It is hard to find a businessman who has done more to alleviate the burden of disease across the world than Bill Gates, the world’s richest man and the founder of the world’s largest software company, Microsoft Corp. Through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the world’s largest private foundation, Gates and his equally committed wife have been focusing on critical issues ranging from HIV Aids in Africa to tuberculosis in India with the same messianic zeal with which he built his 1975 start-up into one of the world’s most formidable technology companies.
On a recent visit to India, Gates spoke about the toughest challenge in delivering critical healthcare to the poor, delivery systems, the limitations of working with some private entities and how the work his foundation is doing in India serves as a model for its efforts in the rest of the world.
In a roundtable with editors, he doled out specifics with revealing insights from individual states while placing his finger very precisely on India’s health dilemma—managing the burden of diseases like diabetes even as the country has still not solved its problem of infectious diseases. It was no different from the time when in 1997, as a young entrepreneur, he came on his first visit to the country, zeroing in on India with its vast pool of trained programmers as a development base for Microsoft.
Gates’s example tells us that successful business leaders may actually be the best generals to lead the world’s battles that matter—fighting the spread of Aids, eliminating poverty, or controlling air pollution in Delhi.
We got a brief glimpse of that when the Manmohan Singh government co-opted Infosys co-founder Nandan Nilekani to set up the Unique Identification Authority of India (UDAI) project. Despite early hiccups and some lingering complaints, the Aadhaar scheme has been a clear success.
Sadly, despite Nilekani’s visible achievement in managing a complex and vast socially relevant project, there have been few other business leaders who have followed in his footsteps.
Imagine an Anand Mahindra leading the mission to provide clean drinking water or Satish Reddy heading a project to reduce neonatal deaths. The prerequisites would be a free hand from the government, complete freedom from bureaucratic controls and no political interference.
In the rare instance that business leaders have, either of their own accord or on request from governments, put their weight behind a socially relevant programme, the results have been worthwhile. Thus, Feike Sijbesma, chairman of Dutch multinational DSM, has over the years led a personal mission against malnutrition in countries like Rwanda. His work won him the 2010 Humanitarian of the Year Award from the United Nations.
It isn’t just that the scale of the task to rid the world of chronic poverty is so vast that neither the business community nor governments nor civil society can deliver a solution alone. Years of experience now shows that of the three, business leaders are the only ones with the expertise and the skills needed to go after these problems.
But why would business leaders do it? The answer is simple: self-interest.
In an October 2009 piece for Foreign Policy magazine, authors Allen L. Hammond and C.K. Prahalad described the world’s four billion poor people as “the largest untapped consumer market on earth".
In various surveys, business leaders have consistently listed societal risks like unemployment, poverty and hunger among their biggest concerns.
There is precedent too, in the form of the Marshall Plan that galvanized the world after World War II, when the US set about investing the equivalent of over $100 billion (in today’s terms) in helping countries that had been devastated by the war to rebuild themselves. Those investments provided the US with vast future markets: today it exports $273 billion of goods annually to European Union nations.
Indeed, there is an increasing convergence of commercial and societal interests. Thus, tech companies are racing to get more people in Africa connected to the internet. Google’s Project Loon is using high-altitude balloons to enable WiFi in remote regions of Africa. Facebook recently opened its first office in Africa while Microsoft already has 22 offices in Africa.
Businessmen understand money and have figured out how to deploy it to achieve maximum returns. In the bargain they have created vast commercial enterprises. Now if only they would turn their attention to building social enterprises.
Sundeep Khanna is a consulting editor at Mint and oversees the newsroom’s corporate coverage. The Corporate Outsider will look at current issues and trends in the corporate sector every week.
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