. It is also making grants to support hepatitis B vaccinations in the country, where the disease affects about 10 percent of the population, and plans to support programs that transfer Chinese agricultural expertise to Africa in an effort to raise crop yields on the continent.

In addition, the foundation is launching a program to help cut tobacco use in China, where more than a million people a year die from illnesses linked to smoking. While officials in Beijing have pledged a "smoke-free Olympics" this summer — banning smoking from most indoor public spaces, workplaces, and open-air stadiums — sharing cigarettes is entrenched in the culture. "It will be interesting to see on tobacco how much they cooperate on that," said Bill Gates. "The U.S. was at a much, much higher level of wealth before it did anything about tobacco, so China has a chance to act well before the equivalent time that the U.S. did."

The Chinese government historically has been wary of foreign nonprofits and routinely has put the country's top AIDS activists under house arrest, which could pose problems for the foundation. Gates, however, is cautiously optimistic about the government's willingness to cooperate and noted that the foundation worked closely with China's Health Ministry to develop its new initiatives.

To help ensure things get off on the right foot, Gates will make China one of his first stops after he leaves his full-time duties at Microsoft, the company he co-founded thirty-three years ago, and steps into a more active role at the foundation. In his new role, Gates plans to spend more time on the strategy of the foundation, which to date has committed $16.5 billion to philanthropic projects and causes.

And next year will see even greater changes at the foundation, as it begins to receive annual installments of Berkshire Hathaway stock from Warren Buffett, who pledged in 2006 to give the bulk of his fortune to the foundation. With the disbursements of stock from Buffett, the foundation will have to start awarding at least $3 billion in grants annually. "It's harder than you think to effectively give away money," said Patty Stonesifer, the foundation's outgoing CEO. "It's easy to give money away. But it's not easy to give it away well."

Tom Paulson. "Gates Foundation Follows New Paths." Seattle Post-Intelligencer 06/24/2008. Kristi Heim. "China One of First Stops for Gates in New Philanthropy Job." Seattle Times 06/25/2008.