CUTTING THROUGH THE COMPLEXITY OF HELPING
By Jan Chavez-Arceo
A few moments ago I received via e-mail the transcript of Bill Gates speech given during one of Harvard's commencement exercises. I thought, this multi-billionaire, the richest man in the world (until Carlos Slim of Mexico claimed to be so), most successful IT entrepreneur, and philanthropist, captured in that speech what I hoped this column would be able to convey. I would like to share parts of that speech with you. I hope dear readers of Girlfriend magazine will forgive me if I will only cite certain portions due to space limitations. Here it is...
"...What i remember above all about Harvard was being in the midst of so much energy and intelligence. It could be exhilarating, intimidating, sometimes even discouraging, but always challenging. It was amazing privilege and though I left early, I was transformed by my years at Harvard, the friendship I made, and the ideas I worked on.
"But taking a serious look back... I do have one big regret. I left Harvard with no real awareness of the awful inequities in the world: the appealing disparities of health and wealth, and opportunity that condemn millions of people to lives of despair, I learned a lot here at Harvard about new ideas in economics and politics. I got great exposure to advances being made in the sciences.
"But humanity's greatest advances are not in its discoveries but in how those discoveries are applied to reduce inequity. Whether through democracy, strong public education, quality health care, or broad economic opportunity, reducing inequity is the highest human achievement.
"... I hope you've had a chance to think about how, in this age of accelerating technology, we can finally take on these inequities, and we can solve them... For Medina and for me, the challenge is the same: how can we do the most good for the greatest number with the resources we have.
"... We had just assumed that if millions of children were dying and they could be saved, the world would make it a priority to discover and deliver the medicines to save them. But it did not. For under a dollar, there were interventions that could save lives that just weren't being delivered. 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 begun 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 marked 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... 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. The barrier to change is not too little caring: it is too much complexity.
"To turn caring into action, we need to see problem, see a solution, and see the impact. But complexity blocks all three steps.
"... The media covers what's new-and millions of people dying is nothing new. So it stays in the background, where it's easier to ignore. But even when we do see it or read about it, it's difficult to keep our eyes on the problem. It's hard to look at suffering if the situations is so complex that we don't know how to help. And so we look away.
"If we can really see a problem, which is the first step, we come to the second step: cutting through the complexity to find a solution. Finding solutions is essential if we want to make the most of our caring. If we have clear and proven answers anytime an organization or individual asks "How can I help?." then we can get action, and we can make sure that none of the caring in the world is wasted. But complexity makes it hard to mark a path of action for everyone who cares, and that makes it hard for their caring to matter.
"Cutting through complexity to find a solution runs through four predictable stages: determine a goal, find the highest-leverage approach, discover the ideal technology for the approach, and in the meantime, make the smartest application of the technology that you already have, whether it's something sophisticated, like a drug, or something simpler, like a bednet.
"But if you want to inspire people to participate, you have to show more than numbers; you have to convey the human impact of the work so people can feel what saving a life means to the families affected.
"I remember going to Davos some years back and sitting on a global health panel that was discussing ways to save millions of lives. Millions! Think of the thrill of saving just one person's life- then multiply that by millions... Yet this was the most boring panel I've ever been on over. So boring even I couldn't bear it. What made that experience especially striking was that I had just come from an event where we were introducing version 13 of some piece of software, and we had people jumping and shouting with excitement. I love getting people excited about software - but why can't we generate even more excitement for saving lives? You can get people excited unless you can help them see the impact. And how you do that is a complex question. Still, I'm optimistic.
"Yes inequity has been with us forever, but he new tools we have to cut through complexity have not been with us forever. They are new, they can help us make the most of our caring, and that's why the future can be different from the past. The defining and ongoing innovations of this age (biotechnology, the computer, the Internet) give us a chance we've never had before to end extreme poverty and end death from preventable disease.
"... Should the world's most privileged people learn about the lives of the world's least privileged? These are not rhetorical questions, you will answer with your policies.
"My mother, who was filled with pride the day I was admitted here, never stopped pressing me to do more for others. A few days before my wedding, she hosted a bridal event, at which she read aloud a letter about marriage that she had written to Melinda. My mother was very ill with cancer at the time, but she saw one more opportunity to deliver her message, and at the close of the letter she said: "From those to whom is given, much is expected."
"... Don't let complexity stop you. Be activists. Take on the big inequities. It will be one of the great experiences of your lives... if you abandon these people whose lives you could change with very little effort. You have more than we had; you must start sooner, and carry on longer.... I hope you will judge yourselves not on your professional accomplishments alone, but also on how well you have addressed the world's deepest inequities... on how well you treated people a world who have nothing in common with you but their humanity.