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Bill Gates' forays into aid are to be welcomed, but they can only succeed alongside government involvement.

There are reasons to be both optimistic and cautious about the powerful role that Microsoft founder Bill Gates has chosen to play in international aid efforts. This role is epitomised by the announcement two weeks ago by the charitable organisation he has set up with his wife — the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation — of a package of grants for agricultural development worth US$306 million.

One powerful reason for optimism is the commitment reflected in Gates' ambitions to tap into the vein of technological creativity that has given rise to the largest software company in the world, and apply these same skills to the needs of the world's poor.

A second is Gates' awareness that this will be achieved only through programmes carried out in partnership with organisations — such as the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines — that have already demonstrated their ability to make a positive impact on people's lives, rather than setting up ambitious new programmes from scratch (see Gates Foundation boost for climate-hardy rice).

But the reasons to be cautious include the ease with which a belief in the powers of science-based technology can easily fall victim to the mythology of the 'technical fix' — ignoring the extent to which problems have deep-rooted social causes, such as the inequitable distribution of resources, that technology is unable to address.

Money where the market is

Linked to this belief is Gates' confidence in the power of the market, and in the private entrepreneurialism on which it depends. Such an appeal may take insufficient account of the need for collective action, expressed through government action, which is essential to ensure that the benefits of technology are distributed fairly and where they are most needed.

Collective action includes the creation of a strong educational or research infrastructure, designed to make the best use of what modern science and technology can offer.

Clearing the way for market forces to act has many beneficial consequences; but where the market is unable to deliver, relying on the goodwill and desire for recognition of individuals is unlikely to provide a sustainable alternative.

Gates, who is giving up his position as head of Microsoft later this year to devote himself full-time to philanthropy, outlined his approach to what he calls "creative capitalism" in an address to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last month (24 January).

At the heart of creative capitalism is the recognition that, as an economy grows — whether national or global — so does the gap between those who are able to benefit from technology and those who cannot, based on the fact that the richer you are, the more technology you can afford to buy. (A similar conclusion was reached by a recent report from the World Bank, see Mind the technology gap, World Bank warns)

One of the biggest disappointments

Gates' method of bridging the gap is to identify the problems faced by the world's poorest that get ignored in this approach — ranging from infectious diseases among those unable to buy expensive drugs, to low productivity among poor farmers — and to seek to tackle them by combining science-based solutions, such as innovative vaccines, with subsidised pricing strategies.

One advantage of this approach is that it provides opportunities for individuals within developing countries to benefit directly through the creation of efficient delivery mechanisms for new technologies. The failure of governments to achieve such mechanisms has been one of the biggest disappointments in post-colonial states.

But if entrepreneurialism of this type is necessary to close the technology gap, encouraging the form of 'micro-innovation' that is essential for grassroots development is not sufficient. Equally important is a commitment to the infrastructures that allow such entrepreneurialism to flourish.

This commitment requires government involvement to go much further than merely a willingness to "set policy and disburse funds in ways that create market incentives for business activity", suggested by Gates in his speech in Davos. It requires active efforts to build multi-dimensional national systems of innovation that take into account the wide range of needs that have to be met if economic growth is to be achieved in a sustainable and socially equitable manner.

Creative capitalism — or, to give it another name, social entrepreneurialism — may have some of the answers. But it is not a complete solution in itself. A broad commitment from governments, both through their own efforts and through their support for multilateral aid organisations, remains essential. The Gates bandwagon must not be allowed to become the only show in town.

David Dickson
Director, SciDev.Net