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The philanthropist Bill Gates, whose foundation has lost 20 per cent of its value during the economic downturn, says he will spend US$500 million more on charitable causes in 2009 than in 2008.

The ex-Microsoft tycoon who, through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, spent US$3.3 billion last year — much of it on research into the key diseases of the developing world — said that his 2009 budget will be US$3.8 billion.

In his first annual letter since he began chairing the foundation in July 2008, he said: "Although spending at this level will reduce the assets more quickly, the goal of our foundation is to make investments whose payback to society is very high rather than to pay out the minimum to make the endowment last as long as possible."

He called on other donors not to decrease their support during the financial crisis, saying that without sustained investment the world will emerge from the economic downturn with even greater inequalities in health and education.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funds research into vaccines to fight diarrhoeal diseases, pneumonia, malaria, HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis — as well as into improving agricultural output by the poor.

Its approach has been unashamedly devoted to technological solutions — an emphasis that critics say is too narrow and fails to shepherd successful solutions towards those who need it (see Gates Foundation can't go it alone).

Gates writes, in his 20-page letter, that these criticisms have "some validity". From now on, he says, the foundation will fund an assortment of new projects, including steps to ensure that technological developments are in line with needs.

He also admits to a number of failures — in particular the failed trials of HIV vaccines and microbicides.

But he remains positive, predicting a breakthrough in the form of a pill or microbicide that will provide temporary protection from HIV infection within the next four to six years. A vaccine will take a decade, he says.

"I feel a huge sense of urgency to make sure a pill or microbicide is developed as soon as possible," he says.

"The intensity reminds me of my time at Microsoft, when we were competing with other companies to make the best database or word processor … in this case the competitor is a virus and all of humanity is on the same team."

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