Just before Christmas, the Seattle Times provided coverage of the Gates Foundation's report about their decade's worth of progress with their goal of fixing the world (the Grand Challenge). After a billion dollars spent on improving lives and health care in the developing world, Gates had to report, "I was pretty naive about how long the process would take."
In his quest to make the world a better place, Gates invested in all sorts of research. But it turns out that research can only happen as fast as it can happen. Sometimes science takes time.
Not only did he underestimate some of the scientific hurdles, Gates
said. He and his team also failed to adequately consider what it would
take to implement new technologies in countries where millions of people
lack access to basic necessities such as clean water and medical care.
The foundation has tweaked the Grand Challenges approach in a variety of ways, but still doesn't really know whether any of it is actually succeeding. In many cases, they know it is not. There are several examples, but let's look at toilets.
Gates funded high-tech toilets in the Indian city of Raichur, at a cost of $8,000 each. These beauties have automatic sensors that run lights, fans and FM radio when a patron uses them. Some prototypes in the toilets project wing of Grand Challenges also throw in solar power and other amenities. But in Raichur, the rollout had some technical difficulties, and then- the public just didn't use them.
As it turns out, there are already people working on the toilet problem, but not with high tech answers. Jason Kass, founder of Toilets for People (which, as a name-- really? to distinguish them from Toilets for Cattle?) took Gates to task in a New York Times piece "Bill Gates Can't Build a Toilet" in which he notes, “If the many failed development projects of the past 60 years have
taught us anything, it’s that complicated, imported solutions do not
But Gates is a technocrat with a deep commitment to techno-solutions to problems, like a plan to stop Dengue Fever by injecting bio-engineering mosquitoes to with bacteria that block disease transmission, instead of more directly addressing the living conditions and general health of the affected regions.
Drawing a line between Gates's naivete about fixing world health problems and his naivete about education systems is like shooting fish in a barrel, but some fish just need to be shot.
My impression of Gates is not a power-hungry greed-hound who is somehow trying to leverage the world's suffering into personal gain, but someone who is blinded to any view of the world but his own. He's used to being the smartest guy in the room, the boss, the man. It would be understandable if he had succumbed to a belief that he's fundamentally better, wiser, cleverer than most other people. He is a computer engineering systems guy. Systems are his hammer and everything in the world is a nail.
With much of his health initiative, you see the same basic outline-- technology will allows us to set up this awesome system, and because it is so obviously the Right Way To Do Things, people will just fall in line, and if they won't we'll just have to find a way to get them to. It's the same pattern some techno-critics see in many Microsoft failed products-- this is how people ought to want to do things, so this should work (and if it doesn't, it's the people, not our product). How any of you got a Zune for Christmas?
Gates wants to use systems to change society, but his understanding of how humans and culture and society and communities change is faulty. It's not surprising that Gates is naive-- it's surprising that he is always naive in the same way. It always boils down to "I really thought people would behave differently." And although I've rarely seen him acknowledge it print, it also boils down to, "There were plenty of people who could have told me better, but I didn't listen to them."
The non-success of Grand Challenges is just like the failure of the Gates Common Core initiative. Gates did not take the time to do his homework about the pre-existing structures and systems. He did not value the expertise of people already working in the field, and so he did not consult it or listen to it. He put an unwarranted faith in his created systems, and imagined that they would prevail because everyone on the ground would be easily assimilated into the new imposed-from-outside system. He became frustrated by peoples' insistence on seeing things through their own point-of-view rather than his. And he spent a huge amount of money attempting to impose his vision on everybody else.
We can say, "He's a rich guy. He can spend his money on what he wants," and that's true. But the opportunity cost here is staggering. Imagine what could be done if we started with, "Here's a billion dollars. Let's get the experts together and decide how it could best be spent." Instead of "Here's a billion dollars that we're going to spend on my solution no matter what."
I keep wondering when the light bulb is going to go off. After the failure of his small schools initiative, Gates had the chance to say either "This small schools things didn't work" or "My whole approach to finding solutions for education is messed up," and he seems to have chosen the former. It's nice that he can occasionally look back and call himself naive. It would be nicer if he could look around and recognize when he's doing it again, right now. It would be best if he could really recognize what he's being naive about.