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In the words of Melinda French Gates: “If you invest in women, they invest in everyone else… that lifts the family up.”.

Melinda French Gates, the co-chair of the Gates Foundation, spoke with VANDITA MISHRA in New Delhi. Excerpts:

Women empowerment is something you talk about a lot. Women’s empowerment isn’t what you’re talking about anymore. You’re talking about “full power”, real women’s power. Why do you make this distinction? Is the pandemic a setback?

We don’t always look at the barriers that hold women back, but they have power. Taking empowerment versus full power as an example — if we help a woman get a good job…maybe it’s in the formal sector, and here in India, but we don’t make sure she has a place to put her child, she can’t live her full power because she can only do that job part-time.

Or, let’s say she gets a bank account but can’t use it, she can’t get banking services, and she doesn’t have all her power. Rather than talking about empowerment, let’s ensure we help women take control of their lives. Because Covid pushed so many women out of the formal sector and out of their jobs, we know it set women back. Currently, we’re seeing a childcare crisis – women don’t have a place to drop their kids off so they can work. Here’s an example of how the pandemic has hurt women.

We should have had a global response to Covid – a global surveillance response, a global diagnostic response, a global vaccine response. The American nationalistic instinct kept us from doing that.

The pandemic isn’t the only thing. There are more women than men in many graduate and postgraduate degree courses in India. But you’ve also got high dropout rates for girls and a workforce where women are entirely underrepresented. What do you think are the stubborn bugs?

That’s two of them you’re pointing out: the bottom and the top. As a result, we need to look at what keeps girls from staying in school. Most of the time, it’s menstrual hygiene and management. People who don’t have access to sanitary napkins can’t attend school, drop out, or miss seven days of school if they don’t have sanitary napkins.

Missing seven days of school is impossible to catch up. It’s tough on the seventh day of the month. Hence, we need to figure out what’s holding girls back and give them specific programming. It’s time to make transparent what isn’t transparent right now in the formal sector. How does it work? Is it because we’re only getting women to the top echelons of society? They’re few and far between. I think you should break it down by sector and ask what the roles and salaries of men and women at each level are. Also, talk to women and find out what keeps them from moving up.

The Gates Foundation’s co-chair, Melinda French Gates. (Deccan Era File Photo)

Besides being a philanthropist, you’re also a woman. How does a female philanthropist differ from a male? How about (with) a different approach and set of priorities? Women listen more, do you think? They’re more into stories and relationships, aren’t they?

There’s a difference between a female and a male philanthropist. There’s also a difference between a female and a male politician. I know female businesswomen are different from male businesswomen. Having lived other lives than men, I think women bring a different perspective to society.

Most of the time, we’re the ones taking care of our kids and our parents. The work we want to do is sometimes fun, but sometimes it’s too laborious and tedious to get our PhD or get the job we want. Therefore, we need to look at all sectors and ask, how do we ensure women have equal access to the table? When that happens, society will change. Because of what I’ve seen and heard, I think I have a different view of society than a male philanthropist.

In deep partnership with the government, we let them lead and bring our skills to bear, but we don’t set the agenda. In health, it’s the government’s agenda.

Populist movements with nationalist assertions are taking power around the world right now. It’s not easy being a philanthropist. NGOs and “foreign forces” cause suspicion; you must figure out how to work with them. Thirdly, many of these nationalisms cause problems in the public health sector, like the pandemic: “America first” or “India first”. How would you handle these three challenges if you had to deal with them?

Philanthropists need to know who they are and what they’re all about, first and foremost. I believe that all lives have equal value, so I know what I’m about. If governments have the same stance as me – that they want a better world for their citizens – then I’m interested in working with them.

Gates said, “What we try and do is follow the path set by the UN.” (Deccan Era File Photo)

Governments are put in place by the people. The government’s job is to improve the world and serve its citizens. In India, for instance, we work in deep partnership with the government. It’s the government’s priority for the people. The good thing is we have shared priorities in this case, which is how to ensure people have a better life by starting with good health. Are you making certain women get their rightful place in society and have the services they need but are also empowered economically?

The digital rails India has put in place have enabled 470 million bank accounts to be opened, 50% for women, even during the pandemic. That’s because it was purposefully done that way. It makes a big difference, I think.

Isn’t there a suspicion many of these governments have of you and other foundations?

I think the only way to bust myths is to show up and do the work. They’re myths and suspicions, so there’s not much we can do. But we can say this is who we are and what we do. Everybody should be able to live a healthy, productive life and thrive; that’s what the Gates Foundation does. As a result, we do a lot of technical stuff with the Indian government. Digital bank accounts are what we do. You can’t tell us why we’re helping someone with health if you don’t know why we’re doing it. It takes a while for people to realize that they’re both living their values and speaking their truths.

And what kind of damage can a less-than-universal approach do?

During Covid, none of us benefited, right? We should have had a worldwide response – surveillance, diagnostics, and vaccines. Despite our nationalistic instinct, we didn’t do that in the US.

It’s incredible how much power foundations like yours have. It’s evident that democratic accountability conflicts with this. What’s your strategy for navigating this?

We try to follow the Sustainable Development Goals that the UN set out. Also, there are targets to bring down maternal and child mortality. As a result, we use that as a blueprint for countries like India that are interested in working on those issues. Their maternal mortality rate went from 97 per 1,000 live births to 97 per 1,000. We aim to work closely with the government, let them lead, and bring our skills to the table, but we don’t set the agenda. Health is on the government’s plan.

While philanthropy has done so much good – it helped deliver vaccines during the pandemic, for instance – sometimes critics say it avoids or sidesteps structural change.

I think you have to be careful when it comes to philanthropy. I think you need to be humble about it. As a philanthropist, I can only speak about what we do and what we know. Even though we believe all lives have equal value, the world doesn’t always treat them that way. As a result, we try to spread the resources that society has given us.

When you were younger, you knew who you were, and if you could relive those high school years, you would become the woman you were meant to be. How did you say that?

During high school, I went to an all-girls school. I went to a girls’ high school because my parents thought we should. My friends told me you could be significant in math, you could be substantial in science, and you could be substantial in humanities. My teachers taught me computer science. There was no doubt about who I wanted to be in the world. However, sometimes when you work in the corporate world, you assimilate. My lesson was to go back to my high school self and say I can move forward and continue learning, even in fields I don’t know much about. That person has returned to me, and I’m a continuous learner.

The best returns come from investing in women, you said.

The reason is that when you give a woman $1 or a few rupees, she spends it differently than her husband. A lot of research backs this up. He’ll usually spend it on himself or luxury goods. She’ll finish it first on her family. As a result, I know that investing in women has been shown to make everyone else better. Family lifts when that happens. The community raises when that happens. That’s what makes an economy go. Governments are waking up to the fact that if you want a good economic engine, ensure your women are taken care of. India does that, I think.

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