Bill Gates and ICT4D

I thought I’d report on meeting, talking and listening to Bill Gates today at the ICTD2009 conference in Qatar (pitiful name-dropper though this may make me).


First, why does he matter to the ICT4D world?  Because he is financially influential via the Gates Foundation agenda, and the various relevant bits of Microsoft: Unlimited Potential, Community Affairs, MS Research Technology for Emerging Markets, etc.  And because he is strategically influential: when he talks, people listen.  His views on ICT4D therefore make a difference.


His views seem to have softened since the earlier notion that he had an “anything-but-ICTs” view towards development and the Gates Foundation agenda.  In fact, his underlying worldview probably hasn’t changed: he is very much metrics-focused, and thus will believe in, argue for, and invest in what he perceives to deliver the best quantitatively-impactful bang for his development buck.  That’s why health is a prime interest – not from any subjective or complex rationale – but simply because that’s where his money can have most measurable impact (in terms of quality of life indicators).


Back in the 1990s, when he started to become really engaged with development issues, ICTs had little to offer because the infrastructure was not in place.  Now they’ve become a more important part of delivering measurable outcomes in health, education and governance; they figure more in Gates’ agenda for development.


He, nonetheless, remains very un-hyped about ICT4D, recognising the failures, the pilots that will go nowhere, the applications that are not delivering.  And his strongly metrics-based view of development is challenging but also refreshing; particularly for those of us in an academic environment that can sometimes get itself wrapped up in a lot of qualitative and/or post-modern crap.


If I was to critique his position, that could potentially come from three directions:


i.             A metrics-based view of development can lead to various lacunae; for example, it could struggle to deal with issues like capabilities, rights, politics, and the like.  However, Gates at least has a decent grasp of governance issues.


ii.            He is focused on social and (to the extent of transparency) political development, but seems to have much less to say on economic development; despite the centrality of financial poverty to the development agenda.  We discussed this a bit and I was surprised by how antithetical he is to micro-finance, and hard to convince about ICT-enabled micro-enterprise.  It seemed to me the underlying issue here is – perhaps in line with the Jeff Sachs’ view of development – that Bill Gates is only interested in massive-scale solutions.  Again, it’s down to metrics.  Vaccines that can eradicate a disease for the entire world – good; ideas on micro-enterprise that might produce a few tens of thousands of jobs – less of a priority for his money and attention.


iii.          This is therefore a top-down, “big development” model.  It is looking for laboratory-developed, massively-scalable innovations.  There is little or no room for more bottom-up, flexible models of the William Easterly-type approach to development.  There is little room for the idea of grassroots-innovations; e.g. looking at the ICT-based adaptations that poor communities are themselves making, and finding ways to harvest, evaluate and scale such innovations.


As per my IEEE Computer article on “ICT4D 2.0”, then, the Gates’ view on ICT4D seems rather stuck in a social development/poor-as-consumers mindset; it does not yet encompass a mindset of seeing the poor as active producers and innovators with ICT.


But finally, sitting across the table, I found those 1980s photos of him as uber-techno-geek kept crossing my mind; thinking what a long, long way he’s come.  Indeed, he has really metamorphosed since stepping down from full-time work at Microsoft; from a technology guy to a development guy.  But a development guy who, at least in part, will be going round the world inspiring geeks and others to find ways to address technology to the problems of development.  Which can’t be all bad for us ICT4Ders.


A video of Bill’s keynote address to the ICTD2009 conference can be found at:

5 thoughts on “Bill Gates and ICT4D

  1. …so were you surprised that, in response to a question, he had to ask what “social entrepreneurship” was – or did he not hear the question properly? And what determined his choice of case studies?

  2. I think the “social entrepreneurship” clarification was about what exactly the questioner was asking, not the meaning of the term.

    In terms of cases, it looks like Bill is presented with lots as he travels. In his presentation, he seems to use those he feels deliver his metrics-based view of development impact; some were ones he’s familiar with from Gates Foundation or Microsoft Research work, but there are others such as M-PESA or the e-transparency systems that are not.

    In conversation, he mentioned applications demonstrated to him that he feels don’t work in his development impact terms: quite a number of e-government systems, and – so far – a number of m-health applications.

  3. Your critique is disappointing, though, because I would have (perhaps naively) hoped that Gates would be interested in seeing how technology can be used to address problems over the long term. Perhaps they can’t garner big wins, such as eradicating one disease through vaccines, and surely that is valuable. But even more crucial, I think, is by elevating economic positions and creating job opportunities. ICT projects have a lot of potential for that by building capacity for people in developing countries to design, program and use their own technological solutions. Or perhaps this is exactly what threatens Gates (and Microsoft)?

  4. Gates’ focus on metrics is hard-headed and businesslike, but a metrics-only approach to any struggle involving humans is folly.

    Henry Mintzberg’s critique of the Harvard Business School approach to management education discredits it thoroughly. Exhibit A: HBS graduate Robert McNamara’s loss of the Vietnam war with the bodycount fiasco and his subsequent career at the World Bank.

    Gates began by getting the parallel between software and vaccines (high up front development cost, low cost to deploy) and he focused exclusively on health and refused to invest in other things like agriculture. He and the foundation have since learned that health can’t be fixed in isolation and it now invests in agriculture, education and other areas, but still with a metrics-driven approach.

    He’s learning. It’s a fair critique, but there’s no need for a single approach to development. I think of Gates as a substitute for the public sector in some areas. There are some things that can’t be done without a global minimum capability level and how it is achieved matters less than the result — eradicating polio e.g.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.