In recent weeks, Bill and Melinda Gates have been hard at work, writing, re-writing and editing the letter they release this time each year, detailing their work with their philanthropic foundation that Bill left Microsoft to run full time with his wife in 2008.
“We’ve put a lot of time into it,” Bill tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue, “talking about what things we’ve gotten excited about that we want to share. What’s gone well and what’s gone poorly.”
It’s been 18 years since the couple announced that they intended to give away their fortune—now an estimated $91 billion—to better the planet, along with the lives of its most vulnerable inhabitants.
Since then, they’ve hired over 1,400 employees and spent $40.3 billion to tackle some of the hardest-to-solve problems—like healthcare, poverty and education—in both developing countries and here at home.
Their day-to-day work with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, traveling the globe on fact-finding trips, meeting with scientists and policy makers, has left the couple bullish on the future.
“The human condition, by all key measures, has improved dramatically,” says Bill. “People are living longer and less children are dying; the death rate for children under five has been cut in half over the last 15 years.”
Adds Melinda: “Last week I was in West Africa and Kenya. The amount of entrepreneurism and people lifting themselves up is palpable. The world is changing for the better and we want people to know that.”
In a Feb. 1 interview with the couple at their Seattle-area office, they talk about what lies ahead for their foundation, honoring their ageing parents, introducing their children (Rory, 18, Jennifer, 21, and Phoebe, 15) to the Third World, and whether Bill can work a TV remote.
What accomplishment are you most proud of?
Bill: Global health is our biggest area, and it’s going well. With any luck we’ll have the last polio case this year.
Melinda: There are literally millions of children alive because of the vaccines that we’ve been involved with.
Bill: And there are things that are much longer term, like getting an HIV vaccine done, which unfortunately will probably take another decade. Eradicating malaria will probably be a 20-year quest.
What’s the most pressing issue facing our planet?
Melinda: Climate change. I just got back from West Africa. The farmers there call it “the rains.” They flood their fields and wipe out their crops, which means they have no money or food.
Bill: That’s the problem with climate change. The people who suffer from it in this century are the poor farmers dealing with agricultural disaster, so most of us [don’t] to see it in a direct sense.
You often bring your kids on your humanitarian trips to the Third World. What have they learned?
Melinda: All three of our kids have spent a lot of time in the developing world, not just on nice safaris but sometimes living with these families. So it’s become central to our lives and, I’d say, has changed us all for the better. I think it will probably affect the path they’re each on in life. It certainly grounds us in what’s important. They know that if you grow up in the United States, you’re lucky.
Tell me about some of the technical innovations that the foundation has been involved with.
Bill: Almost half the kids who survive malnutrition don’t develop physically or mentally because of something that happens to the bacteria in their guts. We are now working on a device that’s the thickness of a string, that can be swallowed and can show us exactly what’s going on in there. That’s very exciting.
President Trump has proposed severe cuts to foreign aid. How does that affect your work?
Bill: We think it’s smart to maintain those investments because of what it saves us in terms of going out and fighting wars or avoiding diseases that could come to the United States. It’s challenging, but we’re appreciative that Congress has maintained foreign aid funding and we’re hoping that will continue to be the case.
You’re donating $100 million to find a cure for Alzheimer’s—which your father, Bill Sr., suffers from. How is he doing?
Bill: He did well into his 80s. He’s 92 now and one of the more cheerful people with Alzheimer’s, which is a blessing.
You two are immersed in some of the world’s most challenging problems. How do you unwind?
Bill: We do a lot reading and we do more jigsaw puzzles than most people. We watch a ton of video series. We recently watched all of Downton Abbey.
Melinda: We’re watching This Is Us right now, although it can be very emotional some nights, and you have to say, “Okay, maybe we won’t do that.” We watch The Daily Show pretty regularly.
Can Bill work a TV remote?
Melinda: A remote? Oh yeah, he’s really good with a remote.
Bill: Well, nowadays it’s so simple. I mean, it’s all just Netflix and Amazon.
What’s the secret to your shared success?
Melinda: We lead this organization together—the goals, the people we hire, the values we set—we enjoy doing that together. Bill is the first person I want to talk to when I get back from being out in the field. We sharpen each other’s thinking.
What keeps you up at night?
Bill: Well there could be a pandemic—although being awake isn’t going to stop it, so it’s better to sleep.