Footing the Bill

Bill Gates at Harvard Commencement Clinton on Ted Talks

This burst of conversation about the new project from the Economist (where I admit, my cynicism got the better of me, although I do think it could have been better explained) got me thinking about the broader convergence which we seem to be seeing from sources likes Bill Gates (Harvard Commencement address) and the great brains of the Ted Talks including the old smooth talker himself Bill Clinton (building a better world for his daughter’s generation). Indeed the view seems mooted in so many circles that it may even be possible to find a third post-major-job, superbrained Bill to join the… er… bill.

The popular conception is that markets are efficient but uncaring, and that people in general are happy to ignore problems on the other side of the plannet. But as Gates says:

If you believe that every life has equal value, it’s revolting to learn that some lives are seen as worth saving and others are not. We said to ourselves: “This can’t be true. But if it is true, it deserves to be the priority of our giving.”

So we began our work in the same way anyone here would begin it. We asked: “How could the world let these children die?”

The answer is simple, and harsh. The market did not reward saving the lives of these children, and governments did not subsidize it. So the children died because their mothers and their fathers had no power in the market and no voice in the system.

But you and I have both.

I am optimistic that we can do this, but I talk to skeptics who claim there is no hope. They say: “Inequity has been with us since the beginning, and will be with us till the end – because people just … don’t … care.” I completely disagree.

I believe we have more caring than we know what to do with.

All of us here in this Yard, at one time or another, have seen human tragedies that broke our hearts, and yet we did nothing – not because we didn’t care, but because we didn’t know what to do. If we had known how to help, we would have acted.

Both Clinton and Gates sieze on the understanding that we all have massively more power to raise money, to raise issues and to express ourselves than previous generations.

And the solution isn’t to abandon the market in favour of some alternative system. The solution is to rebuild the market so that it rewards the things we care about. Much of Clinton’s presentation is also about the fact that actually the market arrangements in the most needy areas are the most disorganised. It is often a lack of knowledge and or organisation, not money which sustains the world’s problems:

The only thing that is keeping us from saving the lives of everybody who needs the medicine to stay alive is the absence of the systems necessary to diagnose treat and care for people, and deliver this medicine.

Not money.

He talks about reducing the price of AIDS medicine in the Bahamas from $3500 per person per year to $100 by driving efficiencies in the market. He describes this as changing the manufacturer’s business model from being a grocery-store model rather than jewelry-store model!

People will pay for the things they want. The market must enable it and for-profit charity is better than not-for-profit charity because it is more sustainable. 

Is this something Project Stripe will help? It’s a very bold mission. Certainly, they’ve got a very effective idol it follow in Muhammad Yunus. Best of luck to them.